The Portuguese Bookshop of Paris celebrates its 25th birthday

Paris’s 5th arrondissement (neighbourhood) is one of the city’s liveliest, home to countless restaurants, bars, cafés and shops. Along with the Panthéon, rue Mouffetard is one of the otherwise known as Quartier Latin’s most visited attractions, as it concentrates the French lifestyle all in one street: eateries selling all kinds of local food, an outdoor daily market and wine tasting bars. However, smaller streets behind rue Mouffetard hide equally interesting treasures, such as the Portuguese and Brazilian Bookshop of Paris, which celebrated its 25th birthday this year.

Michel Chandeigne, the bookshop’s owner, started embracing Portuguese culture completely by accident. At the young age of 25 he moved to Lisbon to teach Biology at the Liceu Francês de Lisboa (French school in Lisbon) and that was “enough to fall in love with Lisbon, the country as well as the language”. Portugal’s capital in particular fascinates Michel – he even started liking it more than Paris. “I discovered Lisbon a few years after the country came out of a revolution, ” Michel told me. “It was becoming very popular, everyone had renewed hopes and embraced their newfound freedom. It’s a city that never lost its soul, unlike Paris.

“And then there’s the climate and the vegetation,” Michel reminds me. “It’s incredibly unique: you know you’re in Europe but your mind takes you to Africa or even Brazil.” In an interview with the supplement to the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, Michel said that “Lisbon and Portugal reoriented his life”. After two years of living in his new favourite city, Michel came back to Paris but was never able to fully let go. It was at a time when Portuguese immigration in France was still ongoing and at quite a high rate, so devoting himself to the promotion of lusophone culture seemed appropriate.

Michel learned Portuguese on his own, by acquiring the habit of reading all of the Portuguese literature classics, such as Fernando Pessoa poetry or Eça de Queiroz novels. “Reading was the most important tool to learn the language,” Michel says. “After a while I mastered the written expression and started translating from Portuguese to French. Of course, my accent is not the best… (laughs)”. He also specialised in the Age of Discovery period and became a full time writer and typographer, as well as translator.

This was what would open the door for Michel to open a Portuguese bookshop in the center of Paris. “It presented itself as a natural succession of events. Someone suggested it to me and I thought it was a good idea,” he said. Five years later, the success of the bookshop led to the setting up of the Chandeigne publisher house, making Michel one of the very limited number of people to undertake a threefold activity: owning a bookshop, releasing books as a typographer and having his own publishing house.

It is very common to think that only people with a lusophone background take interest in the bookshop, but Michel informed me that it reaches a far more diverse crowd: “We obviously get a lot of Portuguese and Brazilian people, but the French have become very curious about the quality of the culture Portugal presents. And let’s not forget that in this day in age, there are more and more mixed couples who want to learn about each other’s culture, or transmit it to their children.” Michel also frequently receives historians and what he calls “literature geeks” in his bookshop.

He says he hopes to have educated French people a bit more on Portuguese culture: “We launched at a time when France knew very little about Portugal, apart from the usual stereotypes. Twenty-something years later, I definitely see an improvement. I can certainly say that Portuguese culture has become very well represented in France, especially in Paris.”

For the bookshop’s 25th birthday and the publisher house’s 20th, Michel is offering himself a well-deserved gift: a brand new, much larger space. “It was starting to get very confined. I’ve also been here for a quarter of a century, so a bit of a change was more than welcome.” A bit is correct: the new Portuguese bookshop will be a mere 200m away from the old one. “It was a coincidence,” Michel explains, “but at least there’s a much lesser chance of losing customers!”

Michel doesn’t feel especially hit by the economic crisis, as the bookshop industry had already been through some difficulties in the past few years: “I just have to sit tight, resist, and do whatever I can in my power to make this legacy survive.” When I ask him how he sees himself in the future, he replies in a poised tone: “The new bookshop will obviously be my last one. I will die here.”