On April 1, Olivier Michel celebrated the 25th anniversary of his bookshop, l’Humeur Vagabonde, with its doors shut.
Now, as he prepares to reopen on May 11 after seven weeks of enforced government lockdown, he is not sure if his business in northern Paris is well equipped to survive the new normal.
“The lockdown was the easy bit . . . but after, as we restart everything, what will happen? All the help will end and we will enter into a great unknown and we don’t know how long that will last,” says Mr Michel, whose business had about €800,000 in sales last year and employs six people.
The 55-year-old owns two bookshops — one for children — facing each other on Rue du Poteau, a street that even during lockdown had some custom as masked shoppers shuttled between the food stores, tobacconists and wine retailers that were allowed to stay open.
Its independent businesses are broken up by only a handful of chain stores and supermarkets, making it something of a test case for how small retailers will cope as large parts of the French economy are allowed to reopen next week.
Mr Michel has spent days preparing. His bill for spending on masks, disinfectants, protective screens, as well as alcoholic gels, is somewhere between €3,000 and €4,000.
Despite these efforts, he remains anxious that new social distancing rules — only six customers will be allowed in his larger store and four in the children’s bookshop — will damage the experience of browsing that is at the heart of his business.
“People don’t come to bookshops with a list all ready to buy, they come to browse, that’s the pleasure . . . So what happens if now people can’t stay two hours?” he asks. “If they don’t buy books and there is a queue outside it’s going to be really difficult for a business like ours.”
If a radically new experience for his customers is one worry, the resumption of rent payments and scaling back of emergency government support is another.
The Parisian bookseller is one of hundreds of thousands of businesses to have made use of the government’s partial unemployment scheme, designed to contain the lockdown’s economic destruction by paying a significant share of staff wages.
Across France, more than 12m people are on the scheme, costing the state some €24bn so far. Since his shops closed in the middle of March, Mr Michel’s staff have received 84 per cent of their wages for a 35-hour week, but nothing for the overtime they normally work.
The scheme is one way in which the government has sought to shield businesses, alongside tax breaks, direct payments and €300bn in state- backed loans. Small businesses with less €1m a year in sales can access a “solidarity fund” that has so far handed out about €1.3bn to 990,000 companies.
Mr Michel has received €1,500 a month from the fund but the payment will stop at the end of the May.
Although grateful for the government cushion, he is more concerned about whether he will have to pay back the €9,000 in rent owed for the last quarter. The government has called for small business rents that were due during the lockdown to be annulled, but Mr Michel says he has yet to receive any information: “If I have to pay €18,000 in 3 months I won’t be able to”.
A few doors down from l’Humeur Vagabonde, David Marciano is taking the chance to do some work on his bar, La Piscine. Before the pandemic, it attracted younger hipsters who smoked and sipped drinks on the terrace, while inside an older cohort of customers wedged prams and shopping between tables for lunch.
While bookshops can reopen on Monday, a decision on when bars and restaurants can will not be taken until at least the end of the month.
And even when he resumes operations, Mr Marciano is fearful that social distancing rules mean he will have to halve his capacity. Authorities in Paris plan to convert space currently used for car parking into terraces for bars, but Mr Marciano is not optimistic.
David Marciano must wait to until the end of the month to hear whether his bar La Piscine can reopen © Magali Delporte
“If my sales are cut in two . . . I just won’t be able to keep everyone. I don’t know how I’m going to manage,” says the 46-year-old whose bar had more than €1m in sales last year.
His nine employees are currently furloughed and to help him get through the worst of this period, Mr Marciano has applied for a state-backed loan of €186,000 which will be interest-free for the first year.
The fate of shops such as La Piscine and l’Humeur Vagabonde worries Jérôme Ribot.
His cheese shop, Fromagerie de Montmartre, is at the other end of the street and has been one of the essential businesses allowed to stay open during the crisis.
Cheesemonger Jérôme Ribot © Magali Delporte
His range of 200 cheeses may have shrunk 15 per cent with suppliers unable to deliver, but the loyalty of locals means his sales have dropped only 18 per cent. That has eased the 49-year-old’s worries over the resilience of his own business.
But not his concern over neighbouring retailers whose fortunes are bound up with the wider fate of the street.
“When I look outside . . . I ask myself how many of these businesses will still be around when this is all over,” he says.