European crime fiction in the crosshairs
n°10

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POLAR & Co
Una libreria specializzata
in Gialli a Mons (Belgio)

Etienne Borgers
Translation: S. Novak

It's in Mons, Belgium, provincial capital of the Hainaut province and a town of about 90 000 people including its outer boundaries and located 60 km south of Brussels, that you find one of the most specialized bookshops in Belgium, dedicated to crime stories of all genres and shapes: POLAR & Co. Stocked with 18 000 books, it is definitely the most important of its kind in the land. Since it is a university town, students are the major clientele along with fans of all ages.

Curious to know everything about it we met its owner/founder : Alain Devalck.

 

POLAR & Co is located in one of the small streets leading to the Grand Place and belfry, deep inside the Mons historical district, and not very far from the main nightlife area of this small Hainaut town. The facade may be discreet, but a visitor with a keen eye would have noticed in a first floor window, a large Georges Simenon cutout seemingly gazing at passers-by below. For an April morning the neighbourhood seems rather calm as the 15 000 college student are away for Easter recess.

Entering the bookshop you come fact to face with the noir section and are soon astounded by the number of shelves dedicated to the mythical Série Noire. Another wall displays all French language crime story collections, in all their variety, listed alphabetically by author's name. Some tables display rows of new editions from fashionable thrillers to small press publications and even to editions reserved for the most discriminating fans.

It's with his usual courtesy that Alain Devalck will answer to my prying questions, but in a bookshop that also sells second hand items, the owner is used to nosey people.

 

Etienne Borgers: Your bookshop in Mons is quite new, yet I can still remember your previous location under the same name : Polar & Co, in Brussels, in the suburb of Ixelles…

Alain Devalck: Yes, my bookshop was there until 2003…

EB: How did you become a crime fiction bookshop?

AD: First by being an avid reader of crime stories. Also, I used to go to an Ixelles bookshop called ‘Canicule', which became a ‘non-profit' entity in 89 under the name ‘Série B', which was already very much dedicated to crime stories. I have been associated with them since '89 - I used to volunteer as the shop clerk, and then became the manager while running the shop. It lasted five years organized like this but lack of funding forced the organisation to cease trading.

EB: They also published articles about crime stories and their authors and a magazine…

AD: Yes but that ended before I joined them. One should know that books there belonged in fact to the members of the association and not to the shop. Members stocked the books they wanted to sell there and it operated a bit like a co-op. In 1994 when we were forced to close, I realized that I owned about half of the books there. I was a trained nurse then but jobless and was searching a bit for my next step in life. So I started thinking about taking over this bookshop myself since I knew all its management and sales figures for the last five years. Even if I couldn't stay at the same address, it seemed a true solid opportunity. So I opened a new shop a few houses away from the old ‘Série B', bookshop and became independent. That's how Polar & Co started at 257 Chaussée d'Ixelles, in Brussels , in 1994. I stayed there for 9 years.

EB: And why Mons now?

AD: In 2003 I was at the end of the lease at Chaussée d'Ixelles, and rents had become prohibitive in Brussels . I couldn't find a reasonable location at a reasonable price anymore in that town. Furthermore the present location had become too small…so I was looking for a bigger one and prices made it impossible to stay in Brussels . Since I had lived near Mons for quite a while, I thought that I could try to locate to a town I knew well. This move also allowed me to revise what I was doing and sort out my stock of books, and also to revive my commitment, since here in Mons my clients are different even if they are also fans of good crime stories.

EB: More students, more young people?

AD: Yes, given the fact that there are many universities in or very near the centre of Mons.

EB: Did you sell both new and second-hand books at the time of ‘Série B'?

AD: At that time, primarily second-hand books, very few new ones. In Brussels, with Polar & Co, I had increased the amount of ‘new releases' shelves and I keep this up here in Mons. And I have both new and second-hand in several of the genres available here such as Science Fiction and Graphic Novels/Comics, even though I don't have a lot in that particular last genre. I even carry a youth section and a small section of English language books.

EB: How about mail order?

AD: Yes, but it is not my major activity. It is often a follow up to a search list sent to me via e-mail or surface mail. Most requests come from France and Belgium . I also sell through eBay, but I don't have a sales web site on the internet because of time constraints and the attention that one must devote to it to make it efficient and up to date. There's nothing worse than an out-of-date website where lists don't change. Right now it's not possible since I deal with the bookshop on my own: sales, orders, management. But the website idea remains something I'm interested in for the future.

EB: I know that Polar & Co  used to set up crime fiction ‘events' - authors conferences with book signings among other things. It's in fact at your place that I met Pascale Fonteneau for the first time...

AD: Yes, yes, we used to do it from time to time. Often with French speaking authors, generally French or Belgiam ones. We had Nadine Monfils, Fonteneau, Baronian, Patrick Raynal, J-B Pouy, Bruce Mayence, Francis Mizio… and a lot of others.
There were also two ‘Polar & Co' festivals in Brussels, in which I participated as a manager in ‘91, and as an associate for the other. I also contributed a bit to the first ‘Total Polar' festival organised by the Maison du Livre which had started again in 2004 in Saint-Gilles (Brussels) – Note : you can find detailed accounts of these festivals and interviews of the authors, at: http://www.geocities.com/polarnoir/regardnoir.html

EB: Among the authors that you met or rubbed elbows with, who impressed you the most?

AD: Ellroy… I met him in 1991 at the festival. What a character !… a great author. He had just published White Jazz. High spirited but very professional.

EB: And from the meetings organized for your bookshop, give us some non-French-speaking authors' names that you were glad to bring…Were there some well known ones?

AD: It is true that I couldn't aim too high for these meetings since my location could only hold about 50 people. So, in order not to embarrass authors, I would invite the ones with a more specialized appeal, although well known to fans of crime fiction. Sometimes I would get help from publishers who'd set up book tours for some of their authors. Sometimes you are thrown into unexpected yet interesting situations, for example the time I welcomed Sandra Scoppettone. Given the direction of most of her publications and following the advice of some, I'd especially invited members of the gay and lesbian community…and that was very successful.

EB: With respect to your clientele, I suppose that they are mainly made up of readers interested in crime fiction and that many among them ask you for advice and guidance for their purchases. But do they represent the majority of your clientele?

AD: Easily two thirds. This is where I come out better than book clubs and big chain stores: I give advice and often people look for this type of help.

EB: And right now, what is sought after the most in your bookshop by crime fiction fans?

AD: American ones. That's what regularly tops sales. Coming a close second to those figures right now you have what I would call ‘exotic' authors, especially those from northern countries. I think that European readers are happy to find a change of scenery to a non-American locale, besides the intrinsic quality of some of these writers like Mankell, Indridasson.
With respect to US authors, people ask mostly for recent authors, those ‘in the news', like Connelly, Lehane, Coben, Crais, and for thriller authors. Then for British ones : Ian Rankin, John Harvey, etc. But there is also a well sought after genre: historical crime stories and especially the paperback ‘10/18' collection, which is way up in the charts really ! There are also more and more of those in larger editions than paperback.

EB: Is there a significant difference in the choices made between those buying new and those buying used?

AD: Not really. In the used section it is mainly American and English authors, but evidently not as many recent publications. Then come the French best sellers Grangé or Chattam. And, as mentioned before, the historical ones. I notice that many avid readers of a particular genre will turn to used books after buying new publications of a specific author, as the rate of publication of translations is not quick enough for their reading rate; like the two titles per year for Ann Perry, etc.

EB: Talking about your own taste, what genre of crime fiction do you turn to most often?

AD: American crime stories. People like Connelly, Lehane, Crumley…

EB: Based on your experience of crime fiction sales and a kind of readership craze for the genre now, how do you see the future of crime writing?

AD: It just may be cyclical, as we saw in the past. In a certain way it is a fad and it may loose its appeal some time from now, yet without sinking as low as at the end of the 60's and start of 70's. If there are waves they will be neither very long nor very strong. More like wavelets…
One must say though that the readership is now quite stable and varied, partly because the quality of publications is better than in the past. There are also better translations of foreign writers (non-French speaking).

EB: So you believe that the crime fiction readership is not going to disappear or diminish greatly and that numbers will remain high enough to keep the genre alive…

AD: There are more and more collections, more and more titles published in French, but I'm not sure that the total readership is increasing. When editors are speaking of global sales figures, it doesn't mean much in terms of reader numbers; it is only a reflection of their business.
However if there are fewer people reading now than say, thirty years ago, those who read…read more.

EB: Is this also true for science fiction?

AD: In a certain way yes because right now science fiction and especially weird and ‘fantasy'writing, are doing very well. Here too, there is the better translations, better authors factor…

EB: What is right now your total number of books in stock?

AD: It is difficult to tell precisely, but looking at shelves in the shop we must have about 10 000 books… In storage 6 000 to 8 000 more, but all those are second-hand. For these it is better to have a large back stock. However the majority of my clients buy either new or used, even if there are some that would never buy used or some others who, for financial reasons or reading volume habits, stick with used books. Among these overall 18 000 books or so, there are at least 12 000 crime novels…

EB: As a bookseller what surprised you the most in your profession, especially as a specialist of second-hand crime fiction.

AD: I soon realised that one can find any book. There are no really ‘rare' books, unless of course you go really back in time, in previous centuries. In fact I have almost no books at home…if I want to read one, I know I'll find it. Of course, by necessity, I mainly read new arrivals but all books end up to reappear as used, even those from small publishing houses or those that did not achieve a good distribution…

EB: That's true. One could even find large quantities of non or little distributed books or publishers' remaindered titles with wholesale ‘sale' vendors… Even though these wholesalers have almost disappeared in Belgium compared to their great number about twenty years ago.

AD: A great difference with us booksellers is that the wholesaler doesn't read; he's not interested in books per se. They used to sell their lots in small chain stores as if they sold mushrooms…Moreover they were a kind of mafia who would rig it up so that they would block publishers' stock resales and turn it to their own profit.

EB: Do your clients astonish you sometimes?

AD: What always surprised me is the number of people who ask, upon entering my shop, if I sell…books. From the start I've had people entering and asking: ‘Do you sell your books?…'.
I guess that seeing books ordered alphabetically on shelves means libraries to them? I can only guess…

EB: Must be that certainly, because the question is quite stupefying.

AD: Some might believe I rent them …

EB: A little bit like some newspaper shops in Belgium , which used to rent new books and a small book inventory from the 40's to the start of the 70's…They were the heirs of the grassroot-based based  ‘reading halls'…

AD: Yes and also this might come from their surprise to discover a bookshop, because aside from some neighbourhoods in big cities, not always even, it is rare to come across a bookshop in the area. In Belgium already, in popular language ‘bookshop' meant the place to buy newspapers and magazines, a place with very few books.

EB: And here at Polar & Co, we are positively talking about books… A majority of those being crime stories and a place run by a specialist. Again thank you, Alain Devalck, for telling EUROPOLAR about your activities and about your ideas concerning this essential trade - bookseller.

 


Pratical info

Polar & Co
36, rue de la Coupe
7000 Mons
Belgium
Tel : +32- 65 84 95 77
e-mail : info@librairiepolar.com

Open hours:
from Tuesday to Saturday included
, from 10:00 AM to 6:00PM

 


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