I was pleasantly surprised with the number and variety of bookshops in La Rochelle, and couldn't help visiting them all.
La Rochelle is a relatively small city in Western France. Long known for its importance in connection to the sea, it is currently an important tourist destination. There are plenty of things to do in La Rochelle, including a visit to its big aquarium and the old port, sailing activities, plenty of bars and restaurants, pétanque courses, museums, art galleries, the Francofolies, cinemas, theaters, historic sites such as the old towers, the Ferris wheel (grande roue, literally the big wheel), visits to the Île de Ré, a number of beaches, the cathedral, parks, and a variety of other destinations in the regions around the city.
For those who are interested, there are also plentiful shopping opportunities. While I've never been particularly drawn by most shopping experiences, I found that La Rochelle has one exception, and in plentiful number: bookstores
In this article, I will share my thoughts on the city's best bookshops, grouped as follows:
- Comic book stores
- Religious bookstores
At the end of the article, you will find a map with all of their locations. Now, let's begin our tour of bookshops in La Rochelle!
These bookstores vary quite a lot in their quality and focus, and naturally, the vast majority focus principally (as they should) on French books. So although this post is in English, you should be aware that visiting them as a monolingual Anglophone will quickly lead you to disappointment.
But there are some real treasures, including some delightful old bookstores with historically important books more than half a century old, and some which are even older. There are also some distinctly mediocre bookshops, which offer little. And in trying to list of all of these, one is bound to run into the problem that there are a huge number of establishments selling books which are not per se bookstores, such as museums. But the regular bookstores, at least, can be listed, for the benefit of all.
Note: My particular tastes tend to run toward classics, novels, and history books, with occasional interest in language and recipe books. This post is naturally influenced by that, and I advise taking that into account.
1. Calligrammes Libraire
Probably the most prestigious—and dare I say the best—bookstore in La Rochelle, Calligrammes occupied two stories and is situated on the Place de Verdun, at the center of La Rochelle. Its collection of books is highly diverse and extensive, including cuisine books, history, a very large selection of literature, travel and language books, and a host of other books on really any subject, it seems.
In addition to its commercial activities, the bookstore is also notable for sometimes having authors come by. I remember seeing an advertisement for Gabriel Tallent, the author of the American bestseller My Absolute Darling, who appeared at the bookstore in October 2018. While I didn't attend and can't provide any details, it still evidently shows the attendance of literary figures there. Certainly something to ask about if one goes there.
One thing to note is that for a rather large bookstore, it doesn't have simple things like paper or notebooks. It is entirely focused upon books.
2. Librairie Ancienne d'Aunis
If one is looking for historical books, old books, rare books, and other specialties, there isn't much better than the librairie Ancienne d'Aunis, a small bookstore, focusing on specialty books which the owner himself collects on an eclectic variety of subjects. I have found books dating from the first half of the 20th century, and that was with just a brief and hardly conclusive search! In addition to a wide host of books on the inside, there are also a number of cheap books which are found on the outside, at three books for 10 euros, mostly cheap novels and the like. This is in contrast to the interior: some of the books, despite (or perhaps because of) their age can be quite expensive, as was revealed to me when I had absentmindedly tried to purchase a volume concerning an economic history of French Indochina, not having seen the price of 75 euros...
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Its location, at 61, rue du Minage, is just off the Place de Verdun. This makes it easy to find passing through.
3. Les Saisons
After Calligrammes, Les Saisons is probably the best bookstore in La Rochelle to find quality fiction books. It has a very sizable section of French literature, as well as a large complement of foreign books, from a wide range of different nations. While it does not have a large English-language book section, it does have one, which is in contrast to the other bookstores I have mentioned. While this is in of itself not of great note to myself—after all, if you're in France then why is your principal focus being on buying English language books?—it can still be useful to the tourist. This is backed up by a reasonable selection of other books, with an extensive focus on art and philosophy. While not nearly as large as Calligrammes, it is still a decently well-stocked and well-rounded bookstore. It also has a very large number of books which are helpfully indexed as being good and recommended by the bookstore personnel.
The library is located in the Vieux Port region, at 21 rue Saint-Nicolas.
4. Les Rebelles Ordinaires
One of those quintessential bookstores that are seemingly the patrimony of any decently sized town, with a vaguely anti-establishment theme, a selection of custom-chosen books, and a selection of principally novels with a few contemporary focus books and a small history section. This doesn't make it bad though, as it does have an outsized American section (and to a lesser extent Japanese - both of them are of course entirely in French), and its focus on contemporary novels can result in finds that are unavailable elsewhere. While one might not be advised coming here for the classics, for current novels and for specialty focuses, it is quite a good store.
It also has a pleasant upstairs section, reasonably quiet, secluded, with comfortable couches and chairs to read at—one is invited to do so—and tea. It does, however, discourage the usage of electronic devices.
The location is close to the big open-air market and associated fish market, open throughout the week on the morning and all day on Thursday, at a diagonal road branching off from it. The address is 9 bis rue des trois fuseaux.
5. Maison de la Presse
A decent (if unimpressive) bookstore as a whole, Maison de la Presse is a combination of a bookstore and a magazine store. It has a marginal selection of books, the normal selection of cookbooks, a surprisingly decent collection of novels in a large shelf in the back which includes international, contemporary, and historical novels, and regional books. While nothing is bad per se about it, so much of it is taken up with magazines that the actual space left over for books is limited. One's time is better spent in other bookstores, although it certainly deserves a visit if one has time when leafing through the city.
It does have the advantage of plentiful notebooks and paper supplies, but as far as a bookstore goes, its content is terribly limited and insufficient. And to be frank, there are so many other places to get magazines and newspapers, any French city is covered with them with the little tabac stores.
The location at 16 Rue Saint-Sauveur makes it close to the northern edge of the Vieux Port, near the Eglise Saint-Sauveur.
Callimages is another bookstore with a nice central location. However, it is mostly devoted to comics and youth books. There is, however, a small section with various French classics in it. While it can be decent for those who are interested in the particular genre of young adult books, comics, and children's books, there's no real reason to visit it when Calligrammes is so close.
Its location is just off the Place de Verdun, next to Calligrammes, at 32 Rue Chaudrier, 17000 La Rochelle
CrocBook is a very different bookstore than the others, as it has a vanishingly small straight-up literature section, limited selection of normal history, philosophy, social affairs, etc. books—and an extremely large selection of illustrated books. Not necessarily books for children nor comics, although it does have a large youth section, but there are a lot of books which are somewhat similar in their conception to cookbooks, or history/documentary type books that are heavily accompanied by the visual element.
The positive element of this is that these are rather cheap, so if you enjoy this type of work, it is an entirely decent bookstore. On the negative side, it has a rather narrow range of focus as compared to others.
Like many other bookstores, it is just off the Place de Verdun, at 14 Rue Chaudrier.
8. France Loisirs
Somewhat similar in its internal composition and type of books to Crocbooks, France Loisirs does have a reasonable selection of policiers (crime novels) and some of the current chic books, like the simplissime cookbooks. But its overall selection is quite limited, and unlike the former, it does not have the reduced prices that might make Crocbooks more attractive. As a result of this, the bookstore is probably the least impressive in La Rochelle.
It is located between the Place de Verdun and the Vieux Port, somewhat closer to the former, on a street branching out from the Rue Chaudrier, the 11 Rue Dupaty.
I would personally advise, for doing a tour of the bookstores in La Rochelle, to start either from the north at the Place de Verdun, with the Libraire Ancienne d'Aunis, working one's way through Callimages if one wants to, certainly visiting Calligrammes, perhaps going to Crocbooks, then maybe France Loisirs, taking an excursion to Les Rebelles Ordinaires, cutting back to visit La Maison de la Presse, and finishing one's tour with the excellent Les Saisons. If one is arriving from the south of the city and working one's way north, simply reverse the route.
Comic Book Stores
I think that comic book stores can be included under the title of a "bookstore" as they tend to be rather large in La Rochelle, with comics that are not the traditional glossy paper, magazinesque volumes that I associate with them, and actual books that happen to be comics inside. Bande dessinés (comics) seem very popular in France, with a flourishing industry devoted to them, and plentiful numbers of French comics available. Unfortunately for Anglophone tourists at least, there don't seem to be many English language comics, as I had found out when I tried to buy a comic book for a friend as a gift. I knew that he likes Batman, so I had searched for an English Batman comic, but to no luck.
While I'm no great expert on comics, I can still at least say what the stores are, although frankly, the quality difference among them is much less pronounced than for the bookstores. Both (there are only two) are quite good for their trade in my opinion, while for the bookstores, there is a world of difference between a truly excellent bookstore like Calligrammes and a basic, mediocre, corporate establishment like France Loisirs.
9. Libraire Gréfine
It might be unfair to say that the Gréfine bookstore is "only" a comic book store, as it actually has a collection of young adult and youth books as well. However, to me at least, it seemed to place more attention on the comics, which it has a quite substantial amount of, in their hard-bound French style (I don't know what they are like in the United States, I might be thinking of the wrong ones with the stereotyped view of the old 1950s comics on the cheap paper held together in a ramshackle way by staples which constantly threaten to come undone....).
It is located at the Vieux Port, at the 57 Rue Saint-Nicolas.
10. Mille Sabords
While I've placed it in second due to a relative lack of the same degree of generality that Gréfine enjoys, I will fully admit here at least, that this opinion is not only subjective but could very easily be wrong. It has a huge selection of comic books in a store which is deceptively large. It does not seem to be very extensive from the street, but stretches back into the building, as if hiding its actual mass and size from the world in some sort of lair. As the front boasts, it has both substantial quantities of comics, and the Japanese equivalent in the form of mangas.
Mille Sabords is also next to a comic-themed café, and so if one wants a further emergence experience, it has that benefit too.
Its location at 22 Rue du Palais puts it right next the Vieux Port on the road leading to it from the Place de Verdun.
Due to their rather disparate nature from the rest of the book selections, I thought it useful to put the religious bookstore of La Rochelle into a separate category. Not being a man of faith, I have no way to judge the quality of the books presented within. Thus I can only really present the picture and title of what is, so far as I am aware, the only religious bookstore in La Rochelle—one with what looked like a small but varied selection of books, but ones which I lack the theological or spiritual grounding to really evaluate.
11. Libraire Siloë
A small Catholic library right next to the cathedral of La Rochelle, at 22 bis Rue Fleuriau
The Top 10 Bookstores in La Rochelle
© 2018 Ryan Thomas