“There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away,” wrote Emily Dickinson. When the reclusive 19th-century American poet wanted to navigate distant shores in search of soul-satisfying adventure, she headed for the family library. For those who share her love of books and far-away places, real treasure awaits on a hilltop in northeastern Brittany, in the département of Ille-et-Vilaine.
At first sight, Bécherel resembles other one-boulangerie towns on the winding road from the regional capital of Rennes to the tide-splashed ramparts of St. Malo. But as you pick your way down the cobblestoned alley into the ancien centre, you detect a difference. Inside the block-long shop on the left, a conga line of bulging bookshelves weaves through a suite of rooms. Up ahead, a young couple has settled in at a table on the square. They’re not chatting or smooching; they’re reading. In fact, this medieval nobleman’s domain, famous in the 17th and 18th centuries for its fine linen, is filled with books.
Bienvenue à Bécherel, Brittany’s booktown, with 750 residents, one bakery and 15 booksellers. Some say magic transformed this rural Breton village into France’s premier booktown. Nearby lies the forest of Paimpont, which is said to be the enchanted Brocéliande of the tales of King Arthur, where Merlin met and matched wits with the Lady of the Lake, the fairy Viviane. Legend has it the sorcerer wanders there still, albeit rendered invisible by the clever Viviane.
Druids and fairies notwithstanding, a small group of women, clever mortals all, brought the first armful of books here nearly 20 years ago. They believed cultural and economic revival could go hand in hand in a rural community abandoned in the 1960s by a generation of job-seekers who had locked up ancestral homes and moved to the cities. Looking for an antidote to modern life dominated by Paris, and led by Colette Trublet, a Breton psychoanalyst and juvenile delinquency expert, the women found inspiration in pioneering booktowns Hay-on- Wye in Wales and Redu, Belgium. An Easter week book fair in 1989 drew vendors and fairgoers from beyond the old walls of the town. Bagpipes echoed through the streets, calligraphers demonstrated their ancient art and authors recalled the town’s illustrious past. Books, the fair confirmed, would be Bécherel’s future.
One of the first to hang out a shingle was Yvonne Prêteseille, the ebullient Auntie Mame of the founding group. The former special education teacher and school principal still runs the Librairie Gwrizienn from an old hotel on the Rue de la Chanvrerie. The street name refers to the hemp once woven into sails here, and, coincidentally, recalls the barricaded Parisian street in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s epic novel of resistance, salvation and rebirth.
“I love this life!” Prêteseille beams, throwing her arms wide to take in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the walls. She greets her customers from a large wooden desk in front of a stone hearth. Evidence of booktown business litters the desktop—correspondence, grant proposals, festival posters. The scent of a chocolaty moelleux cake her daughter Claire is baking in the adjacent salon de thé infuses the air, wafting into the back room devoted to books on Brittany and the peninsula’s historic links with the British Isles. An admitted sucker for men in tartan skirts, Prêteseille is spearheading one of the town’s latest cultural projects—an exchange with the Scottish booklover’s lair, Wigtown.
Networking like this is turning booktowns into a growing international phenomenon. About two dozen dot the globe today. Typically, small towns morph into booktowns by attracting a critical mass of bookstores and making a home for professionals in book-related crafts, from calligraphy, bookbinding and paper-making to writing and publishing. Management of booktown affairs varies from town to town, along with the level of involvement of city officials. Secondhand books usually predominate, with a mix of new and rare. Antique shops and art galleries may add to the ambiance.
I first discovered Bécherel several years ago while visiting friends in Rennes. We were looking for an outing, and someone recalled that the annual book fair was underway. The sight of an old French village bathed in books made my heart skip. More recently, when my teenage daughter and I were looking for a place to immerse ourselves in the daily life of a small French town, we came here for three weeks. We were warned the town would be too small for an extended stay. By the end, we had met so many people with interesting pasts, talents and personalities—not all the characters in town are in the books—we didn’t want to leave.
On most days of the year, the casual tourist will find Bécherel supremely serene. This is a place to get away from it all, to browse, schmooze and meander. The pace picks up in the summer, when French families en route to great-aunts in Quimper rub shoulders with international bibliophiles. During our stay, a Colombian woman and her German husband were making the rounds of the bookshops while a Dutch family with school-age children was cycling through and Kurdish Iraqi musicians were jamming with local Celtic bands. Throughout the year, cultural events animate the town, including the annual Easter book fair, a book market on the first Sunday of the month, and seasonal festivals. The second Saturday in August is reserved for the popular Nuit du Livre (Book Night) with evening sing-alongs and readings.
Most of the bookshops in town operate out of stately granite buildings that once housed the residences and weaving ateliers of wealthy linen merchants. The shops are located within minutes of each other in the center’s lower and upper squares and short side streets.
A cluster near the church hints at the diversity of offerings. The demure La Souris des Champs (Field Mouse) with its gardening books and narrow metal staircase spiraling down to a room with cooking utensils and gifts is a different animal from the funky bookshop-bar-café two doors down, La Vache Qui Lit (the Reading Cow), a wink at the popular aperitif cheese La Vache Qui Rit (the Laughing Cow). Sandwiched between is the whimsically appointed bookstore-tea salon of booktown cofounder Edith Guimard, with a shrine to iconic novelist Colette and a book collection highlighting feminist writers and women’s issues.
The cozy Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) shop on one side street, run by a Rennes school librarian with roots in French Guiana, features vintage Babar and juvenile literature. Down another street at Outrepart, the chain-smoking town curmudgeon has amassed a collection of rare early detective and science fiction works.
For sheer volume, there’s the sprawling Abraxas-Libris at the entrance to town, which gathers four booksellers under one roof, and the Neiges D’Antan (Snows of Yesteryear) near the church, which boasts of packing 35,000 books into its three stories. Yves Grégoire’s shop is the quintessential pack rat’s delight with stacks of old Le Monde newspapers on the floor and tables piled with political, fashion and cinema magazines, a display case with oversized photography books, bins of 45s with French recording artists covering American folk and doo wop tunes, and a collection of jumbo movie posters acquired from a theater that went out of business.
Bien sûr, one cannot live on books and cultural artifacts alone. At La Crêpe Bouquine, you can take a break from browsing and sit on the square, savor a crêpe and sip a bolée of crisp apple cider. Stretch your legs while exploring “greater” Bécherel, a treat most visitors miss. Climb the steps by the dungeon ruins to a grassy bluff and a dreamy view of the Rance Valley, then head down past the cemetery, with its tributes to local schoolteachers, and out into the open fields where the town has restored the covered public lavoir, where once the village residents washed their laundry. In all, a lovely ensemble.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that Bécherel is not everyone’s cup of cider. An impeccably dressed Englishman who described himself as a small industrialist was in town to attend his friend the countess’s wedding at the nearby Château de Montmuran (open to visitors June-September). It took him just 20 minutes to complete a circuit of the old center. “There’s nothing but books here!” he sniffed. “And they’re all in French!”
The gentleman has a small, and to my mind totally insignificant, point. The vast majority of the books here are in French. Knowledge of the language will certainly enhance your visit. In fact, this is an excellent place to come if you are looking to take your high school or college French for a spin. However, a number of shops in town do devote a shelf, table or rack—sometimes two—to English-language books. And, as our friend Emily would assert, one good book can take you far. I was transported to India on a cloudy afternoon after picking up a book with the intriguing gold-embossed title: Maneaters of Kumaon. As raindrops plinked rhythmically on the skylight of the dungeon bookstore, I followed author Jim Corbett, deep into the mountain forest to catch a glimpse of the elusive tigers. This was one adventure I never would have chanced on back home in California.
Bécherel Tourist Office website
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of France Today; updated in February 2011