Literary Tourist in Paris
Louveciennes is, for the most part, a quiet little village on the outskirts of Paris. We drove there from Le Mans for a meeting I’d arranged with the renowned children’s book publisher Alain Gründ. Louveciennes was a favourite spot for the Impressionist painters. All told, more than 120 paintings of the place exist, limned by the likes of Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Monet.
Entrée du village de Voisins by Camille Pissarro, 1872
Anaïs Nin lived here at 2 bis rue de Montbuisson from 1931-1935 with her husband Hugh Guiler. It was here where she first met her lover Henry Miller, where she launched her writing career with the famous Diaries, “There are two ways to keep a diary: live a day and describe it in five minutes, or live five minutes and spend the whole day describing them,” and where, in this “laboratory of the soul,” she entertained Antonin Artaud, Brassaï, Lawrence Durrell and other famed artists and writers. Here’s one of her descriptions of the house: “Every room is painted a different color. As if there were one room for every separate mood: lacquer red for vehemence, pale turquoise for reveries, peach color for gentleness, green for repose, grey for work at the typewriter.” Some visitors in recent years have been lucky enough to catch glimpses of these evocative colours, however, despite various efforts over the decades to turn the house into a writer’s museum, none have met with success. You can read more about Nin in Louveciennes here.
After picnicking in the shade of an old stone church in the village’s centre square I strolled over to this gentleman
to discern directions to Alain’s house. He’s the barber. Has been for 25 years. His customers bring him back exotic combs from all over the world.
Alain’s place was only a five minute drive away, on rue Auguste Renoir. I was greeted at the gate by his wife, Monique. We walked up the garden path to greet Alain on the patio.
We settled on a bottle of chilled rosé. It was warm outside. I sat down and methodically turned on both microphones, ready to engage in ripping good conversation. The only thing that ripped however, was the soft, silent air, as a chainsaw burst full-throttle through it, obliterating any hope of a good recording. The noise kept up for much of the next hour and a half. I left the machines on anyway but the results were unusable. I’d have to play stenographer.
So, here goes.
Alain’s grandfather Ernest set up the Gründ bookselling and publishing company in 1894. They specialized in publishing technical art books, and re-issuing remaindered and out of copyright titles. One highlight was their set of the complete works of artist Georges Seurat. In 1913 they published the first edition of what became known as the bible of the art market, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, an encyclopedic listing of artists worldwide including bios, sample signatures and, most important, auction sales prices.
From Alain’s bookshelves.
New updated and enlarged editions were published periodically over the years. Now it’s available in hard-copy and online (The dictionary was sold to Oxford University Press in 2007).
In 1934 Ernest’s sons Michel, Alain’s father, and Jacques take over. Michel was more interested in the antiquarian book-selling side of the business. Jacques was the driving force behind the publishing. He was a natural salesman with an eye toward expanding into international markets. He was the first person ever to sell books in supermarkets, and was harshly criticized for it by fellow publishers. Demeans the book, they said, treats it like a commodity. He also moved the company into children’s books, which later on, in the fifties, proved to be very lucrative.
While this book isn’t from the fifties, it is illustrated by a Czech artist, as were most of Gründ’s more recent children’s books.
Jacques died in 1939. Alain tells me that had he lived, with the risks he took, he’d have either driven the company into bankruptcy, or turned it into a dominant publishing powerhouse. No in between.
The call of duty forced Michel to keep the company going throughout the war and German occupation. Among other things it published books filled with dark humour about the lack of food, and poor living conditions, that the French had to endure.
Business was largely a mystery to Michel. The company was burdened by poor management and the lack of a good sales department, so it failed to capitalize on the post-war boom that occurred.
When Alain took over in 1963 the company was in bad shape. He was, however, well equipped to deal with the situation. Fresh out of the Wharton School of Business (he was able to attend thanks to support from the French government and a Fulbright scholarship) he soon turned things around. When I mentioned that Wharton was Trump’s Alma mater and asked what he thought this had done for its reputation, Alain diplomatically swatted the question aside, choosing instead to praise the school’s approach – theory and case studies – over Harvard’s – just case studies – where he’d also happened to have been accepted.
How did Alain turn things around? First he created a sales department that served the editorial policy of the company, then he implemented a strict production schedule, then he started to develop lines and series designed to last. In so doing he crafted a catalogue around four key catagories – art and other beautiful books. Encyclopedias on nature. Practical activities (the applied arts, decoration, crafts, cooking), and classic children’s books. In 1972 he entered into a partnership with Paul Hamlyn and Artia that proved to be highly profitable. It involved the joint printing, with Czech publishers and artists, of beautifully illustrated books. The partnership worked so well that by the late 1970s Artia was responsible for 80% of Gründ’s sales revenues.
We’re now in the 80s. Enter Monique Souchon – a new editor who strongly advised diversification – and Where’s Wally?, a series of hugely popular children’s books published in England by Sebastian Walker, created by Martin Handford. Monique recommended they be adapted for the French market. Ou est Charlie? has been successful ever since.
Add to this, licencing of The Smurfs, Scooby-doo, and Pokemon, plus Barbapapa, and you have the makings of a very successful list.
During his time in publishing Alain has held the presidencies of the National Union of Publishing (1985-91), the Federation of European Publishers (1990-92), the International Union of Publishers (1996-2000), and the International Bureau of French Publishing ( 2003 – very recently). He sold Éditions Gründ to Editis in 2007.