City of Paris in San Francisco

By Kathy Nguyen

About all it takes these days is the glimmer of the new golden domes on City Hall to evoke memories of the gilded monuments of Paris. Venture no further than downtown San Francisco, and you'll be transported to the bistros and sidewalk cafés of Montparnasse, where literary expatriates the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anais Nin, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein spent many an hour ruminating over crème de menthe and espresso.

Just walk along Bush Street for a dose of Euro-chic ambience in the closest thing to San Francisco's French quarter. Here, the French consulate stands next to the venerable Notre Dame des Victoires Church. At Grant and Bush is the ever-popular Café de la Presse, and its expanded restaurant offering authentic French cuisine. Around the corner, tucked away in a little alley on Claude Lane, is Café Claude, famous for its nicoise salad and weekly jazz sessions. Café Bastille holds court nearby. One block over on Sutter you'll find fashion boutiques and art galleries nestled between French brasseries and tabac/newsstands, which are never low on Dunhill cigarettes and the daily edition of Le Monde. If it's a French brew you're craving, stop in at the brasserie on the corner of Powell. For a frothy cappuccino, try the terrace café fully equipped with heat lamps to keep you comfy on those chilly San Francisco nights.

But if it's books you're looking for and couldn't care less about atmosphere, then keep trekking. On Larkin between Post and Geary, you'll come upon the European Book Company in all its unadorned glory. For over 30 years this no-nonsense literary establishment has seen trends come and go, including the shut-down of three foreign cinemas in its vicinity. It has witnessed the changing faces of surrounding neighborhoods from the Polk Gulch to the Tenderloin--the new stomping ground for escape-from-the-Mission hipsters--where trendy café/bars and hot-spot noodle shops are going up as fast as building renovations and rent prices.

The European Book Co.'s owners, Sara and Jean Gabriel, know how powerful corporations can change a city by driving up rents and threatening small businesses. Fortunately for them, they own the large building in which the bookstore and its multiple operations are housed. Sara Gabriel, a warm and keenly intelligent woman, admits that some of the changes "are definitely good for business." Gabriel, who manages the store's daily operations, says residents and merchants have been struggling for years to improve the neighborhood.

The Gabriels started the European Book Co. back in 1964, and also own its sister establishment, Café de la Presse, which opened in 1992. Jean Gabriel decided to open a business in the City after the café/bookstore that he co-owned in Monterey was destroyed in a fire. The Sancho Panza Coffeehouse, which housed Gabriel's bookstore, counted Joan Baez among its regulars. Sara Gabriel credits her husband with the café/bookstore vision. Apparently, it has caught on across the country. At megastores like Borders and Virgin, bookshelves oriented around full-service cafés are designed to draw more customers.

"Back then the concept of the café bookstore was still new, and it worked because it had a foreign flavor to it," says Gabriel.

Jean Gabriel came to the United States from France in the 1950s. He got the idea of opening a foreign bookstore while working in the book department of the City of Paris department store, now the site of Neiman Marcus. While Café de la Presse has enjoyed much success as a coffeehouse/newsstand, the European Book Co. functions as a wholesale bookstore. Most of its business involves importing, selling and distributing European books and magazines to bookstores and newsstands around the country. The company also provides texts for schools, colleges and libraries.

Once inside the bookstore you'll be greeted by the whirring beat of an old radiator cranked up to full blast. A couple of politely reserved clerks sit behind two large wooden desks strewn with signs of productivity: opened books and piles of paper. One staff member taps away intently on his keyboard. His co-worker answers phone calls and jots down purchase orders. Every now and again, Sara Gabriel emerges from the offices in the back to help out with customers and rearrange book displays, while bantering in French with other employees.

Although European Book Co. specializes in French, German and Spanish books, its main thrust is French: fiction, poetry, philosophy, history, sociology and children's books. Several literature sections cover nearly every French author from Marcel Aymé and Honoré de Balzac to Proust, Racine and Jules Vernes. The bookstore also has a good collection of Francophile literature and rare books in Old French, which you won't see at any chain bookstore. Another section is devoted to French police novels, where you'll also find Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, James Michener, Tom Clancy and Stephen King bestsellers in French translation. The bookseller's wonderful collection of children's books, in both French and bilingual French-English, is worth the visit alone. It includes annotated French classics, comics and a number of Disney favorites available in books, cassette tapes, CDs and videos.

The bookstore's Spanish selection comprises Spanish and Mexican history, literature and theater. German sections include subjects ranging from technology and literature, to cookbooks and children's books. In addition to several racks displaying Michelin maps of European countries and cities, the store also carries a good number of travel guides. Next to an extensive ESL section is a comprehensive language learning section. Here you'll find books and videos for learning German, Dutch, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Estonian, Latvian, Cantonese, Arabic, Gujarati, Hindi and Somali. Among the European language dictionaries is a surprisingly good number of Cambodian, Thai, Lao, Japanese and Vietnamese-English dictionaries.

But perhaps European Book Co.'s main draw is its incredible selection of international newspapers and magazines. Just inside the store's main entrance are newspaper racks with daily editions of Le Monde, Le Figaro, L'Equipe, de Telegraaf, La Repubblica, and International Herald Tribune. The magazine sections include Le nouvel Observateur, Le Point, Paris Match, Marie Claire, iHola!, Asia Week, and more.

So even if you can't afford a trip to Paris this spring, you can still use your imagination--and a bookstore such as this is a good place to start.

European Book Co.
925 Larkin
SF, CA 94109
(415) 474-0626
Bookstore Hours
11:00 - 6:00 Mon. - Fri.
10:00 - 5:00 Sat.
Closed Sun.

Cafe de la Presse
Newsstand & Restaurant

352 Grant Avenue/
469 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 398-2680/249-0900