How the Francophone Bookshop, Kyralina, Successfully Opened in Bucharest
Sidonie Mézaize is a French editor and translator who co-founded a French-language bookshop called Kyralina in Bucharest, Romania. Opening and running a foreign language bookshop is risky and challenging. Kyralina’s story deserves to be told, not least because it is a happy one, although the road to launching a successful foreign language bookstore entailed laborious research and meticulous bookkeeping.
For the sake of full disclosure, Mézaize now lives in Paris where she writes and edits content for Bookwitty’s French-language site, while an onsite manager runs Kyralina.
How it all Began
Following a degree in comparative literature in French and German, with a minor in publishing, Mézaize worked at several publishing companies in France before going to Germany on a fellowship, where she interned at a German publishing house. She moved to Bucharest in 2009 where she worked at the French book office within the French Institute.
During this time she began to dream about opening a bookshop. Moreover she saw that there was a real need and potential when a French-language bookshop opened to much excitement, albeit closing two years later.
In 2011 Mézaize tackled the issue of funding, and activated her network of contacts. She and her partner, Bruno Ménat applied to the Fondation Lagardère for a grant. To her surprise and delight, they were awarded €30,000, the first grant to be allocated to a bookshop outside of France. It was enough to get them started.
"We are so lucky in France to have these institutions that we can turn to for help."
Mézaize jumped into action and returned to Paris to follow a two-week intensive training course as a bookseller at the Institut National de la Formation de la Librairie, a national French organization that provides training for all aspects of the bookselling profession. “We are so lucky in France to have these institutions that we can turn to for help,” commented Mézaize. She also interned in several bookshops and followed a course for French booksellers living abroad. “Thanks to the booksellers I spent time with, I started to organize my stock: I made my selection and decided which books to order—there were 3000 titles in all.” (Kyralina now has 7000 titles and 11,000 books in stock.)
Adapting the Bookstore’s Offering to the Romanian Public
As is the case in many European countries, French used to be taught as a second language in Romanian schools, but it has since been replaced by English. There were few current statistics available about the number of French speakers in Romania, so Mézaize used her intuition and informal polling. “I met with people and asked them what they would like to see in a French bookshop and which authors they were interested in.”
She calculated approximately 1 in 5 people in Bucharest appeared to be Francophone, and was happy to find that it wasn’t just the elite who spoke French, but all segments of the population.
Consumer buying power is low in Romania and one of her primary concerns was to make books affordable, which meant ordering lots of paperbacks. She decided that 50% of the books would be literature, while the rest would be non-fiction and children’s books, the latter making up 30% of the stock. Today, this figure has climbed to 45%. Mézaize also kept in mind the expat community in Bucharest for whom she ordered recent releases and award-winning books. “We wanted to be a showcase for the editorial production in France, with an emphasis on paperbacks and quality publishers.”
“I met with people and asked them what they would like to see in a French bookshop and which authors they were interested in."
Finding a location for the bookshop was a big challenge. “It was very difficult. In Bucharest real estate is extremely expensive. Our objective was to be right near the English language bookshop which is in a passageway where there have always been bookshops. But it didn’t work out. We had almost abandoned the idea of a central location when we were very lucky to find a small house in disrepair with a garden, ten minutes from the French Institute in the center.”
Mézaize and her partner renovated the house and had bookshelves built. In November 2012 they were ready to open Kyralina. Named after Romanian author Panaït Istrati’s book, Kyra, Kyralina, which he wrote in French, for Mézaize it symbolized a bridge between the two countries.
The Makings of a Successful Bookshop with the Help of Partnerships
Her connection to the French Institute was invaluable, as each time the Institute hosted French authors, Mézaize would hold an event at the bookshop. When Russian-born French novelist Andreï Makine came through Bucharest on a book tour, 130 or so people attended the signing at Kyralina.
As trust developed between Kyralina and national French institutions in Bucharest, the bookshop partnered with the French Institute, which guaranteed a regular source of revenue. The French embassy and French schools also acquired their books at the shop. Today, 15% of Kyralina’s revenue comes from French institutions.
From the start, Mézaize decided her booksellers would be Romanian.
“All the booksellers are young, lively, bilingual and passionate about reading. Some have even come to France to do internships. They have a real vision and are also very dynamic on Facebook where we have 5000 followers, which is huge for a small indie bookshop.”
Holding welcoming events became a hallmark for Kyralina and was much appreciated by patrons, as most of the Romanian bookshops in Bucharest at the time were still a little austere, said Mézaize. Children’s events were very successful and became regular. Now, every other Saturday Kyralina organizes an event for children, in partnership with the French Institute. Mézaize believes that part of this success is due to the aesthetic quality of French children’s books that Romanians appreciate immensely. The bookshop remains one of the least expensive in Europe.
A Realistic Approach Towards Business Objectives
Five years later, Kyralina has nearly doubled its annual revenue. But making the bookshop solvent was predictably Mézaize’s greatest challenge:
“A bookshop is one of the businesses that has the lowest profit margin—in France on average the profit is 1% net— so the equilibrium is extremely fragile. Each year many bookshops disappear due to cashflow problems or loans that cannot be repaid. Bookselling is often described as a métier you choose out of passion, I think it’s more like priesthood: minuscule salaries, and long work hours. In order to hold on, your eyes need to be riveted on the numbers, even if you rarely come to this profession for that reason. I had to learn to analyze figures, to talk to my accountant on a regular basis, to ensure that the stock turned over, and to juggle Excel spreadsheets which at first I knew nothing about.”
Each year Mézaize applies for, and receives, a precious grant for book orders from the French National Center for Books, or the CNL. The bookshop is also able to delay payments to publishers for several months rather than having to pay for books upfront because it has, as a guarantor, La Centrale de L’Edition, an entity that brings together French publishers and distributors with the mission to develop the export of French books abroad. Kyralina is also a member of the Francophone bookshop network, the AILF which holds regular meetings during which Francophone booksellers from across the globe can collectively discuss problems and issues that they face.
Like Watering a Plant
For Mézaize, opening and running a successful bookshop was “by far the most professional and personal experience I have had. I loved working with a small team, and I am very grateful to our booksellers who invested such passion into the shop to make it come alive. I also loved the exchanges with the customers, working with partners, and organizing the events that we held. Creating a space that welcomes the public brings you great happiness, you meet people all day, you feel like you’re part of a collective adventure and that you serve a purpose. I think that a bookshop is a little like a plant, you mustn’t stop watering it or it will die. Kyralina is lucky to be surrounded by many friends who watch over it and water it without fail.”
"I think that a bookshop is a little like a plant, you mustn’t stop watering it or it will die."
Mézaize’s experience in publishing and editing had provided her with a network, but the research that went into Kyralina before it opened, and training as a bookseller proved to be invaluable. Where she could, Mézaize benefitted from French institutions, partnerships and grants, although her seed funding came from a private foundation. By doing her homework and keeping a constant eye on accounts she could circle back to what made her happy: bringing people together around literature.