Interview with an expert: Virginie “Moustache”

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Virginie, or “Madame Moustache,” is the French brains behind US-based Moustache Books, a great resource for buying affordable French literature in North America. I first mentioned her bookstore on this list of sellers. Now, Virginie is here to share a little bit more about her shop and procuring non-English books for sale in the US.

So, tell us a bit about yourself, Virginie!

I come from Toulouse, in the southwest of France. I studied literature and theater there, then I continued my theater education in Paris. Alongside my studies, I worked for several years in bookshops and editing, which I’ve always loved. After having spent some time in Central Europe teaching French literature and language, I decided to return to bookselling. This decision corresponds to my arrival in the United States 7 years ago, in San Francisco to be exact. But I only picked back up with book selling when I arrived in New York four years ago.

What made you want to run a bookshop? Why “Moustache” Books?

The year I came to New York, the Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center had just closed its doors. This was the only source for French-language books in New York. With my desire to one day open a bookshop in mind, I said to myself that it was a good time for it (or maybe a bad one? after all, it might not be a good idea to open a bookstore when all the other ones are closing…).

At first I wanted to open a real bookstore, with windows, bookshelves, walls… an actual store, you know? But the exhorbitant prices in NYC quickly discouraged me. I found work as manager of French stock in a bookstore in the Upper West Side and I learned about the American market for two years. Then I became pregnant, and I made use of my pregnancy to set up Moustache Books: the idea was to start by selling over the Internet only, and to see where that would take me…

Why Moustache? Because it’s so France! (well, especially our policemen). And since it’s a name that people can remember easily, and it works just as well in English as in French.

Who is your typical customer? Do many Americans buy foreign-language books?

The majority of my clients are Americans who read in French. Their language levels differ. There are quite a few French, too, who contact us, but most French people have their “things,” their network for finding books, like having them sent from France by their friends or family, or filling a suitcase when they go there.

What makes Moustache Books work is schools with bilingual programs, French departments at universities, and book clubs. We also work with French institutions here in the United States, like the consulate, some Alliance Française chapters, and Lycées Français.

Lastly, we have a special-order service through which we offer to order books that are difficult to find.

How do you learn about new books that your customers may like? How do you decide what to stock?

My selections are made in part as a function of what I like, and I also try to offer authors who are not super-well-known in the United States. American readers always hear about the same French authors, who have influential press here—these authors are of course available here, but I try to vary it a little and to draw people towards other texts. It doesn’t always work, but it is important to me that my selection reflect upon me somehow as a reader. I don’t just want to sell for selling’s sake, I want to try to really do some real work as a bookstore; as an advisor. This isn’t very obvious when one doesn’t have a “real” store, but we’ll get there!

What are your favorite aspects of running your store? What makes it worthwhile?

Advising readers, discussing books with my clients, even if it’s usually by email, it’s what I like. And for me, being able to get to know talented authors, books that change people, it’s a real privilege. I would just like to have a little more time for Moustache Books: I take care of my two-year-old son almost full time (and I wouldn’t want it another way), so sometimes I’m a bit preoccupied by things other than Flaubert and Houellebecq. But for now I’m able to manage the two.

Another thing I like a lot is participating in festivals and meetings with French authors in New York. That’s the time when I get to know readers and further discuss things.

What’s your favorite French book? Who is your favorite author of any nationality? Why?

Hmmm.. that’s tough to answer. All I can say is that lately, the book that has left the greatest impression is a novel by Pascal Quignard, ‘Les solidarités mystérieuses’ published by Gallimard in 2011. Both poetic and understated, it’s a book that uses little to say a lot about relationships between people, and that expresses in an incredibly balanced way the emptiness one can feel, but also the abundance, all in suggestions… All that planted amidst a mind-bogglingly honest Breton setting. I am not a huge fan of Quignard in general, but this one really took my breath away.

Now, the author that changed my life is not French, it’s Henry Miller with his Sexus, Nexus, Plexus trilogy. I was 18 years old when I read it and my whole universe opened up all at once.

There’s also Louis Calaferte, with ‘Septentrion.’ An autobiographical book of uncommon majesty.

Are there any up-and-coming authors we should look for in particular?

Cécile Guilbert, François Beaune, Stéphane Legrand

What else would you like to say about entrepreneurship, selling books, or life in general?

I could not be happier. While waiting for Moustache Books to develop a bit more and for my son to grow up, in those tough moments when I feel like nothing is working, I simply think of Henry Miller and the formidable appetite for life that he can inspire, and everything seems much easier.

What an inspiring thought, Virginie! Thanks so much for sharing your passion for literature and the business of books. I see so many similarities between your work in words and my own. Good luck growing!

Readers, be sure to check out Virginie’s virtual store, Moustache Books. She really does have a great, unusual mix of authors and formats. You can also check out her blog, French Book Notes. Who have you read lately?