Idiosyncrasies of the French language – le mot juste

It seems apt somehow that the French term for Read Only Memory (ROM) is memoire morte.  There is poetry in computing!

An English bookshop in France

Beginnings 5: Registration and the Siret

It is impossible to establish any kind of business in France without registering and obtaining a Siret number.

In England the choices for setting up a business are few, but in France there are a number of options between the micro enterprise (sole trader) at one end to the SARL (limited company) at the other. The one essential piece of advice everyone seemed to reiterate was that it was easy to move up the ladder of complexity, but very difficult to move down.

Just before I made my decision a new category of micro enterprise, the auto- entrepreneur, was created. This was the very simplest of all the possibilities. Basically, if you register as an auto-entrepreneur, you pay tax at the rate of 13% of turnover – and that’s it as far as a book-keeping requirement is concerned. There is no legal need to record outgoings.

It seemed sensible to me to start The Glass Key in the simplest way possible and look at the more complex possibilities after we were established and when growth was a reality rather than a plan on a piece of paper.

Patsy and I made the trip to the chamber of commerce in Poitiers and met with a Madame Mallecot. I did not think that registering a business could be fun, but Mme Mallecot made the whole thing a pleasurable occasion. She asked me on what date I would like the business to start and, to her amusement, I chose April 1st – a date that has the same connotations in France as in England. We emerged with a Recepisse de Declaration de Debut D’Activite d’Auto-entrepreneur and with the promise that the Siret would arrive shortly in the post.

Three days later the Certificate of Inscription arrived giving us the Siret number and confirming that the enterprise would start on 1 April 2009.

An English bookshop in France

Beginnings 4: The bank account

We had opened a personal bank account on arrival in Montmorillon, but a business account was required. I had paid a couple of visits to the Montmorillon chamber of commerce and met with Jean-Marc Menu who proved extremely helpful. With his guidance we produced a cash-flow forecast using a matrix set up on his computer. The resulting 25-page document may not have borne much connection to reality, but it looked very impressive! I was also able to obtain a couple of detailed printouts setting out the rules and regulations for running both a second-hand book business and an antique business in France.

Armed with the cash-flow forecast I set up an appointment at the bank. I emerged an hour and a half later, having signed seemingly endless pieces of paper, with a bank account arranged and a modest loan being offered. The cash-flow had done its job!

The account and the loan would not be activated until I had registered the business so that was the next thing to do.

An English bookshop in France

Beginnings 3: Moving and storing books

In England my book stock was stored on the top floor of a mill in Old Town above Hebden Bridge and it was up a flight of 36 steps to reach this floor. There were some 5000 catalogued books and probably another 15,000 unsorted and uncatalogued. The mill was unheated and the conditions were far from ideal for storing books.

In Montmorillon I went to see M. Castillou at the town hall who seemed hopeful that they might be able to help. Patsy and I returned to England leaving our friends Gordon and Jane, an English couple living in Montmorillon just round the corner from us, to liaise with the town hall. Some weeks later Gordon phoned to say M Guelpin from the office of the mayor had just taken him to visit a space that seemed ideal – it was just round the corner, it was the right size and it was relatively cheap.

We came back to Montmorillon at Easter and I got my first look at Rue Saint Denis. It was perfect: a ground floor double-doored space with toilet, kitchen sink and central heating and all literally two-minutes walk from home. The town hall produced a one-year contract signed by the mayor. I took the contract home and read it with the aid of copious references to the dictionary. It all seemed straightforward so I signed and the space was mine!

Back in England all my catalogued stock was stored in marked cardboard boxes so it would be relatively simple to move. I also boxed up 50 or so boxes of uncatalogued stock. A contact of mine in the transport business came with a van and we carried the boxes down the 36 steps and into his van. He took the stock away then palletised and despatched it.

During this time my books were taken off-line on the various websites on which I list my books and my own site carried the information that orders placed would not be despatched until November (our planned final move date).

The books arrived and the pallets manhandled into my storage space. I bought a quantity of cheap shelving and unpacked most of the catalogued stock. This stock had been in boxes since I closed my shop in Hebden Bridge and it was a welcome sight to bring it all out into the daylight – I think the books were happy to be in a warmer and drier climate than they had been used to too.

Getting the electricity turned on was a simple matter, but the gas proved to be something of a problem. Face-to face French I can manage, but I do find the telephone more difficult so I landed my friend Pacome (a young artist and true Montmorillionais) with the task of making the phone calls. After several of those nightmarish long circular telephone calls where you are passed from department to department until you finally land back where you started the outcome was successful and the gas was turned on.

I then arranged for the boiler to be checked and suddenly I had a space that was dry and could be warm. I put my books back on-line and The Glass Key was open for business from its new French base.

An English bookshop in France

Beginnings 2: The house and the shop

On a limestone rocky outcrop on the west bank of the river Gartempe stands the church of Notre-Dame. Winding gently up the hill away from the church and into the Cité de l’Écrit is the narrow street of rue Bernard Harent (Companion of the Liberation). Our house is on the right hand side opposite the entrance to La Preface – an exhibition centre and point of information. You step off the street and straight into a room of some 25 square metres with a window overlooking the street and it was this room that we thought we might be able to develop as a bookshop.

Change of use seemed a good place to start – if we could not obtain permission to change part of the house into retail premises then we would have to rethink things. I had already toured the bookshops of Montmorillon and spoken to the booksellers; all of them seemed enthusiastic about the idea of a shop selling English-language books. Perhaps the most helpful and welcoming was Gerard Poucel who has a shop just down the hill from us and whose wife Chantal has an antique shop, specialising in fabrics, close to the station. Gerard told me to talk to M. Castillou at the town hall.

With my rather shaky command of the French language I attempted to explain to M. Castillou what it was I wanted to do. As he listened his smile got broader and broader and he greeted my idea with enormous enthusiasm: the town hall was on my side! There would be no problem about change of use and I should proceed with the setting up of the business and open the shop

An English bookshop in France

Beginnings 1: The Purchase

It was really Patsy who began to push for a move to France. It was she who, whilst trawling the net, discovered mention of Montmorillon and the intriguingly named Cité de l’Écrit.  We decided that, whilst on a visit to a friend living in the Dordogne, we would make a diversion and go and have a look.

We found a most attractive old town of some seven thousand inhabitants with the river Gartempe running through the middle.  The two halves of the town are linked by a bridge, Le Vieux Pont, originally built in the 15th century (1404 to be precise).  It was up the hill on the west side of the river where the Cité de l’Écrit was developing

It then seemed no time at all until we found a house located right in the centre of the Cité de l’Écrit that seemed ideal to all three of us (son Daniel was with us too) and we made an offer that was accepted.  On 17 May 2007 we signed the Compris de Vente and we were then committed to buying the house.

We came out in June to finalise the purchase.  We met the vendors (there were several family members who were involved) at the offices of the notary handling the sale, paid the money, signed the papers and the house was ours!