Since 29 August 2015, Le Locle, the small town bordering France, has got a general bookstore again. Inspired by the French writer Guy de Maupassant, it is called “Aux Mots Passants”. Three residents of Le Locle, Isabelle Zünd, social worker, André Frutschi, agricultural engineer, and Odile Grange, a retired bookseller, have initiated the project of a cooperative-based bookstore, presenting an encouraging citizens’ initiative.
Current Concerns: What was your motivation to launch a cooperative bookstore?
Isabelle Zünd: My colleague has always been interested in the cooperative system, in co-operative projects. And I, after living in Le Locle for 20 years, have long since regretted that there was no bookstore. So we’ve teamed up and had the idea to put up a co-operative project in the form of a bookshop.
André Frutschi: Also the cultural aspect played a role, a town of 11,000 inhabitants deserves a bookstore. Regarding the socio-cultural aspect, Le Locle is rather poor. We have an unemployment of 8%, 30% of cross-bordercommuters who are working here, it is the canton, however, that benefits from their taxes and not the city. There are many recipients of social assistance, Le Locle is not a rich city. In the 70s they built facilities for 15,000 inhabitants, but since the beginning of the crisis of the watch industry, the population of the city dropped to 11,000 inhabitants. The last general bookstore closed its doors in the 90s. Odile can tell you the story.
Odile Grange: Yes, that was Reymond, a bookstore with branches in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Neuchâtel and Lausanne, and then they had to close in 1996/7, and since then there has been no general bookstore in Le Locle. People say we are brave to open a bookstore, here near the border with France and with Amazon and Migros close by, where books can be bought cheaply. They’re right, it is difficult.
What has yet given you the courage to launch the project?
Isabelle Zünd: Sure, it takes courage, but also many cooperative members responded positively to our call. It was a kind of thermometer to know if the people here would like to have a bookstore again. And then I think the idea is spreading by itself. They will tell their friends in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchâtel, we even have people from Basel … The personal advice and human exchange, which is promoted by our coffee corner, are our trump cards.
André Frutschi: I was parliamentary assistant, I do not know if you know Daniel Vischer, a member of the Zurich National Council. When I told him that we were going to establish a cooperative bookstore in Le Locle, he said, “Send me a deposit slip.” He’ll never come here to buy books, but he found the idea brilliant and our initiative courageous, and he is convinced that culture has to be promoted.
What do you think is the importance of the printed book in an increasingly electronic world?
André Frutschi: I’ve conducted quite a few comparative studies. There is a big difference between the Germanic-Anglo-Saxon world and the Latin world. The Germanic-Anglo-Saxon world has proceeded to the e-book reader, there are many electronic books, while the Latin world, Italy, Spain, France and the French-speaking prefer the printed book, this is culturally conditioned. The Federal Office of Culture has conducted studies related to Switzerland and has found a difference of 30% between German-speaking Switzerland and the French and Italian-speaking Switzerland. This is our chance.
Why did you choose the organizational form of the cooperative?
Odile Grange: A great advantage of the cooperative is that one is independent of banks, which are always asking for sales. You are under less pressure and more flexible.
André Frutschi: Yes, I think if we had gone to the bank to open a bookstore in Le Locle, they would have first laughed for 10 minutes, not even taking the time to offer us a cup of coffee ... and then: bye-bye! Because bookstores are closed and not opened.
Suppose, Isabelle and I could have put 70,000 francs on the table and opened a bookstore, we would have taken a great risk. If, instead, we found a cooperative and 135 cooperative members give 500 francs each for the project, then we have active customers, people who will not buy from Amazon or in France. They will come here because it is their bookstore, not ours, it is theirs. This was essential for our project.
Isabelle Zünd: Yes, and then also during the renovation of the shop, we saw the advantages of a cooperative. We had to renovate everything, insert new walls, tearing walls down, etc. There were always cooperative members, who came and helped without charge. Some wanted to repaint the furniture, on request, a car varnisher painted the furniture, at the end for free. A professional carpenter fixed renewed this step in oak, I do not know how much it would have cost if we would have had to pay.
This shows that the cooperative members really feel responsible. A cooperative also creates human connections.
André Frutschi:Yes, absolutely. We came to know many people. Even, a notary has congratulated us on our statutes and said that if he ever had to form a cooperative, he’ll take our statutes as a template.
Isabelle Zünd: The volunteer work was not only limited to the renovation of the premises. We, Odile and I, we work 50% in the shop and then there are ten volunteers who support us. You hear sometimes the say that mutual aid nowadays is no longer alive, but that is not true, if you ask for help, then people tend to jump in.
The cooperative is also still the most democratic form of organization.
Isabelle Zünd: Exactly. Each member has one vote, regardless of how many shares he has bought. The municipality, which has bought ten shares has one vote and the three women, who together bought a share, have one vote each. This is unlike an ordinary company.
How did you proceed from the idea to the opening of the bookstore?
Isabelle Zünd: First, we became acquainted with other bookstores. We visited several bookstores, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the region, in France and had a look at how they work. Then we visited various cooperatives, among others, “Espace Noir” in St Imier.
André Frutschi: I do not know if you know “Espace Noir”? If not, you need to visit these diverse cooperatives. It is very interesting, a place of culture consisting of a dwelling house, a theatre and a bookstore of anarchist philosophy. Historically, St Imier is a place of anarchists, Bakunin was in St Imier. The cooperative “Espace Noir” promotes the cooperative movement very strongly.
Isabelle Zünd: So we met the people of “Espace Noir”, they gave us advice, shared their statutes with us ... and then we wanted to try out if there actually was a demand for a bookstore, whether people would like to have a bookstore again. And since this was the case, we said to ourselves: “Let us go ahead, let’s give out the shares of the cooperative.” Within 6 months, we sold 135 shares for CHF 500 each. We had set the share at 500 francs, because we did not want too many members in the cooperative, because the more there are, the more difficult is it to manage the cooperative. We would have needed a secretary. But we prefered a lean administration.
How did you find members for the cooperative?
We wrote letters to our friends, and then to more distant acquaintances. We wrote to stores and businesses in the district. Two companies have become members of the cooperative. Then we asked the municipalities. Le Locle and Les Brenets agreed. The remaining members of the cooperative are all private. I volotiered a lot in the past and therefore I know a lot of people.
Then we started to work out the statute, which was not easy, as there are few cooperatives in French-speaking Switzerland, towards which we could orient ourselves.
André Frutschi: We found one model in the Valais, but we had to revise the statute and adapt it to our requirements. We wanted to include the purpose clause saying that it is a cooperative with an idealistic purpose to make clear that it is not the primary goal to earn money. But for legal reasons, that was not possible, as a cooperative needs to pursue a commercial purpose by law. At least it must be able to support itself.
Isabelle Zünd: However, from the Loterie Romande1 we received funding, since it is considered a non-profit project in essence. With this money we were able to acquire the basic computer equipment and basic materials.
These preparations took their time – about a year. In the course of this year we fortunately met Odile. She is a retired bookseller and agreed to participate in our project. Now that we have opened, is clear to me that we would have never succeeded without her. She is ready to work half-day and sometimes even more for free in the bookshop.
André Frutschi: On 23 March this year we adopted the statutes at the inaugural meeting. Since 8 April the cooperative “Aux Mots Passants” is entered in the Register, and in April we found relatively cheap and well-located premises. As the rooms had been used as a storage by the antiquarian next door, we had to make everything new. But thanks to the many volunteers we managed to prepare the premises until the opening on 29 August very nicely.
We were amazed when on the opening day some 300 people came. Government representatives were also present. It must be said, that politics supported our enterprise. The municipality bought 10 cooperative certificates. Many volunteers had organized games and set up booths. 300 visitors came while we had only 135 cooperative members. This already shows that other people are interested in the project!
By end of the year, 6 months after opening, the General Assembly will present the first opportunity to gather all the members of the cooperative, and then we’ll see ... we just take it step by step. We have ideas ... There is, for example, a prosecutor from Neuchâtel, but he also writes novels. He approached us and asked us if he could arrange an autograph session at our bookstore.
Isabelle Zünd: So all the pieces have been put together very nicely. Sometimes, I say to myself, if the energy is there in the project, all the pieces fall into their place, that’s a wonderful thing.
Thank you for the interview and all the best for the future. •
(Interview Susanne Lienhard)
1 The six French-speaking cantons (Vaud, Fribourg, Valais, Neuchâtel, Geneva and Jura) authorize the operation of the Loterie Romande and get all the profit. The profit goes entirely to nonprofit institutions in Romandie.
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