The story starts in a cupboard in the Old Town of Antibes.
Heidi Lee, children’s author and one-time actress, had discovered this particularly attractive part of the South of France with her husband, Brian Loughran. What it seemed to lack was a place to browse and buy books in English, so the pair set to work with hammer and nail and transformed 12m2 into the first Antibes Books. It took off.
Today, at the end of 2014, as Heidi prepares to close this chapter in her life, she looks back on almost 25 years of bookselling.
“It’s been a very happy time,” says Heidi, chatting in the literary labyrinth that is Antibes Books today, 200m2 of prime commercial property at the foot of the rue d’Aubernon, lined with lived-in looking shelves that the owner admits have the air of being stuck together with chewing gum and string.
Heidi, she of the long dark hair and distinctive smile, looks back with particular affection on the early days at the current site. “We had an art gallery in the basement and used to put on theatre productions, one had more energy then … also times were easier, people had money to spend on books, the business was growing.
“Christmas was a real joy with Brian as Santa Claus and a brass band of computer consultants from Sophia Antipolis playing carols outside the shop.
“These days, like every other bookshop, one feels the adverse effect of the internet and Kindle, added to which the French economy is dire and the rules for running a French business have become more and more Draconian. It wasn’t just those things that made me think it was time to retire, though.
“I’m coming up to a ‘big birthday’ and life is too short to waste so I decided to put the shop on the market and see what happened. I was amazed and somewhat shocked when the first offer made was one I simply couldn’t refuse.”
Certainly no bookshop could afford the site these days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the line for English books in Antibes. A member of Heidi’s staff is keen to open up elsewhere in the town. If that does come to pass, one hopes that Heidi’s philosophy of stocking a large range of books will still apply.
“The range was very important to me. The boaties of Antibes were excellent customers and appreciated my keeping the Beat Poets, esoteric books and ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ as well as literary fiction and the latest best sellers.”
Author signings have been many and varied, Heidi’s fondest memories reserved for those of Dame Vera Lynn, Wallander author Henning Mankell and Merde! man Stephen Clarke.
Surprisingly, she has less happy souvenirs of Harry Potter releases, normally bonanza time for a bookshop.
“We always seemed to have problems getting the stock in time. The publisher put a strict embargo on the release of copies, so there was no way of getting the books in advance. We were at the mercy of the delivery people.”
One particular un-wizard morning sticks in Heidi’s mind. “We were promised the books by opening time – they hadn’t arrived, they were probably in Timbuktu. We had a crowd of excited children waiting outside the shop. It was awful having to open the doors empty- handed. Luckily on that occasion the books did eventually show up. Another time we had to go and buy copies at Carrefour to fulfil our orders.
“People say I am an Antibes institution; at times like those I felt as if I should be in one.”
On the plus side, Heidi still gets a kick out of seeing a customer who was but a bump in the maternity frock of one of her first patrons turn up in the bookshop with their own children.
“When people like these hear we’re closing, their first reaction is ‘Oh my God! You can’t!’ But after a bit of reflection they say they can understand my reasoning.”
Heidi intends to stay on in Antibes, her house with the walled garden in the heart of Old Town is a haven and after 30 years, home is definitely in France. However, her release from a business that stays open 363 days a year means she is thinking of returning to writing and travel is high on the agenda for 2015.
“I’m off to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in February; and revisiting Australia, where I lived for ten years, is a possibility.
“Oh, and I have an invitation to learn the tango in Argentina.”