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Monday
Nov262018

Is Paris's Bibliothèque District Cool Enough for Instagram?

When Parisians think of the 13th (if they think of it at all), they usually think of Chinatown or even the Butte aux Cailles, both which are highly Instagrammable. But this particular corner of the 13th arrondissement, known as the Bibliothèque district after the massive national library at its center, is not the place tourists usually want to Instagram. To most of them, it “doesn’t look like Paris”. But it’s actually quite photogenic and refreshingly contemporary if you’ve exhausted all of the possibilities of the Haussmann-and-cobblestones genre (and you know what you’re doing with a camera, which – clearly – I do not). 

And there’s Bob’s Café, which in itself may be exactly the bait needed to lure a few curious tourists out of their comfort zone. But more on that in a moment. First, let’s get a sense of where we are, exactly.

In the foreground is the MK2 Bibliothèque, an entertainment complex at the foot of one of the four imposing towers of the new National Library opened in 1997. On the right you can see one of the food trucks, Le Camion Qui Fume, setting up early for the lunch crowd. In warmer weather there are usually a half dozen food trucks on the square each evening.

The Paris Rive Gauche Project started in 1988 to renovate 320 acres of industrial wasteland along the Seine between the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Boulevard Masséna (just north of the Périphérique), all within the 13th arrondissement. The first – and largest – building at the center of this massive undertaking was the monumental new National Library meant to relieve overcrowding in the original 17th-century national library on Rue de Richelieu in the 2nd. Its mouthful of a name is fitting for its size and stature: officially it’s called the Bibliothèque Nationale de France François-Mitterrand (named for former President Mitterrand), but most people just call it “BnF”, or, if they’re trying to be clever, “TGB” for “Très Grand Bibliothèque” because it rhymes with TGV and is yet another massive state project.

The sunny terraces along the Avenue de France are still empty at 10am on a Sunday in November. This creperie is one of the eateries attached to the MK2 Bibliothèque (128 ave de France, 13th). MK2 is a chain of cinemas in France. This location opened in 2003 is actually known for its "love seats", because you have the option of raising the arm rest between every other seat. But inside there's much more than just a modern cinéplex. 

Once inside and past the cinema ticket machines, you'll see this amazing self-service candy display. It goes all the way around. No two bins have the same candy. There's more candy along the wall behind it. And the usual cinema popcorn-M&Ms-Magnum ice cream-Whoppers-Coca Cola selection at the counter. It seems totally irrational, but I'm entranced by the candy display. The top of it actually spins around slowly like a merry-go-round. They weigh your sachet at the the counter, so it's a bit too easy to get overexcited and end up with €40 of sugar (and then end up eating it all absent-mindedly during the 20 minutes of commercials before the actual film starts). Caveat emptor. 

If you make it past the candy, you'll find a recently-remodeled shopping area (as of November 16th) with an upscale selection of books, magazines, small gadgets, gift items, and even a whole counter full of bizarre American junk food like Nerds and Goober Grape PBJ. 

There are some designer, minimalist wares, reminiscent of Colette: high-end stationary, Japanese slippers, cool kitchen accessories, a very-beautiful-but-very-expensive (hand-carved by elves?) waste basket, some sleek electronics that are probably "intuitive" to some people, and a nice pile of oversized cushions. It's actually a nice place to shop for unique gifts. 

This shopping area is open to the public, you don't need to have purchased a cinema ticket. I like to get here early just to browse before the movie starts. The large windows overlooking the library towers make it a bright, welcoming space. The tables you see here are for client's of the newly-opened Bob's Café.

I can't tell you how excited I was to see Bob's Café opening in my neighborhood! There are other locations in Paris, but they're either too far (Bob' Bake Shop in the 18th) or too small to get a seat (at Shakespeare & Co, 4th). Pictured is the owner Marc (there is actually no "Bob") and a hot, home made chai latte (with almond milk) that helped thaw my frozen fingers (going to blame my blurry pics on those frozen fingers).

There are also Bob's authentic homemade bagels with avocado, hummus, or even PBJ (the real stuff, not Goober Grape....actually I didn't fact-check that one, so I guess I have an excuse to go back now). Bob's is open daily 9:30am until 10:30pm. 

At the far end of the shopping gallery is another restaurant (a rather pricey Italian Il Corso, which seems to be awkwardly straddling the line between office cafeteria and airport lounge), then the MK2 Virtual Reality Experience. You can usually see people through the windows wearing the goggles or in a harness in the flying position. It's almost always full of people (this is a photo from their website because I didn't want to take photos of people looking like goofballs without their permission). 

On the other side of the MK2 there's a wide, wooden boardwalk with steps on three sides, serving as a platform for the Bibliothèque's four towers.

Although finished in 1997, the Bibliothèque district plodded along unconvincingly for another decade, rarely attracting anyone except contemporary architecture aficionados and those who needed to use the library, itself often the subject of ridicule for its inefficient design and obvious lack of coziness. Compared to many of the gorgeous, historic libraries in Paris, the new BnF was seen as a cold, sterile environment devoid of nostalgia. Its four imposing towers are meant to convey four open books, but the vast, open spaces so conducive to wind gusts made visitors feel small and insignificant. But I like to run here because the wood is softer than concrete, I don't have to worry about cars or scooters, and I know if I run along the outside edge it's almost exactly one kilometer so I can keep track of my distace without any gadgets. 

With the opening of more shops and cafés in the surrounding streets, as well as the new housing and university buildings, the area is now as busy as any Parisian neighborhood (minus the overwhelming presence of tourists).

It might seem like you're not in Paris at all, except for the view over the Seine from the eastern side, where the newest pedestrian bridge across the Seine, the Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, connects the library to Bercy Park. When it's a bit warmer out, there are always Parisians sitting on the large wooden steps leading down to the Seine, eating lunch from the food trucks or cracking open a bottle of wine at night. This photo below taken in 2012 shows the view of the Bibliothèque towers from the curvy bridge, and the nightclub péniches moored along the quay.

At the center of the four library towers, which are connected below the boardwalk, is a small pine forest, adding a touch of green to the scenery.

Because there is so much space (rare in Paris) and the glass library walls act like mirrors, there are often dancers practicing their moves (here is a young couple braving the cold). On some summer evenings you'll find whole dance troupes with their boom boxes, fitness coaches running drills, and photo or video shoots making the most of the space. Biking and pets aren't allowed on the boardwalk, but otherwise the security are pretty relaxed about how the space is used.

Visiting the Library 

The Bibliothèque François-Mitterand has two main sections: Recherche (the research collection only open to researchers who request special access), and the Haut-de-Jardin (reading rooms and expositions, open to the public age 16 and over). There's a fee (currently €3.90) to enter the library reading rooms and access the reference library collection (it's free after 5pm). You can also purchase a culture pass for €15 that also gives you access to the cultural expositions, concerts and any other events hosted by the library. If there are too many people, you'll have to wait in line to get in, but there's an app (of course) to monitor this. Check out their website before crossing town.

Almost all of the buildings surrounding the National Library are also newly-built within the past 20 years. Many are either office buildings or residential apartments, but there are also a few shops, cafés and shops hidden in there. The photo above was taken from the wooden steps on the northern side, and you can see the grass-covered stadium (that locals will probably stubbornly refer to as “POPB” until they die) across the Seine on the right. This street, Rue Raymond Aron, has a cat café and a flight simulation center. 

Le Moustache Café (10 rue Raymond Aron, 13th), is a cat café, so it's probably highly Instagrammable if you want to snap a cat in your lap while sipping an espresso. But I’m allergic, so decided to heed the warning on the door to stay out and shoot pics through the glass. They serve coffee, smoothies, organic beers, tartines, salads, sandwiches, desserts, and some vegan options. Open from noon until 8pm (11pm on Saturdays, 7pm on Sundays). Closed Monday-Tuesday (FB page).

Next door is AviaSim Paris (16 rue Raymond Aron, 13th), a flight simulator center that does airplane, helicopter and jet flight simulations starting at €99. Might be a good gift idea for someone who doesn’t get motion sickness! Semi-multilingual website (but booking by phone only).

To the west is the long Avenue de France, with its bike path and still-under-construction line of apartment blocks being constructed on top of the old railroad tracks. These below will most likely be ready for residents in 2019.

See the little church steeple peeking out between the buildings below? That's Notre-Dame de la Gare on the Place Jeanne d'Arc, just a few bocks west of the library, where you'll find a nice open-air food market every Sunday morning. 

 If you haven't visited the area in the past year, a lot of new places have opened since 2017. A new WeWork Paris location just opened in a nine-floor building at 198 Avenue de France, with hotdesk space starting at €350/month. Just across from the MK2 entrance is EP7, a "guinguette numérique et gourmande" where you can dine or snack in a strange black building covered in screens that change constantly (like in Times Square).

This funky apartment building on the left (with a cool neo-Gothic wrought iron gate at its entrance) has a beauty supplies boutique and salon called Mieux être on the ground floor. The newly-inaugurated Place Jean-Michel Basquiat is a pedestrian square with a casual French diner and a sushi restaurant (both on two levels, if you need a large space for a group), and soon-to-be-opened La Fab.

Most tourists know Agnès b. the French clothing brand, but the Agnès b. Foundation also has a world-renowned contemporary art gallery, La Galerie du Jour, which is moving from its longtime location on rue Quincampoix (in the the 3rd), to 1 Place Jean-Michel Basquiat as La Fab., combining a gallery, exposition space, and bookstore. If you're a fan of street art, the neighborhood is one of the best on Paris to check out some of the best international street artists and galleries (read: Paris Street Art in the 13th).

The west side of the new square has steps leading down to the Rue Chevaleret, one of the old Parisian streets in the neighborhood with cafés, food shops and a municipal gym under construction. 

This street leads to the 1920s freight train depot, La Halle Freyssinet, which was transformed last year into Station F, a much-hyped business incubator home to 1000 international start-ups, VCs, La Félicita food court, and an Anticafé co-working space where you can pay by the hour to plug in your laptop or smartphone and work while enjoying hot beverages and snacks.

As much as I like the setting of La Félicita, I've never found anything vegan in all of their offerings, so I usually eat across the street at Season Square (3 Rue Louise Weiss, 13th; open Tues-Fri noon-2:30pm and Sat noon-3:30pm and 7pm-10pm). 

From here you're just a short walk to the Metro Chevaleret (line 6) or Bibliothèque (line 14 and RER C). Line 14 (aka Le Météor, Paris’ first driverless metro) actually opened in October 1998, so it just celebrated its 20th birthday! Depending which direction you go, you're likely to pass a few street art murals or art galleries.

The whole neighborhood was still a massive construction site when I first moved to Paris in 1995. Only a few historical buildings were spared from demolition, such as the Sudac compressed air factory (1891) and the Grands Moulins (1920) flour mill, which were finally gutted and completely modernized to house the relocated Université Paris Diderot (formerly known as Paris VII) in 2006 (photo below). 

The only building in the neighborhood that seemed to have any life in it at all in the 1990s was Les Frigos an abandoned freight warehouse of refrigerated lockers that became the city’s most famous legalized artists’ squat, with over 250 artists still in residence today. It was something of a miracle that this graffiti-covered building managed to avoid the wrecking ball, but despite standing out like a sore thumb in this now “sterilized” new environment (see its striped tower in the photo below), their annual “Portes Ouvertes” open studio days in May still draws huge crowds, and world-renowned urban art galleries such as have opened in the surrounding streets. 

If you're one of the talented Instagrammers in Paris, do come check out the Bibliothèque district. Explore the side street art galleries, the food trucks, the interesting architecture, and maybe pop by Bob's Café for a bagel and a coffee. There is plenty to see here, and you may even get a shot at something that hasn't already been Instagrammed thousands of times like the rest of Paris.

If you're into urban planning, you can see the history and ongoing plans for the Paris Rive Gauche Project at La Maison des Projets, a cute little historic building at 11 quai Panhard et Levassor, 13th (open Tues-Sat noon-1pm and 2-6pm), or download this PDF for a very helpful English "self-guided tour" of the neighborhood (it's from 2015, so quite a few buildings have been finished since publication): Parcours Paris Rive Gauche 2015 version anglaise.

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Reader Comments (1)

Love the tour of the 13th
Could you do that for all the other arr,?
I love Paris, so would be fun to have a tour with restaurants, clothing stores, florists, etc.
Just a tour in pictures and a narrative.
Never can get enough info of Paris!
Maybe in the new year you could start with 1st arr, then 2nd etc.
December 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterA wilson

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