Jill Shepperd was instilled with a love of books from birth. Her mother was a librarian, then the owner of a small bookshop but when she passed away, Jill was too young to be interested in running the business. “Wanting to travel, I worked in various travel agencies over the years before relocating to here in 1994 with my then husband,” says the Whitley Bay native.
Jill is co-owner of Niche Books Valbonne but many of us know her from when she ran the English Book Centre (EBC) on rue Alexis Julien. “I first started working part-time for the owners Sue and Mike Abrahams in 1996, alongside part-time working as a TEFL teacher – new country, new types of job! In 2002, my husband and I were divorcing and I had to choose whether to stay in France or return to the UK. Coincidentally, Sue and Mike decided they wanted to retire, so I took the plunge and bought the business.”
She says she loved the shop as it provided an amazing opportunity to meet many interesting people and be part of the local community “but it was – and still is – hard work! As with any business in France, there are many social charges, restrictions and admin hurdles to overcome but the great thing about being an independent bookshop is complete freedom of choice for stock titles you think will interest the clientele. We held several book signings with various authors, including Carol Drinkwater, Maureen Emerson, Ted Jones, Michael Nelson and Stephen Clarke.”
The EBC turned into a hub for the local Anglophone community, putting people in touch with each other, creating social opportunities for new arrivals to the area and, during the summer, the shop became “the English-speaking Tourist Office.” Soon, local international schools also traded with Jill at EBC.
Which made it even more of “a very difficult decision to sell” the shop to Lin Wolff in 2009. “There were many personal reasons and complications. Lin had worked for me for several years and, like me, was a bookaholic. I left the shop in very good hands.”
After the sale, Jill needed to work again, so returned to teaching and became involved with the Sunnybank Association in Mouans Sartoux, volunteering in their library. “I did however, return to work in the bookshop from time to time when Lin needed staffing help.”
Fast forward to post-Covid lockdowns in 2022. By then, Lin had returned to the US permanently and was obliged to sell the lease for 12 rue Alexis Julien. Deborah Frost, who had worked for Lin for many years, and Jill decided to try and relocate the shop. “After a lengthy and fraught struggle, and many meetings at the mairie, we secured these premises at 7 rue Grande. Debbie and I formed a business partnership and created a new company. With the change of location, we decided to change the name and diversify the range of items we stock to appeal to an even wider clientele.”
The pair was able to raise money via online donations, which helped fund some of the changes they had to make to the new shop. “Debbie and myself say a huge thank you to our loyal customers and friends. It has been an incredible first year, helped enormously by our regulars, new customers who never knew there was an English bookshop here before and the return of tourists to the village.”
Niche Books Valbonne sells a wide range of books in English, bilingual books, local school titles, greetings cards, a small range of stationery items, including crayons and colouring books, French books linked to the region and the possibility to order books not in stock!
Brexit has obviously led to many changes for the British community, some of whom have had to permanently return to the UK. “The community of English-speaking residents remains largely unchanged. The growth of English classes in local schools brought a new clientele to the shop – parents wanting to see their children read much more in English.”
Jill and Debbie are continuing to help promote local authors and artists. A book signing with Lewis Hinton took place recently, for his novel The Face Stone, a Jack Sangster mystery. The shop also stocks cards by Cathie Van der Stel & Marina Kulik, and beautiful hand worked prints by photographer Jon Kershaw.
Illustrator Tiphanie Beeke will be at the shop on Saturday, September 24, at 3pm to read stories of Fletcher, an inquisitive little fox, and children can colour in their own Fletcher pictures.
Reflecting on the almost 30 years she has lived near Valbonne, Jill says that while the neighbouring Sophia Antipolis tech park has grown “exponentially”, the old village has maintained its natural charm. “There are still many villagers who have grown up, lived and worked here all their lives. Local festivals continue in time-honoured tradition mostly around Place des Arcades, the popular square at the heart of the village where there is a variety of restaurants and cafés to choose from.”
Of course, with a newly purchased book in hand – maybe the latest Thursday Murder Club story by Richard Osman.
Jill’s Top Sellers in Valbonne
For those who like bread straight from the oven, Jill suggests stopping by Le fournil d’Eugène, next to the bookshop, around 11am for a Valbonnais. Her other tips include “amazing cheeses” from 365 Fromages (rue Eugène Giraud), indulgent chocolates from a Meilleur Ouvrier de France at Chocolaterie Christian Camprini (rue de la République) or a glass of ‘proper’ beer at the Irish bar Roots on rue de la Fontaine.