The Bouquinistes

The bouquinistes have been a staple of Parisian culture for centuries, known as a go-to-source for out-of-print or rare reading material – but their livelihood is being threatened.

One of Paris’ most iconic sights are the famous bouquinistes: the booksellers who sell their wares day in and day out along the river Seine. With the trade dating back to the 1400s, the bouquinistes have been known for centuries as a go-to source for out-of-print or rare reading material, with both locals and travellers flocking here to find titles such as La Vagabonde, by the racy and controversial author Colette, or the first edition of the French comic book L’espiègle Lili, which dates from the early 1900s and was never reissued. Growing from around 20 sellers at the turn of the 17th Century, today there are about 240 bouquinistes in Paris. Their traditional green wooden boxes dot both banks of the Seine, reaching from the Musee d’Orsayto the Institut de Monde Arabe, with the largest concentration found at the entrance to the Latin Quarter, home to the famed Sorbonne University.

But even with 240 sellers lining the banks, competition doesn’t often come from nearby stalls. The bouquinistes’ greater challenge over the last 20 years has been the proliferation of e-readers and access to the internet, reducing book sales and making out-of-print materials easier to find. To compensate for the drop in sales, many bouquinistes have turned to supplementing their income with tourist souvenirs, which are technically allowed under the city regulations that permit the selling of commercial wares out of one of the four green boxes each seller is allotted. But the move does not sit well with some of the bouquiniste population, sparking a debate among the sellers about what they can and cannot sell – and what will change a tradition that was once a staple of Parisian culture.

The price of growth

In the late 1980s, Jean-Pierre Mathias quit his job as a philosophy professor to become a bouquiniste. “When I got my stall, I began by selling my old books… I loved the idea of continuing philosophy here without having to be a professor,” he said. Mathias only sells books and old engravings; he refuses to cater to the ever-increasing number of foreign tourists by selling souvenirs. “For me, a book will always remain a book, and people who love books will continue to buy them. The theatre did not disappear with the onset of the cinema,” he said with a big smile.

From comics to keychains

Francis Robert has been selling comics at his stall for more than 35 years. In the beginning, he explained, people would come to him if they were looking for a particular comic. If he didn’t have it, then they would go online. Now it’s the reverse: they only come if they can’t find it online. To compensate, Robert’s collection of souvenirs – including the ubiquitous Eiffel Tower statues – has grown over the past few years. While locals still come by to purchase a book or two, he said the majority of his customers are from abroad and are more inclined to buy his souvenirs than his comics, which are primarily written in French.

A job with benefits

Each bouquiniste is required to maintain his or her boxes, but apart from that, the job has a lot of freedom. Traders can set their own daytime hours (the stalls are locked once the sun sets); choose the reading material they want to sell; and spend the day taking in one of the best views in Paris. Still, many bouquinistes feel that the city should do more to support the tradition as sales dwindle. One suggestion is to have electricity installed so sellers can extend their hours into the night.

Standing strong 

Bernard Carver got into the rare-book-selling business 20 years ago after arriving from Lebanon without much money. He soon began living on the streets, he explained, and chose comfort in books rather than drinking. From that passion, he befriended some of the bouquinistes. In order to sell your wares, he said, you have to know them well, bragging that he’s read everything on his shelf. But even that hasn’t kept sales from going down, and he expressed anger at the proliferation of trinkets being sold. Some traders have gone so far to add fold-out tables in front of their stands to extend their collection of souvenirs – a tactic not covered by city regulations.

A creative solution

Many bouquinistes sell trinkets made in China, such as Eiffel Tower keychains and J’aime Paris mugs. One of the youngest traders, Roman George, opted instead to sell prints of old adverts created by himself and his father, as well as paintings by students from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, conveniently located just behind his stall. This way, he explained, he can sell souvenirs that are both made in France and connected to local culture – a solution, perhaps, that pulls from the best of both worlds.

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