Can the French capital save its famous quayside booksellers?


The independent booksellers lining the picturesque embankments of the River Seine in Paris are an attraction for tourists and lovers of old books alike, some of whom come to browse the quintessentially Parisian green boxes for hours at a time.

The booksellers in their present form have existed since 1891, when traders were first allowed to store their goods in lockable boxes overnight on the quays, though people have been selling books on the banks of the Seine for almost five centuries.

The first appearance of the word "bouquiniste" can be found in a dictionary published in 1752, when the profession was mainly practised by men, though the term appears in both genders in the 8th edition of the Academie Francaise dictionary in 1932.

However, the sound of literature lovers and holidaymakers rummaging through piles of antiquarian books has inevitably dampened down of late, with tourism all but ceasing in the past year and a half.

The decision of some booksellers to sell cheap souvenirs and posters from the boxes rather than the classics of French literature has also contributed to the so-called "bouquinistes" losing much of their cachet in recent years.

As a result, many of the stalls currently stand empty, prompting the city to put the vacant spots out to tender and to call on Parisians to support the iconic booksellers. Even the mayor of Paris herself had Paris' official website carry the banner "The bouquinistes need you!" to raise awareness of the booksellers' plight.

The bouquinistes' cultural value was even recognised by Unesco when it accorded the stalls world heritage status in 2019. And yet despite all this, some fear they may soon vanish entirely.

A recently-launched petition entitled "Save the booksellers, this is a challenge to civilisation!" suggests the seriousness of the threat and has been signed by thousands online.

The petition entreats Parisian and visitors to the city to "pause for a moment at the green boxes and let yourself be seduced by the warm call of the thousands of books they contain."

The bouquinistes are far from a historic curiosity, though, as they proved during lockdown when they came together to create a website allowing people to order books from the stalls without having to visit them in person.

Now a total of 18 vacant stalls have been advertised, and applications will be accepted until mid-February. There are clear rules concerning what can be sold from the four boxes that make up each stand.

While old books, newspapers and engravings are preferred, souvenirs may be sold from one box, provided they are of an artistic or cultural nature.

"There are too many Chinese souvenirs being sold, you have to sell books and not Eiffel Towers," complains one elderly trader.

"People who love books come to the quays," she says, adding that her customers included literature lovers from overseas who come looking for out-of-print books that are not available in their own countries.

Students, too, often come with a reading list from their professors, she says proudly.

Interest in books seemed to increase after lockdown, according to the bookseller, as many people rediscovered how much they enjoyed reading during the weeks they spent stuck at home, she says.

Since 1900, the boxes have had their current green colour, which matched that of the trains in the metro at the time. There are currently a good 900 boxes with around 200,000 books on offer on both sides of a 3km stretch of the river.

The bouquinistes owe their name to the Dutch term for a book, "boek" today; in Middle Dutch a "boeckin" was simply a small book. In French it became "bouquin," a word still used today. How much longer the word bouquiniste will survive, however, is another story. – dpa

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