The Bouquinistes of Paris

Besides being the city of love, Paris is also the home of literature lovers. With more than 700 bookshops spread throughout the city centre, a row of 900 green wooden stalls and 230 booksellers stretching across three kilometres along the Seine, Parisian booksellers proudly show their love for the art of writing through books. But in the age of the smartphone, this book culture is under threat. Especially French books.

Story and pictures by Quinty Veenman

‘’Ever since the 19th century booksellers along the Seine have seen each other as colleagues. We try to work together as a team and all sell different pieces and sometimes souvenirs. Sadly, most of us cannot have our passion as our only job since selling books does not earn enough money anymore and we are allowed to only sell a few souvenirs. French literature is hard to sell, but I love it. The art is finding new, good books to sell in my spare time after my main job. I enjoy talking to people interested in my books, it makes me truly happy,’’ Cyril says.

Cyril the bookseller 

CyriI is fiftythree years old and is one of the only few stalls open while I walk along the Seine on a rainy day. He has been working as a parttime bookseller for thirteen years, whilst also working in the media industry as his main job. Working as a fulltime bouquiniste does not provide enough money.

The french term bouquiniste has been used since 1752 to designate merchants installed on the Parisian quays. Surprised by my genuine interest in the bouquiniste, Cyril tells me the history of his work.

‘’In the 19th century both the booksellers that owned stores and the secondhand quay sellers began to co-exist peacefully, but this wasn’t always the case. The history of us, bouquinistes, has been tough. Back in the day, they found themselves in competition with the established booksellers through all centuries. In 1614, Pierre Douleur took a lease for nine years on a site at the corner of the Quai de la Mégisserie, to set up his shop in second-hand books. The sale of french, second-hand books became very popular. After Pierre, many others also started selling second-hand books. The established booksellers and second-hand bouquinistesbecame rivals which eventually led to the prohibition of the second hand sellers from 1649 till 1859.’’

When the secondhand bouquinistes started coming back in the 1859 the fight to stay also did, Cyril explains. ‘’The French Official, Baron Haussman, had a vision to clean up Paris in 1853. He wanted to evict all of the booksellers, with his focus mainly on the quays stalls. The controversial project to clean the city from the unwealthy was obstructed by Napoleon the third and the open-air stalls were luckily saved.’’ After this, the bouquinistes have never gone away again.

UNESCO declared the banks of the Seine and the Bouquinistes of Paris as a World Heritage Site in 1992. They call it the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves. Despite this, vendors find it hard to share their true passion with tourists, compete with bookstores and would rather avoid being seen as just an attraction for tourists. The book industry surprisngly still is one of the leading cultural markets in France and has remained surprisingly stable over the years despite the rise of social media and the time spent consuming other forms of media. Even though the act of reading in itself has changed over time and has taken on many new forms, mostly digital, almost half the population claim to read every day or almost, while 42 percent say they read occasionally. As of 2019, only 19 percent of the population do not read, on a regular basis or occasionally, Statista notes. The French want to read the new books they can easily find in a store or find online.

Cyril placing his best book titles at the front

Almost all of the books bouquinistes sell are cheap, Frech, secondhand and hard copies. These are not sold for much, which is why many sellers also started dedicating a few shelves to English books and translated English books to attract others people than just parisians. As times are becoming harder, they are now allowed to sell tourist gadgets to make ends meet. However, only one of their four boxes can be used for selling cheap tourist souvenirs. the other three must be dedicated to the sale of books. Bouquiniste stall must be open at least four days a week, which means it truly is important for them to atleast make some profit. The stalls are highly regulated and need to obey by the strict rules, otherwise the passionate sellers will lose their license. The goal of spreading the love of french

Laurent proudly showing his books

literature seems to get lost along the seine.

Laurent (24) is a French student who works part time as bouquiniste at the Seine. He wants to keep french literature alive. ‘’I try to find unique books for the stall and also collect the books people give us for free. It is hard to sell second-hand and unique French books because of the Parisians’ increasing disinterest in reading older, french literature. During Covid more people read since there wasn’t much to do. But now, we all notice more people delivering books to sell, than actually buying ones to read themselves.’’

The bookstores that sell modern, English books get more recognition now,  but also more or less because it’s interesting for tourists. Laurent wishes that people, especially Parisians came by more often to actually read the books and not just tourists buying it as a souvenir every once in a while. ‘’The sales really depend on many things like: If it’s a nice summerday which is good for reading, if we have famous booktitles that people and if we have enough english literature for tourists. We never know what our profit is going to be like.’’

The people working at the bookstores that sell English, modern literature seem to have less issues since the interest in English literature is becoming more popular again among tourists? When I enter Shakespear and Company, the most famous English bookstore in Paris, I notice all the English books. It was one of the first place to publish the entirety of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” when no one else would, and for decades it has been an informal living room for many of the most famous figures in modern literature.

Shakespear and Company they have noticed an increase in the popularity of English literature, Morgen says. She is a twenty-five year old international student working as a young bookseller. ‘’Since Covid, the interest in reading and working as a bookseller has actually become more popular. At my communication study their even is subject in becoming a bookseller that many started following during and after the pandemic. Young people started reading more and the interest in literature came back. For me, this was also the case.’’

But the few Bouquinistes that still open their stalls, even during a rainy day, do their best to preserve as much as they can of their history and the french literature. Their love and passion for secondhand books keeps the five century long tradition alive along the Seine.

Shakespeare & Company