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Julia Webster Ayuso on the Olympian threat looming over the iconic booksellers on the banks of the Seine.
“There’s the Louvre, the Passerelle des Arts, the Vert-Galant garden.” Jérôme Callais is pointing to the different monuments he can see from his workplace, a book stall on Paris’s Quai de Conti. “When I finish in the evening, I walk across the Pont Neuf and watch the sunset.” For the past 400 years, booksellers such as Callais have lined the banks of the Seine. They are as intrinsic to Paris as the Eiffel Tower or Notre-Dame but in recent years their existence has come under threat. First there were the gilet jaunes protests and transport strikes disrupting their trade, then came the coronavirus lockdowns that forced them to close. Now they face an existential challenge: citing security concerns, city hall announced in July that the booksellers’ iconic green boxes must be removed in time for the opening ceremony of the 2024 Olympic Games, which will take place on the river. The bouquinistes have never left their spot and are worried that they won’t survive the move.
“The authorities are supposed to promote the city and its monuments, and now they want to make one of the biggest symbols of Paris disappear,” says Callais, who is the president of the Cultural Association of Booksellers of Paris. “It makes no sense.” He explains that most of the wooden boxes were set up 50 years ago or more and risk falling apart if moved. The authorities have said that they will pay for the temporary relocation of 50 per cent of the booksellers to a “literary village” in Bastille and offered to replace any damaged boxes. But the bouquinistes don’t think that this is viable and it’s unclear when they will be allowed back – if at all. Callais, who makes no more than a few dozen euros a day from sales, says that depriving the bouquinistes of their place by the Seine could deal a final blow to those who are already struggling. “Nobody does this for the money,” he says. “I would make much more if I stayed at home and sold my books online. But this is a different ethos: you meet people, you share things, you watch the world go by. Sitting in front of a computer, that’s not life for me.” When monocle visits on a sunny Monday afternoon, an elderly woman stops to reminisce about her youth, a student lingers for a chat about music (Callais had a previous career as a double-bass player) and a book dealer arrives to offer his selection of old editions. Most have heard the news and offer their support.
The bouquinistes have survived previous attempts to ban their practice, including by Baron Haussmann, the architect of modern Paris. Today the 233 sellers don’t pay rent but are assigned a space by local authorities where they can set up five boxes, which they must open at least four days a week (if weather allows). The majority of what they sell must be made up of secondhand books, prints or magazines, though they’re also allowed to sell some souvenirs. Every bouquiniste is a bibliophile and some are specialists. All are a human lifeline in the age of Amazon.
On the other side of the bridge, Véronique sells mostly comics, and a few steps upstream from her, Gilles Morineaux focuses on rare books. Though most bouquinistes are retirees, young people also see the profession’s appeal. Among them is 19-year-old history student Fanfan Derai, who works as an assistant on Morineaux’s stall, a role known as an ouvre boîtes (“box opener”). “It’s a fantastic profession,” she says. “You meet all kinds of people.” Could she see herself here in the future? “I would like to have a different career first, and then return to the quais,” she says. Hopefully the bouquinistes will still be here.
Julia Webster Ayuso is a journalist and Monocle contributor based in Paris.