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The next chapter: Paris's riverside book kiosks cope with disappearing readers

Tracy McNicoll, France 24 | Passersby and bouquiniste stalls in the shadow of Notre Dame on May 7, 2018.
Text by: Tracy MCNICOLL
9 min

One of the last small trades unique to Paris, the Seine-side bouquinistes’ iconic green stalls are said to make up the “world’s largest open-air bookshop”. But as readers recede, could an appeal for UNESCO listed status rescue a craft in peril?


“I didn’t think it was a bad idea but, to be modest, I hadn’t realized it was such a good idea!” jokes Jérôme Callais about his campaign to get bouquinistes inscribed to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. A greying bushy redhead with a goatee who plies his quayside trade, appropriately, in a sort of fisherman’s vest with plenty of pockets, Callais has spent 27 years selling French literature out of his four greenbouquiniste boxes.

So far, the veteran bookmonger, who heads the Cultural Association of Paris Bouquinistes, has resisted any temptation to add souvenir trinkets to his inventory. But as a growing minority of his colleagues’ stalls suggests -- some a sprawl of baguette magnets, Mona Lisa merchandise and mini-Eiffel Towers ostensibly meant to offset falling book sales -- the bouquinistes are at best in need of a boost, at worst at an existential crossroads.

Cue Callais’s initiative to get the profession recognized for the Paris institution that it is and raise its profile along the way among locals, foreigners, the powers that be and even the beleaguered bouquinistes themselves.

His proposal won virtually instantaneous backing from Paris politicians, left and right alike. Last week, Paris City Council voted unanimously to support an appeal to the French Ministry of Culture to make the pitch to UNESCO, after first inscribing the quayside booksellers to an equivalent national list, as required. All of which could take a while. For one thing, France can only submit one such dossier to the United Nations agency every two years.

But the campaign itself has already yielded surprising fruit. As Callais notes with amazement, with all the new local media attention, a google search of bouquinistes now yields a slurry of fresh articles about them. Something of a turn of events for a profession that the internet, among other threats, has nudged to the edge of obsolescence.

‘Incredible treasures’

Every day on both banks of the Seine, in the heart of the French capital, booksellers renew a tradition dating back five centuries, when their forebears sold books, or even political pamphlets under their coats, to ravenous readers.

Today, the bouquinistes’ green boxes -- 900 arrayed in rent-free, tax-free concessions to more than 200 sellers ranging in age from 25 to 90 -- stretch along more than three kilometres of quayside sidewalk from the Louvre Museum to well past Notre-Dame, filled with 300,000 second-hand books. It is a craft for characters who love books unconditionally, braving the elements and slim incomes for freedom and a life lived among pages.

“It’s an incredible place. You’ll find paperbacks, but you can also score incredible treasures,” says Callais, who heads the Cultural Association of Paris Bouquinistes. “Some of my colleagues make mistakes, so I’ve been able to find extraordinary bargains,” he laughs, giving rein to the crows’ feet of a man in his early 50s who has spent half his life tending an outdoor bookstall. “I’ve bought things worthy of great collectors’ shops… It’s been a while since we’ve seen a first edition of [Baudelaire’s] ‘Les Fleurs du mal’ for sale on the quays, but it can get up there,” he marvels. “It’s a place of surprises and discoveries and, simply, emotions.”

Are there any treasures on offer in Callais’s own boxes? “I don’t have much here, because I’m a terrible bookseller! My first client is myself,” he quips, nevertheless indicating “some nice Verlaine works with beautiful Chahine illustrations” for sale. He apologises for a pair of Harry Potter books in French translation on the sidewalk.

‘Ultimate luxury’

At his stall under leafy plane trees on the Left Bank’s Quai de Conti, between the Pont des Arts and the Pont Neuf, Callais says the freedom “might be the ultimate luxury”, saying he might open late just so he can catch the last day of an art exhibit he’d been dying to see. City of Paris rules ask only that the booksellers open four days a week, averaged out over the year, and that they keep souvenir sales in check, limited to a single box of each bouquiniste’s four-box concession.

Indeed, the business has changed. “The cultural crisis is worse than the economic crisis,” as Callais puts it. Bouquinistes ascribe a deep dip in sales in recent years to everything from screens and the internet, to the advent of the euro, declining tourism after recent Paris terror attacks, and a generally waning literary culture among young people.

“When I started, I’d arrive every day with two sacks of books and by evening the equivalent would be gone. There was demand,” he says. But working from 10am to 9:30pm this past Sunday -- on a sunny, unseasonably warm French long weekend – sales did not hit €100, on which Callais says he nets only €40.

Ironically, erstwhile regulars have told him the encroaching trinkets that some bouquinistes’ use to pad their dwindling incomes have turned them off Callais’s stretch of the quayside.

“A bouquiniste is and must remain fundamentally a bookseller. Beyond that, the rules allow one box of souvenirs. And it’s a necessary source of oxygen, a necessary evil, but a source of oxygen,” says Callais. “The problem, the vice, is that the easy money isn’t in the books. For books, one needs to know them, how to talk about them, how to advise people. One needs a bit of culture.”

‘It’s tough’

Further east, under a beating sun on the treeless Quai des Grands Augustins, Charlotte Nançon says she isn’t going to start hawking souvenirs, not “at my age”. The 71-year-old started selling books on the Right Bank in 1981, before moving to this Left Bank spot near the Place Saint-Michel 10 years ago. Now retired, she keeps up the work to supplement a small pension and earns between €100 and €200 a month from her green boxes.

“It’s a very good initiative. It can only give us publicity,” Nançon says of the UNESCO proposal. “Because as you know, business isn’t so great. Since the internet, there are no more customers. Paris folks buy on the Net and there are some tourists who can read French but otherwise, it’s tough.” She didn’t sell a single book on Sunday, she says, but sales perked up on Monday. Without shade, passersby don’t stop, she says.

French cinema features prominently on Nançon’s bookstall. She likes the old stars: Jeanne Moreau, Jean Gabin, Brigitte Bardot. “It sells a little bit. More than literature,” she says, wistfully. “For good literature, there a no longer many connoisseurs. Anyway, young people don’t read,” she laments.

“I always dreamed of doing this. So I’ve been doing it for 40 years. That’s why I can continue doing it despite my age. Because it you don’t love this, it isn’t bearable,” she explains. “In winter, we freeze; in summer, we roast. And it isn’t very gratifying money-wise.” The hardest part, Nançon says, is the noise: The honking horns, the “pim-pon” of police vehicles rolling by with sirens blaring. She gestures at the officers to keep it down, and sometimes they do, she says. But her bouquiniste neighbour teases that one day the cops are going to pull over and take her into custody.

Nançon says she hopes the whole world hears about the UNESCO initiative; Americans know us well, she says, but Italians, Spaniards, not so much. But she and some of her colleagues seem keen for the idea to effect change closer to home, at City Hall.

“Maybe it will oblige them to take better care of us. For example, they could repaint the boxes, which are constantly being tagged,” Nançon says. The bouquinistes have been asking for ages for lighting, she says, explaining she has to lock up at 4:30pm in the winter because it’s too dark to work. There was a public toilet, she recounts, but it was always full of beer cans so the city removed it; neighbourhood cafés are nice enough to let the bouquinistes use their facilities without purchase.

But not everybody is as enthusiastic about the prospect of UNESCO status changing the bouquinistes’ lot.

‘No longer possible’

Christian Navet, 68, has been on the job for more than 30 years, 20 of them at his idyllic stall across from Notre-Dame. “I sell a lot fewer books than I did before. Paris has become a lot more of an international tourist city, so I sell some other things… engravings, posters, that sort of thing,” he says.

Navet recalls the days when book-brokers used to comb the quays for their niche clients -- a bygone era. And he echoes the sentiment that young people don’t read, demurely referencing a “well-read population that is aging”. Not to mention the internet. “I managed 20, 25 years selling books alone and now it is no longer possible,” he says. The bookseller advocates a pragmatic stance on colleagues who sell souvenirs to get by. Otherwise, he suggests, the profession might be limited to well-to-do types who don’t need the money to live on.

As for the UNESCO initiative? Navet shrugs, pointing to the Paris quaysides themselves, which UNESCO listed as a World Heritage Site in 1991. That status, he says, “doesn’t prevent much in the way of nuisances, construction work, automobile traffic, etc”. The UNESCO pitch could be a good thing, he concedes, but given the way City Hall has been going and previous attempts to improve things, he isn’t too optimistic.

‘Neighbours for centuries’

For his part, Callais has solicited support from sources as varied as author friends like the novelist Anna Gavalda, Paris’s Bateaux-Mouches tour boat operator and the Académie Française “since we’ve been neighbours for centuries”.

In all the attention, Callais hopes his colleagues see the tenderness people near and far have for the bouquinistes. “I’m happy because, with this adventure, they are understanding that they aren’t viewed all that poorly, after all,” he says. “The folks who see us as raggedy streetwalkers are really a tiny minority.”

Still, the bouquiniste concedes, public affection won’t suffice. “It’s true that we can’t live on compliments and congratulations alone. It’s nice and all, but we need people to buy our books. If not, we will disappear.”

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