Book, old book.
Bienvenue à Paris.
Is there a more iconic sight than the green, wooden boxes propped up against the parapets above the Seine river in Paris? Open or closed, they have been part of the Parisian streetscape for centuries.
You’ll find them on the right bank, from the quai de l’Hôtel de Ville to the quai François Mitterrand, and on the left bank, from the quai de la Tournelle to the quai Voltaire.
Officially, there are over 200 bouquinistes (those who sell “bouquins,” used or vintage books) managing over 900 boxes, open-air boutiques of sorts.
As you might expect in France, strict rules regulate the business: Boxes can’t be permanently affixed to the parapet. They need to be painted in the same green color introduced in the mid-19th century by Gabriel Davioud, the man who helped give Paris its signature urban furniture. Bouquinistes pay for the boxes and each vendor can own up to four. Out of these four, only one can sell touristy trinkets and postcards. The rest have to offer quality(vintage) reading materials. The city of Paris can issue warnings and fines to those who don’t follow the rules, or suspend their business license without warning.
They’ve come a long way, les bouquinistes, since the days they used to peddle their wares on Parisian streets and along the Pont Neuf! They’ve survived many changes in the French capital even those who threatened their livelihoods.
For how much longer?
In 2019, Parisians found out bouquinistes were struggling to make a living and had applied for Unesco World Heritage status. Then C19, lockdowns, curfews rolled in. Tourists stopped visiting Paris. Many iconic green boxes remained closed for months. Some still are today, and only open on weekends, breaking another rule that imposes a 4-day work week minimum, rain or shine.
As I hopped back and forth between the left and the right bank last week while working, I couldn’t help but notice many boxes (some in really bad shape) remained closed along the quays.
The rumor has it for the first time in a long time, there is no waiting list to become a bouquiniste in Paris. The situation is so dire the city of Paris has launched a public campaign offering 18 open concessions to those who will apply for them! How to apply for a bouquiniste stall with Ville de Paris.
Everyone knows it’s quasi impossible to make a living these days selling old books and vintage prints along the Seine river. Hence the ubiquitous postcards and trinkets inside the green boxes. As it turns out, there aren’t enough either.
What will happen next? How can we help?
Only one certainty: The Seine river banks and Paris will look very different one day, if les bouquinistes disappear.
Next time you are tempted to just take a photo of the stalls as a souvenir, why not stop by; start a conversation (many bouquinistes are fountains of knowledge) and maybe buy a book or two?
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