The independent booksellers that line the picturesque quays of the Seine in Paris attract tourists and lovers of old books, some of whom come to browse for hours in the typically Parisian green boxes.
Booksellers in their current form have been around since 1891, when shopkeepers were first allowed to store their wares in lockable boxes overnight on the quays, although people have been selling books on the banks of the Seine for nearly five centuries.
The first appearance of the word “bouquiniste” is in a dictionary published in 1752, when the trade was mainly practiced by men, although the term appears in both genders in the 8th edition of the French Academy dictionary in 1932.
However, the noise of literature lovers and holidaymakers rummaging through piles of old books has inevitably died down of late, as tourism has all but ceased in the last year and a half.
The decision of some booksellers to sell memorabilia and posters at low prices rather than classics of French literature has also contributed to so-called “bouquinistes” losing much of their cachet in recent years.
As a result, many stalls are currently empty, prompting the city to launch a call for tenders for vacant places and to appeal to Parisians to support emblematic booksellers. Even the mayor of Paris herself had the banner “The booksellers need you!” displayed on the official Paris website. raise awareness of the plight of booksellers.
The cultural value of booksellers has even been recognized by Unesco, which declared the stalls a World Heritage Site in 2019. And yet, despite all this, some fear that they will soon disappear completely.
A recently launched petition entitled “Save the booksellers, it is a challenge to civilization! suggests the seriousness of the threat and has been signed by thousands of people online.
The petition begs Parisians and visitors to the city to “stop for a moment in front of the green boxes and let themselves be seduced by the warm appeal of the thousands of books they contain”.
Booksellers are far from a historical curiosity, however, as they proved during lockdown when they came together to create a website allowing people to order books from stalls without having to visit them in person. .
Now a total of 18 vacant stands have been announced and applications will be accepted until mid-February. There are clear rules regarding what can be sold from the four boxes that make up each stand.
While old books, journals and prints are preferred, souvenirs may be sold from a single box, provided they are artistic or cultural in nature.
“There are too many Chinese souvenirs being sold, you have to sell books and not Eiffel Towers”, complains an elderly shopkeeper.
“People who like books come to the docks,” she says, adding that her customers include literature lovers from overseas who come to pick up out-of-print books that aren’t available in their own country.
Students also often come with a reading list from their professors, she says proudly.
Interest in books seemed to increase after the lockdown, according to the bookseller, as many people rediscovered how much they loved reading during weeks stuck at home, she says.
Since 1900, the boxes have their current green color, which corresponded to that of the metro trains of the time. There are currently no less than 900 boxes with around 200,000 books on offer on both sides of a 3km stretch of the river.
Booksellers 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 long the word bouquiniste will survive, however, is another story. – dpa