The Bouquinistes-Book Sellers along the Seine River
Bouquinistes, a trade that goes back to the Middle-Ages and is unique to Paris
The story has it that a boat transporting loads of books sunk near Notre-Dame Cathedral.
The sailors swam ashore taking with them as many books as they could and sold them to the passersby to make up for the wages they had lost. They certainly found the sale lucrative enough to start making a regular living from it.
Since then, we are used to seeing the booksellers along the Seine and they have become one of the many iconic symbols of Paris.
The bouquinistes sold bouquins, small old bashed books. The origin of the word is the German Buch.
None of the high-minded society of the time would have dared buying any of these low value books! The trade, of course, appeared at the time of the invention of printing in 1450.
The political and religious events of the following three centuries led to the development of the trade as the bouquinistes were able to discreetly sell pamphlets targeting the government and the church. At that time they had no fixed selling point and were therefore able to hastily pack their pamphlets and run away when they saw a policeman approaching.
The bouquinistes‘ “stalls” had become a rallying place for citizens and students who wanted to vent their frustration and anger, and therefore had become the insubordinate of the country and remained under police scrutiny!
They circulated more pamphlets in the year that led to the French Revolution but sadly the trade really took off when so many mansions and châteaux were demolished after being emptied of their contents.
A myriad of books that once stood on the library shelves of the rich and powerful found their way to the stalls of the bouquinistes!
Until then books had been very expensive, and their instant surplus led to the appearance of this flourishing second-hand trade. The trade played another major role during WWII when they assisted the French Resistance transmitting coded messages in the pages of the books. The Germans could not find them as it was like looking for a needle in a haystack!
Where to find the bouquinistes?
There are roughly 200 bouquinistes installed along the banks of the Seine in the vicinity of Notre-Dame Cathedral.
They have a unique statute as they are the only traders allowed to work on the pavement without paying tax!
They all have a license, of course, issued by the City of Paris and have to buy the four designated green metal boxes that they are entitled to.
Most bouquinistes specialize and sell books and documents related to fashion, history, cinema, foreign writers; the list is endless.
You just have to stroll along the Seine and take the time of going through the 6ft long by 3ft wide boxes.
You will often discover the book you had been after for your whole life.
The appearance of television then the widespread use of the Internet has changed the world of the bouquinistes. Less people read or enjoy holding a paperback or a rare hard cover publication in their hands.
Most have forgotten, or worse, have never known the comforting smell of old paper, the one that comes back from our childhood, the one that brings back memories.
Finding cheaper books is essential for the bouquinistes if they want to make an acceptable living from it, so they tend to buy their stock in clearance sales, flea markets, house clearances, successions. Times becoming harder and harder, they have been allowed to sell tourist gadgets to make ends meet. They have, though, to dedicate three of their four boxes to the sale of books, only one can be used for selling cheap tourist souvenirs often “made in China”.
It is a pity that the trade could be on the decline.
So when you visit Paris and stroll along the Seine near Notre-Dame Cathedral, stop and have a look into their green boxes. They are a real Aladdin’s Cave!
A last word: anyone can become a bouquiniste: as before all, it is a frame of mind.