Paris is looking for 18 new ‘bouquinistes,’ the name given to owners of the historic bookstore cabins sited next to the Seine which have been in place for centuries.
The city is offering 72 spots – with each bouquiniste allocated four stalls – as part of a regular application process. Bouquinistes, which are found along the Seine in central Paris, are one of the city’s characteristic attractions and a source of pride for Parisians.
Some 241 stalls currently operate along the river from the Louvre to the Institut du monde arabe, past Pont Neuf and the Ile Saint-Louis.
The term ‘bouquiniste’, which is also used in other cities, designates second-hand traditional bookstores.
Historically, a bouquiniste was someone who could not afford to own a bookstore and were therefore relegated to the banks of the Seine to sell tatty books in the mid-seventeenth century. The term first appeared in a dictionary published in 1752.
It derives from the Dutch ‘boek’ which became ‘boeckijn’ (little book) and translated in French into ‘bouquin’, which is now a slang term for ‘book’, but which once meant ‘an old, shabby book.’
We spoke to two bouquinistes about what attracts them to their out-of-the-ordinary job – which provides a workplace with some of Paris’ most amazing views – and their fight against the rise of new technologies against the fading intellectual culture of the Quartier Latin.
‘More about loving people than books’
“Being a bouquiniste is more about loving people than loving books,” said Florence Delaunay, who has since 2012 owned boxes situated between Quai des Grands Augustins district and the Pont-Neuf bridge.
She applied for a vacant spot left by another bouquiniste who wanted to move to a different location and believes she was chosen because she offered to sell books to children, an original idea which caught the attention of the city hall.
The former theatre actor had trodden the boards for 15 years at the Théâtre de Nesle in Paris, where she performed children’s plays, before evolving into a bouquiniste in what she described as “a logical transition”.
Ms Delaunay links her bouquiniste job to her former work, comparing Paris’ pavements to the stage and tourists and customers to the audience.
“I love this moment of mutual sharing with people. When I am not working for more than two weeks, I miss that visceral feeling,” she said, adding that meeting foreigners and tourists feels like travelling to her.
She said she has been offered gifts by tourists, including a keyring from an Australian, an English book from an American couple and drawings from children.
“We represent something indispensable and remarkable for Parisians and tourists. When I am abroad, people have a clear picture of what I do,” said Jérôme Callais, who has been a bouquiniste for 40 years and is the president of the Association culturelle des bouquinistes de Paris.
The bouquinistes of Paris applied for a place on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage of France list in 2019, thanks to a dossier presented before the judges by Mr Callais himself.
Mr Callais hopes that bouquinistes will be listed among the Unesco’s World Heritage Centre by 2024 for Paris’ Olympics Games.
Witnesses of years gone by
Although iconic, bouquinistes have faced a continued decline in revenues over the years, partly because of societal changes but also technological shifts like the invention of the internet and the rise of cellphones, which have generated “an intellectual and cultural poverty,” Mr Callais said.
Mr Callais said people have lost the desire to read because they are completely absorbed by their mobile phones and go wandering about the city less and less because of online shopping websites.
Mr Calais added that he had earned €11 on February 4 and only €5 the day before. Ms Delaunay declined to disclose this information but told of a January wage of several hundred euros.
Many Parisians believe that the intellectual atmosphere of the Quartier Latin, which houses some of France’s most renowned universities and schools, including the Saint-Louis, Louis Le-Grand or Henri IV highschools and the Panthéon-Sorbonne, Assas, Diderot and Paris-Descartes’ university, has begun to fade away.
Librarians and book shop owners have closed one after another because of Amazon, Fnac and Momox, the three main websites sucking revenues from them and the bouquinistes.
The closure of the iconic Gilbert Jeune’s library over a year ago felt like the final nail in the coffin for some.
The mayor of Paris’ fifth arrondissement Florence Berthout has recently railed against an application from the Five Guys fast-food chain to set up a branch in the premises, just a few metres away from a McDonald’s.
Ms Berthout described the idea as “inadmissible” and demanded that “the city hall and the State must mobilise with me to block this stupidity in the heart of this literary district and just around the corner from Notre-Dame.”
Several bouquinistes have also described difficulties in obtaining book supplies as a result of recently introduced policies aimed at limiting car traffic in favour of carpooling lanes and cycling.
Bouquinistes said that in the 1980s, people would stop by their book store boxes with the boot of their cars packed with books, something which is now impossible under Paris new rules on traffic.
On top of that, they have had to cope with declining visitor numbers during the gilets jaunes protests in 2018 and 2019, which saw Métro stations temporarily close.
“Covid was the final blow,” Mr Callais added.
‘Our anachronism will save us’
Bouquinistes have had to diversify to fight against declining book revenues. One stall of the four they own can now be filled with other items like paintings, posters or knick-knacks for tourists often sold by street peddlers.
Mr Callais hopes to convince the city hall to return to pre-1943 rules, which allowed bouquinistes to run five stalls rather than four. He estimated that his shop stock would increase from 400 to 500 books if he could open a new box, or 300,000 to 400,000 more books if all the 241 owners followed suit.
Bouquinistes have recently united on a dedicated website and marketplace called ‘bouquinistes de Paris’, created in March 2020 by longtime bookseller David Nosek in response to the Covid pandemic.
The site was given an international boost after it was mentioned in a New York Times article in November 2020 and attracted buyers from the United States. Ms Delaunay was able to sell items listed on the website, with some going for €100.
However, Mr Nosek said the project has lost a bit of its traction, having only attracted about 50 bouquinistes and averaging ten sales a week.
Ms Delaunay said she also tried to reinvigorate the bouquiniste job with theatrical workshops for children to help them learn about the job. Her project was rejected by the city hall.
“If we do our job with the amount of knowledge, passion and humanity that would challenge an increasingly mechanised society, people will come forward because they will eventually want to meet and share intellectually,” said Mr Callais adding that “this anachronism is what will save us.”
Mr Nosek awaits the 18 new bouquinistes with little optimism, having witnessed many disappear soon after being selected in the past. Mr Callais said a good case file does not necessarily equate to a good bouquiniste.
The weather conditions, the long hours of standing and the uncertain cash flow cause some of them to quit earlier than expected.
“If you take a close look, we all had a career before taking this job. This is often the last job we do,” said Mr Callais.
Candidates have until February 18 to submit an application, and the successful applicants will be announced on March 11.
About 30 applications have been made so far, the Direction de l’attractivité et de l’emploi de la Ville de Paris, the administrative office in charge of the process, told The Connexion.
Applicants have to present a resumé, a cover letter and a robust economic business plan. The final decision on who to select will be made by 12 members from Paris’ city hall and three bouquinistes.