From the Newsdesk

Anger at Plans to Relocate Booksellers During the Paris Olympics

The decision by the Paris municipal authorities to relocate the city’s outdoor booksellers – les bouquinistes – for the duration of the 2024 Olympic Games has caused an uproar.
Booksellers near Notre Dame, 1936. © BNA Photographic/Alamy

The bouquinistes, who have plied their trade along a central stretch of the Seine River for four-and-a-half centuries, fear that their booths will be damaged when dismantled. More importantly, they are an immutable part of the cityscape and a tourist attraction in their own right. The 240 or so booths containing an estimated 300,000 volumes cover a total of almost two miles, from Quai François Mitterrand to Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville on the Seine’s right bank, and from Quai Voltaire to Quai de la Tournelle on its left. Together, they form the largest open-air book market in Europe: two giant bookshelves traversed by a river.

The police have justified the removal on the grounds of potential terrorist attacks during the opening ceremony, which, in an Olympic first, will be held in the center of a city – directly on the Seine – rather than in a stadium. Some 170 booths, or 60% of the total, located within the “security perimeter” will be rehoused in a so-called bouquiniste village in the Bastille neighborhood for the duration of the Games. The city authorities have also offered to defray any damage caused to the booths, many of which are old, during removal.

The affair has triggered a wave of protests and an online petition. While the bouquinistes decry a threat to their livelihood, ordinary Parisians see the decision as both unfair and detrimental to the city’s image. “[The mayor] wants to celebrate Paris and its monuments,” says Jérôme Callais, chair of the bouquinistes’ cultural association. “But we’re part of Paris, too. Wanting us to disappear is as ridiculous as dismantling the Eiffel Tower or Notre-Dame!”

Bouquinistes date from the mid-17th century, when street peddlers and hawkers were joined by traders who would sell remaindered stock from nearby bookstores. These traders eventually gravitated to the newly opened Pont Neuf, which became a de facto book market, and the term bouquiniste was coined. Over the next 200 years, the profession came to be recognized, despite regular opposition from established bookstores. During the 1789 Revolution, bouquinistes sold revolutionary pamphlets and posters. By the 19th century, they were a fixture of the Paris landscape. When Baron Haussmann sought to expel them in 1866 as part of his transformation of the city, they petitioned Napoleon III and were granted permission to trade between sunrise and sunset.

Les bouquinistes are a profession apart, long appreciated and frequented by serious bibliophiles (including Thomas Jefferson, apparently a regular customer) and bookworms, but also by curious passers-by and tourists. They remain open during economic boom or bust and in all weathers. Famously, the Nobel Prize-winning author Anatole France hailed them as “merchants of the mind,” always able to unearth a book he never knew he needed.

Today, the profession is closely regulated. Bouquinistes are chosen by the Paris municipal authorities, who vet applicants on the basis of their motivation, experience, and business plan. Stallholders pay no tax or ground rent but are required to open four days a week on average during the year, though no fixed hours are set. A bouquiniste’s dark-green booth comprises four boîtes, or display cases, three of which must contain rare or second-hand books, papers, and documents, prints, or new books from independent publishers.

The fourth case may be used for coins, medals, postcards, souvenirs of Paris, and anything of “artistic interest.” In recent years, the overall proportion of souvenirs has increased significantly, but bouquinistes argue that these gewgaws are necessary because of a general decline in book sales and competition from online retailers. Be that as it may, the number of booth-holders has been steadily diminishing, particularly since the Covid period.

One ray of hope for the future is that les bouqinistes have been added to France’s immaterial cultural heritage list, seen as the first step towards inclusion on the equivalent UNESCO list. (The banks of the Seine were classified as a World Heritage Site in 1991.) Meanwhile, the stand-off between the authorities, on the one hand, and the bouquinistes and a broad swathe of the general public, on the other, continues to grab the headlines.

The municipality insists that protecting and renovating the booths would help with the UNESCO bid; the bouquinistes are refusing to budge. Not only will they suffer a devastating loss of income, they argue, but their absence will leave a gaping hole. “We are a symbol of Paris, and we’ve been present for the past 450 years,” says Jérôme Callais. “The bouquinistes are to Paris what the gondoliers are to Venice.”

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.