Paris' riverside booksellers battle for survival as Unesco race heats up

Evie Burrows-Taylor
Evie Burrows-Taylor - [email protected]
Paris' riverside booksellers battle for survival as Unesco race heats up
Photo: The Local

The booksellers that line the River Seine seem like an integral part of the French capital - living proof that Paris is a capital unlike any other. But even as they battle for Unesco world heritage status, the bouquinistes are fighting for survival.


The riverside booksellers -  whose uniform wooden 'wagon green' boxes are full of literary treasures - are a living, breathing piece of French culture.
They are seeking Unesco glory in recognition of their symbolic status in the French capital, but many are worried that the bigger battle is holding on to the traditions of the bouquinistes. 
Indeed, one bookseller who has more experience than most in the trade is 60-year-old Alain who is based on the Quai des Grands Augustins and is the third generation of bouquiniste in his family. 
"We are dinosaurs," he told The Local. "And old things are no longer interesting to people."
On the other hand, he says, "It is the best job in the world because we are free," referring to the fact that the bouquinistes, who are self-employed, are free to open and close when they like. Alain for example, does not open for the whole of January and February. 
However, he admits that the job isn't always easy, with sales declining dramatically since the "internet boom". 
Photo: The Local 
"I can choose to sell just a few souvenirs because my children are grown up and I don't have much financial pressure," he said. "This means I can stay true to my trade of selling books." 
Many traders however are forced to compromise on their passion for selling books by selling souvenirs as well.
A stroll past the famous green boxes shows that the ratio of books to products aimed directly at tourists varies dramatically. 
Jérôme Callais, president of the cultural association of the bouquinistes of Paris who has been a bookseller himself for 27 years, is the man behind the move to protect these booksellers by securing Unesco world heritage status for the trade.  
Callais has previously told the press that he hopes securing the "intangible cultural heritage" status from Unesco will mean a return to the"purist" tradition of selling books and not trinkets for tourists. 
"A place on the World Heritage list is not just recognition for our profession," said Callais.
"It could also be useful to attract customers and to force the mayor to enforce the booksellers' rules," he added referring to the fact that the booksellers are only allowed to dedicate one out of four boxes to tourist souvenirs. 
But even he fears that if they do manage to wrestle the title away from their competitors - which happens to be baguettes and Parisian bistrots - it may not be enough to keep the tradition of bookselling alive. 
After all, if people aren't buying books, can Unesco really save them from extinction? 
Photo: The Local 
"For some, the notion of bookstall is totally outdated. Many sell almost no books and focus on tourist items or photocopied drawings of the Eiffel Tower or Notre-Dame. They forget that the bouquiniste must remain basically a street bookseller," he said.  
One of the bouquinistes, who did not want to be named, has been selling second hand books from the same spot next to the River Seine since 1990 and said that he does a tenth of the business today compared to when he first started out. 
Although he was hopeful that securing Unesco status would mean they would be "protected from the Mairie de Paris" which he claims has been trying to get rid of the booksellers for years. 
Incidentally, the mayor of Paris has announced her support for Parisian bistrots while the baguette has the weight of the French president himself behind it. 
Meanwhile the guardians of the French language, the Académie Française is backing the booksellers. 
Photo: The Local
Clare, who has been selling vintage and rare children's books from her own stall on Quai Malaquais for seven years after getting into the trade through friends, said she would not "throw stones" at her colleagues who choose to sell souvenirs. 
"I have made the choice not to sell any souvenirs for the moment but there may come a time when I have to to make ends meet," she said. "Many of my colleagues have been saved by devoting some of their space to tourist items.
"There are good days and there are bad days," she added. "I love this job but with the way things are going I don't know if I'll be able to do it forever."
But not everyone we spoke to was quite so down on the future of the bouquinistes. 
Henri Aubrun who has been in the trade for eight years, took it up when he retired. 
"I had always walked by these stalls when I was young and on dates with girls and the lifestyle appealed to me," he said. 
"I don't want Unesco to save the booksellers here - I want us to save ourselves", he said, adding that it was up to the bouquinistes themselves to come up with an effective way of appealing to the public. 
"It's not worth just selling any old paperback, you have to find things that people won't find elsewhere, that are rare." 
Aubrun said he was often surprised by the number of tourists wanting to buy his products. 
"Often I'll get Americans who want to buy rare editions and Japanese tourists tend to like vintage editions too," he said. "I'd say 50 percent of my customers are French and 50 percent are tourists."
Aubrun does not sell any souvenirs and doesn't intend to. 

"You might make more money, but is it satisfying to sell those things? Is it ultimately worth it?"



Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also