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

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.

Paris' riverside booksellers battle for survival as Unesco race heats up
Photo: The Local
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?”

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Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

The world is heating up, and France is no exception. Here is how the country plans to change the landscape of its cities in order to cope with ever-increasing heatwaves.

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

While the whole of France is suffering from increasing temperatures, those in cities must prepare to take on an extra dose of heat, due to “heat island effect” which makes urban environments up to 8C hotter than the countryside.

READ MORE: Scientists explain the ‘heat sink’ effect that makes Paris feel like an oven

Météo France reports that the country has suffered at least 43 heat waves have been detected since 1947, but they are becoming more alarming.

“Heat waves are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change,” said Robert Vautard, meteorologist and climatologist to Reporterre

They are also becoming more dangerous – Vautard explained that while the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.5C in the last hundred years, average temperatures during heat waves have spiked even higher, becoming increasingly erratic. 

Coping with warmer temperatures is becoming a necessity, but it is in the big cities where people are sweating the most – Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris, for instance, it can be up to 8C warmer in the city centre than in the suburbs due to the urban “heat sink” effect.

French government spokesperson Olivia Grégoire last week announced that the country has devoted €500 million to encourage urban vegetation projects in order to turn ‘îlots de chaleur‘ (urban heat islands) into ‘îlots de fraicheur‘ (islands of coolness). 

South of France 

In the south of France, cities have always been designed with heat in mind – centuries-old techniques like white-painted buildings, shutters on the windows and narrow, shady streets help residents to stay cool.

Cities like Nice have even employed natural, traditional air conditioning systems – if you walk through the old town, you might notice “openings fitted with iron grills just over the doors” – they allow for fresh, cool air from the street level to come into the inside of the building.

Rural southern French ‘mas’ farmhouses were also built to keep cool, always facing south with very small windows to keep out summer heat.

But on the Côte d’Azur, temperatures are rising faster than the global average. For the rest of the world, warming occurs at 0.2C a decade, but in Côte d’Azur temperatures are increasing around 0.3C every ten years.

During the 2019 heatwave, southern France’s Gallargues-le-Montueux village, located in the Gard département broke heat records when it recorded 45.9C. Warming temperatures will impact the region so much so that it may even warrant a new climate classification in the next 50 years.

All this means that the traditional cooling techniques may not be enough to allow locals to cope with soaring temperatures.

For densely populated Marseille, the city will try to add breathing space between its closely aligned buildings: the objective is that for each urban block, there will be gaps between streets and a changing of the height between these spaces (like hollowing out the base) in order to better allow natural ventilation and airflow.

For wider streets, the city is looking at adding shade coverings over the blocks to keep them cool, and as the city is prone to flooding, grassy areas to plant trees will also be used for water retention, which also has a cooling effect.

In the north

Meanwhile, in northern parts of the country, cities were generally built with the intention to keep heat in, rather than out, meaning that they cope poorly with heatwaves.

Larger windows – a feature that is common in cities like Paris – wide boulevards covered in dark asphalt and roofs made of zinc are all well suited to cooler months, but means cities turn into ovens during a heatwave.

The more green space a city has, the more the temperature falls, so cities like Lille and Paris which are particularly densely populated and lack green space, are engaging in major ‘re-greening’ programmes.

On top of this, all French cities have some challenges in common: monuments historiques, or buildings registered as national heritage sites, where there is a lengthy process to make any changes or alterations that might impact the building or the character of the area.

Then, there is the challenge of the places that people simply do not want to see altered – like the area around the Eiffel Tower, for instance. 

READ MORE: Plan to fell trees near Eiffel Tower causes backlash from residents in French capital

But some cities do have ambitious plans to counter rising temperatures.

Americans might be wondering if this will involve more air conditioning in French buildings – unfortunately, the answer is no: air-con actually makes the heat island effect worse by pumping hot air back out onto the streets (as well as obviously guzzling energy to operate the systems, contributing to the climate change that is at the root of the problem).

Instead, it’s about finding ways to redesign city spaces to mitigate the extreme heat that is here to stay:

Paris plans

Paris’ climate action plan, released in 2018, defines how the densely populated city plans to cope with climate change, particularly its status as a heat island, between 2020 and 2030.

Along with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, Paris hopes to prepare itself for “long periods of extreme heat,” warning that “the scorching summer of 2003 may well become a “normal” summer in 2050. 

Solar power plants and solar shading – to aid in its carbon neutral goals, the city of Paris hopes to invest in urban solar power plants, and one will be installed in the Bois de Vincennes flower park.

The city wants this ‘solar power plant’ to also incorporate solar shade structures in public places, in order to “combine the benefits of energy production with protection against extreme heat”

Training “energy facilitators” and “eco-managers” – these people would work with stakeholders in individual neighbourhoods to oversee greening projects.

The action plan says they would “keep an eye on vulnerable people during heat waves, facilitate the lending or hiring of property and equipment such as bicycles between residents, manage a mini-urban logistics hub, carry out the pre-collection of certain types of waste or transfer bulky waste items to waste sorting and recovery centres.” 

Cool islands and routes in Paris – The city plans to keep and maintain its interactive map that will show you where to keep and stay cool during periods of extreme heat.

As of 2018, the city had already identified around 700 ‘cool islands,’ like museums, libraries, swimming spots, and green spaces. But, the goal is that by 2030, the City will create or open at least an extra 300.

READ MORE: Climate change: What can we expect future French summers to look like?

Schoolyard oases – Removing asphalt from school yards and increasing green space is also part of the plan.

The city’s plan to build more ‘oases’ will help to create more cool islands. As schoolyards take up over half a million square metres in Paris, this offers a large amount of space that can be radically cooled down. In 2020, the city started with just three schools, and will continue expanding throughout the decade.

New roofs for Paris – Paris’ rooftops are a huge part of the city’s architectural history and identity, but they are also heat conductors. The city of Paris has proposed to that rooftops that are either too steep or facing the wrong direction ought to be  “covered in vegetation or reflective paint” in order to reduce urban heat island effect. 

More trees – Having already added almost 50 hectares of trees during the last climate action plan, Paris has a new goal of increasing its tree canopy by 2 percent – this would mean adding more than 20,000 trees. 

Greening the tramways – Finally, Paris’ tramways will get a facelift by adding grass and getting rid of the heat-soaking concrete beneath the rails

Finally, during heat waves the city will continue using its emergency plan, intended to inform and protect vulnerable people (and the general population) of where and how to stay cool. 

READ MORE: How France plans to ‘heatwave proof’ its cities