On a sunny weekend, the bouquinistes of Paris are unmissable – the booksellers are recognisable for the green boxes that run for 4km along the banks of la Seine.
The 220 bouquinistes, who represent the transmission of French heritage, culture and of course the history of Paris, aim to open their boxes as often as possible regardless of the weather.
But while many view it as a romantic addition to the city, the job itself is tough and does’t bring much in the way of financial rewards.
“I am here despite the summer heat,” said Philippe who was a wholesaler in books only five years ago. “I am here for the passion of books and the necessity to live from it.”
Many of the bouquinistes have been in post for decades, mostly selling old and second-hand books but also illustrations and postcards, and sometimes souvenirs. But tourists are feeling the pinch, some booksellers say.
“The revenue is half what it was five or six years ago,” said Alain who has been a bouquiniste for 20 years. “August is terrible, it’s better when retirees are here and kids are at school.”
The bouquinistes are regulated by Paris’ mairie, and although they don’t pay rent or rates for their boxes, there are strict controls in place.
Despite the drawbacks, there is stiff competition, especially for the more lucrative spots.
Every year since 2008, the city of Paris has invited applications, it studies the files of candidates, checks that their project is financially viable and that they will mainly sell books.
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Eighteen new sellers have set up shop since the last recruitment campaign in March, which saw more than fifty applicants. The winners get to occupy a specific spot for free but there is a significant cost related to the purchase of the boxes which amount to €1,500 for each.
Bouquinistes will often start as ouvre-boîte – doing a shift for another seller until they get allocated a box of their own.
The new entrants always get the spots along the less-frequented parts of the river and some say that their revenue tripled when they were granted a better position – when a bouquiniste dies, the seller who has been there the longest gets priority for their spot.
But for some bouquinistes, it’s above all a job that requires time and love, beyond location.
“It’s an on-the-ground job” said the writer and bouquiniste Camille Goudeau. “It is tough, you must be able to bear bad weather, the sound of cars and people cat-calling.”
In fact, Goudeau published a novel about her profession called Les chats éraflés with publisher Editions Gallimard. She keeps on taking inspiration for writing from passersby.
“You have to be passionate, develop your clientele and stay humble.” said Luis Ortega, who has been a bouquiniste for 20 years, as well as working part-time as an assistant researcher in geology.
“It’s important to check the good condition of the books, clean them and present them well, since they are second-hand.”
Ortega gets calls from clients who live and work near his boxes, asking for specific books on topics such as philosophy and literature.
Jean-Luc Berger, a bouquiniste who was doing a replacement shift in Paris and who has 15 boxes on the river banks of Melun, 30km away from Paris, said that a careful selection of the books is also necessary in his line of work.
“We try to find books that resonate with the news,” confides Berger, citing Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses as a recent best-seller after the shocking attack on the author in the USA.