Timeless landmarks. Cultural treasures. Precious vestiges of a less harried, pre-digital way of life. All of these descriptions can, and have been, applied to the bouquinistes de Paris— the traditional booksellers that have set up shop along key stretches of the Seine River for centuries.
Many would argue that Paris and its riverside quays would feel significantly less warm and inviting without the sight of the some 900 “book boxes” spilling over with rare and used editions, posters, historic illustrations, postcards, stamps, engravings and other printed matter, alongside souvenirs. With their iconic metallic awnings in deep green, they have become an essential and beloved part of the Parisian landscape– so much so that they were incorporated into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, when the banks of the Seine as a whole were given the honor.
But the hundreds of active sellers, both veterans and newer business owners, are facing strong headwinds amid competition from sellers like Amazon, the recent pandemic, and waning interest among younger generations of tourists. Their unique presence is something that should not only be celebrated, but actively supported.
Keep reading to learn more about the history of les bouquinistes, why to take a stroll and browse their stalls on your next trip, and for perspectives on the profession and its future from three current-day sellers.
A Bit of History
According to an article at Paris.fr, the presence of booksellers along the Seine dates to the 16th century, when the precursors to today’s bouquinistes, called colporteurs, sold books, political and religious tracts from baskets carried around the collar (the term “colporteur” literally meaning “collar carriers”). Other, more sedentary vendors sold tomes from trestle tables or on sheets of canvas stretched on the ground. Most initially operated on the few paved roads around the Seine– notably the Quai de Conti, Quai des Grands-Augustins, Quai de Gesvres, and, from the early 17th century, around the newly constructed Pont-Neuf bridge.
In 1649, local booksellers were feeling the competition, and persuaded the government to ban casual book vendors from selling their wares on the Pont Neuf. But by the French Revolution of 1789 and the years that followed, the vendors were thriving along the Seine, acquiring many rare books from the requisitioned or pillaged libraries of aristocratic families and the Catholic church.
By the early 19th century and the advent of the Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, the bouquinistes as we know them today see the light of day, spreading on the left bank from the Quai Voltaire to the banks around Notre-Dame.
“Bouquiniste” derives from the French word “bouquin”, an informal and familiar term for livre (book) that originally had a mildly pejorative sense– as in a book that was used or of little monetary value. The etymology of “bouquin” is unclear, but some linguists say it derives from the Flemish word “boeckin“, meaning a book of little value.
But it was only in 1859 that the Paris city government allowed the booksellers to establish permanent stands. Each were expected to be built to strict standard measurements. But the sellers had to transport the merchandise back and forth each day.
By the end of the century, the bouquinistes had won the right to store and leave their merchandise in their “boxes” overnight, and in the early 20th century regulations stated that all stands must be painted the same color: “wagon green”, matching the Morris columns and Wallace fountains that now prominently adorned modern Paris.
Strict regulations around what bouquinistes can sell persist into the present day. For example, an increasing number of vendors have been plumping their stock of Paris souvenirs, trinkets and postcards, hoping to make up for declining sales of books and illustrations. But city regulations state that only a small percentage of a given seller’s stand can be taken up by souvenirs.
The idea is to protect the literary and cultural offering and value of the bouquinistes, and prevent them from becoming mere open-air souvenir shops. Still, one has to wonder whether such regulations might hurt vendors struggling to make a living in a tough economic context.
Why to Visit & Support the Stands?
With their stock of some 300,000 used books, including rare and original editions, the Seine-side booksellers offer a unique experience that you can’t easily find elsewhere. Browsing the stalls in the open air, letting your impressions and whims guide you, is something you certainly can’t get from ordering books online. The people-watching and photo opportunities are also substantial, and the sellers (many of whom now speak English) can make recommendations based on your interests and budget.
While most of the book titles are in French, the prospect of finding an original edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables or Colette’s Chéri will be a thrilling prospect for amateur collectors or enthusiasts of French literature.
And although most non-French speakers won’t feel much of a pull to purchase books in the Gallic tongue, many sellers also proffer a wide variety of vintage posters, rare and historic illustrations, engravings, postcards, French/Parisian memorabilia and souvenirs.
The bouquinistes are an essential part of Parisian heritage, past and present. Supporting them however you can is one small way you can help keep that precious heritage alive and well.
The Profession Today: The Perspective of Three Bouquinistes
On a recent early October day, I took a stroll along the left bank of the Seine, stopping to browse at many of the bouquiniste stands dotted along the Quai Voltaire to the Quai de Conti and further east. I chatted a bit with a few of the vendors, who offered their earnest opinions and impressions around what it means to pursue the profession in a rapidly changing, digitally-dominated world. Unfortunately, none agreed to be photographed alongside their stands.
Laurent (stand on Quai Voltaire)
I first approach Laurent, a young bouquiniste and native Parisian who’s had his stand on Quai Voltaire for just four years. He specializes in literature and philosophy, and says that sales haven’t come easy in the past few months.
“Immediately after the first (Covid-related) lockdown was lifted in France, I had a lot of customers, especially locals, who were eager to get out again, and were enthusiastic about buying books. But since July, there are more tourists and fewer locals, and I’m selling fewer books”.
Laurent says he doesn’t have many English-language books because he doesn’t believe they would sell well. He does offer a variety of vintage prints and magazines alongside used books.
Guillaume, Stand on Quai de Conti (Opposite the Institut de France)
Guillaume, a 34-year old Paris native, also became a bouquiniste four years earlier. He specializes, like Laurent, in philosophy and literature, but also history. His main objective, he says, is to stock used books that are “populaire“– meaning highly in demand, even if that means the bestsellers in specialized and niche categories like French 20th-century philosophy.
For Guillaume, the bouquinistes offer a singular experience you won’t get from a traditional bookshop– nor from online shops.
“People can wander by and browse at their leisure, and we benefit from their passing by on a walk around central Paris. It’s a real open-air experience, open every day and all day long”.
Michelle, Stand on Quai de Conti (opposite the Institut de France)
Further east on the Quai de Conti, I stop to admire a stand that clearly specializes in rare editions of French classics. Michelle, who says only that she’s been operating the stand “for a long time”, proudly shows me a long block of handsome leather-bound volumes: the complete works of Honoré de Balzac, a first-edition series published in 1855.
Next to them, a rare early edition of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time peek alluringly from the shelf in deep green leather tomes adorned with gold lettering.
Michelle also sells a variety of engraved illustrations of Paris, antique maps, less expensive used books, and other fine printed matter.
Like Laurent earlier, Michelle notes that there was a surge in interest and sales in the aftermath of the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns in Paris, but since restaurants and other attractions re-opened in the spring of 2021, “there are fewer people around”.
The profession has changed, she says, and not for the better. “We work under less favorable conditions than we once did– it’s become much harder [to make a living]”, she says. “I used to have more tourists [come by] who were interested in very specific things– they were true collectors. I’ve seen fewer visitors like that, over the past few years”.
Getting There & Opening Times
The bouquinistes‘ stalls and their more than 200 vendors can be found along the banks of the Seine, including on the Right and Left Bank and on the central island known as the Île St-Louis.
On the Right Bank, you’ll find stalls from Pont Marie (4th arrondissement/Marais) to the Quai du Louvre (1st arrondissement); on the Left Bank, browse the stalls from Quai de la Tournelle (5th arrondissement, across from Notre-Dame Cathedral) to Quai Voltaire (7th arrondissement).
Metro Stations: Pont Marie, Saint-Michel, Louvre-Rivoli, and Pont-Neuf are all stations offering quick and easy access to the river quays where the bouquiniste stands operate.
Opening times: The stalls are generally open from early morning to dusk, with individual sellers opening at various times.
Payments are typically in cash, but some sellers today have card readers for debit/credit card payments. Consider asking in advance if you don’t have any cash on hand.