The booksellers that line the Seine river in Paris – known as “bouquinistes” – are an iconic part of the city’s landscape. But recent years have proved difficult, with the growth of online shopping, a series of strikes and protests and now Covid-19 all taking their toll on sales. Now though, the city of Paris is hoping to attract new blood to this centuries-old profession by launching an appeal for applicants to fill a number of stalls currently lying vacant.
The tradition of selling second-hand books by the banks of the Seine dates back more than 450 years and has led to the river being dubbed the only one in the world that runs between two bookshelves.
Today, more than 900 bouquinistes ply their trade along a three-kilometre stretch of the river in the French capital, selling a vast array of books along with postcards and other tourist souvenirs.
But, admits Jérôme Callais, the head of the Bouquiniste Cultural Association and a bouquiniste himself, it is a profession that has fallen on hard times.
It started with the September 11 terror attacks, he says, followed by a series of attacks, strikes and protests – such as those that came with the “yellow vest” movement – in Paris, all leading to periods of reduced tourism on which the trade depends.
Coupled with these factors is the rise of online retailing giants such as Amazon and then, finally and most importantly, the Covid-19 pandemic.
“During the lockdown it was terrible,” Callais says. “We had a few local people who we hadn’t seen before come see us just after the lockdown ended. But our level of dependency is extreme because practically half our customers are foreign visitors.
“There’s a despondency, a weariness, you’re just going through the motions. You open and you make three, five euros in a day … After you’ve done that 10 times you think, ‘what’s the point?’.”
It is perhaps no surprise then that a number of the booksellers’ iconic green wooden boxes currently lie vacant, their previous bouquinistes having either retired from a profession in which the average age is high and increasing, according to a 2018 government report, or simply decided to close up shop.
But the city of Paris is hoping to breathe new life into the trade by launching an appeal, via its website, for applicants to take over the unused stalls.
“Obviously, the first requirement is to have a passion for books and for old books. And then having some experience working with books is obviously important for us,” says Olivia Polski, the Paris deputy mayor in charge of trade.
Once applications have been processed, a meeting will be held with current bouquinistes to decide which will be accepted.
These commissions used to be regular occurrences, says Polski, but were suspended for two years amid the pandemic, allowing the number of vacant stalls to build up. But, she admits, “indeed, with Covid, there’s been a certain number of people who haven’t been able to continue”.
Labour of love
Despite the current challenges facing the bouquinistes, many remain committed to a profession they see more as a labour of love than simply a question of sales and profit.
“I love it, I love my job,” says Hassidi, who sits patiently on a folding chair outside his stall on a cold and wet November day, wrapped up in thick coat and woolen hat to keep out the cold. Occasionally, a passerby will stop and peruse his selection of books and magazines.
“I was already working for a bouquiniste before so I’ve been in this profession for nearly 40 years. I’m 70 years old. I like the people who come to see me, who look at a lot of different things.”
Others, like Liam Dillon, originally from Ireland, have discovered the trade only recently, but have already fallen in love with it. Previously working as a chef, he took up being a bouquiniste only three months ago after seeking a change in profession.
“Actually I love it!” he says. “I’d never done a job like this before, you know, selling anything. But talking with people from all over the world is great and I meet a lot of interesting people.”
Passion over money
So for those thinking of submitting an application, what qualities are needed to become a successful bouquiniste? According to Callais, a love of what you do is the most important.
“You can’t be worried about the cold or the heat,” he adds. “You need to be curious, you need to have a passion for books. And money shouldn’t be your first priority because if you’re in it for the money it’s not going to work out.”
Dillon, meanwhile, believes being a people person is the key.
“You should be an outgoing person and should be able to speak with people and be charismatic because you get people from different countries and different cultures,” he says.
The city of Paris says it supports bouquinistes by not asking them to pay rent on their stalls – unlike others who sell goods in public spaces. It is also supporting a bid for the booksellers to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Nevertheless, so far there has not yet been a flood of applications for the vacant stalls, though Polski remains hopeful.
“It hasn’t been a month yet since we launched the appeal and we already have 15 applicants,” she says. “But the deadline is February so there’s still time to send in your application.”