By means of gilets jaunes, strikes and Covid, Paris’s 400-year-old guide stalls combat to outlive | World information
U.Sundays are usually good days for bouquinists. Legions of strollers – tourists, out-of-towers, Parisians – crowd the banks of the Seine, and the open-air booksellers, whose green boxes have lined the quays for about 400 years, are doing good business.
On a last Sunday, Jérôme Callais earned € 32. And one day that week he made 4 euros: a single paperback he can’t even remember. It was not easy to protect yourself from driving rain on an almost deserted Quai de Conti, said Callais.
“In fact, it was awful,” he said, looking at a long, long line of boxes with shutters. “The climax of three disastrous years. First the gilets and their protests jaun. Then the transport strikes last winter. And now Covid: travel bans, bans, curfews. A disaster financially. “
Not that anyone ever became a bouquinist for the money. Even in times without a pandemic, in the age of smartphones, e-readers and Amazon, selling small second-hand books will never be a big money-maker.
Jérôme Callais, President of the Paris Bouquinists’ Association, took photos at his book stand on the banks of the Seine. Photo: Ed Alcock / Myop
57-year-old Callais, president of the Culturelle des Bouquinistes de Paris, has had problems with the Pont Neuf for more than 30 years after a brief early career as reserve double bass player with the Radio France Philharmonic.
“It’s not a job, it’s a philosophy of life,” he said. “You don’t earn much, not much at all. You do it for the fresh air, the freedom, the relationships with your regular customers, the contact with complete strangers … it’s a very human profession. But right now it is suffering. I hope this pandemic won’t prove the coup de grace. “
Despite frequent bans by various French kings, bouquinists – the first dictionary entry for this term was in 1752 – have been selling their goods along the Seine since the 16th century, originally from handcarts, bulky bags and trestle tables.
After Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the architect of modern Paris, had survived an attempt at total banishment, they were given permission in 1891 to display their books in their now familiar boxes – and above all to store them overnight.
“This job enabled me to chat with Emmanuel Macron, Joseph Stiglitz and a hit man whose name I shouldn’t reveal”: Gilles Morineaux, who has been running a bookstore on the right bank of the Seine for 20 years. Photo: Ed Alcock / Myop
“Bouquinists are transmitters of culture,” said Callais. “We are not booksellers like other booksellers. With a bookstore, you have to go there specifically. Just drop by with us. We are random. And we sell what other booksellers don’t. “
Today 240 franchises, each 8 meters long and four 2-meter boxes, are given five-year licenses by the Paris City Hall: a huge open-air bookstore with a volume of 300,000 volumes, stretching over 4 km over 12 quays Pont Marie to Pont des Arts on the right bank and Pont de Sully to Pont Royal on the left bank.
The bouquinists are a mixed group of around 85 women and 125 men. These include former news agency journalists, philosophy teachers, musicians and chemists, as well as some younger people drawn to the outdoors and romance.
“This job enabled me to speak to Emmanuel Macron, Joseph Stiglitz and a hit man whose name I shouldn’t divulge,” said Gilles Morineaux, who has been on the right bank for 20 years. “I don’t make a lot, but I would never have met people like this if I had traded online.”
For many, Callais said, “it’s their third, fourth, maybe fifth job – but also very often their last. Once you’ve tried the freedom from it, you don’t want to do anything more. “Most are over 50 and almost 40% are over 65 years of age.
You do not pay rent, but you must undertake to open at least four days a week (except in bad weather) and to “practice the trade of bookseller”, ie mainly to sell used books, magazines, documents and prints – although one can their four boxes also offer ephemera and jewelry.
The souvenirs – Eiffel Tower key rings, Arc de Triomphe coasters – have become “a necessary evil” in recent years, Callais said. Some colleagues “prefer to exaggerate”. But usually around 30% of many bouquinists’ customers are foreign tourists, and not many of them want used French books.
There are almost 200 book stands on the right and left banks of the Seine, but only a few are still open. Photo: Ed Alcock / Myop
Most of Callais’ colleagues are generalists and sell a wide range of literature at an average price of 3 to 15 euros. Some are specialized and are good at it: Bernard on Quai de la Tournelle makes crime novels; Jean-Marie likes comics; Clément focuses on Russian and Slavic literature. Nobody is thriving now.
An enterprising bouquinist, David Nosek, a former sound engineer, has set up a joint sales platform with bouquinistesdeparis.com that presents around 2,000 titles that can be reserved online and collected in person. He hopes that in the absence of this will result in more business of the temporary trade.
Callais said there were 227 franchises operating at the beginning of the year. 221 are now open – at least in theory. In practice, except on sunny weekends, up to 80% of the green boxes are more or less permanently closed, and the incomes of most bouquinists have fallen by a similar percentage.
The bouquiniste stands are closing partly due to competition from online retail and partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Ed Alcock / Myop
“Customers just stopped coming,” he said. “People who brought in 2,000 euros in a good month have dropped to 500 euros or less. For some – when their apartment is paid for, their children have left home, their partner has a decent job – it is manageable. For other things [are] It’s getting very, very difficult. “
Booksellers are eligible for aid from a government small business support program, but it has taken some time to get here and for many it will not matter much as it is based on a share of last year’s also low revenue.
Whatever happens, the few bouquinists who, like Callais, were open on a December weekday afternoon were determined not to give in anytime soon.
A vintage copy of L’Art Culinaire Moderne in a bookstore. Photo: Ed Alcock / Myop
Sylvie Mathias, 58, a former Reuters journalist, said her philosophy and literature booth – Artaud, Durrell, Tzara – brought her a total of 65 euros the day before. “I’m not feeling bad all in all,” she said. “It will pick up again in spring. But hopefully all of this will mess things up a bit. You have to be. “
Her husband Jean-Pierre, 200 meters upstream, focuses on philosophy, psychology, cinema, fashion and engraving. It would be a while before business was back to normal, he said. Even with the vaccine, it was unlikely that people would travel anytime soon.
Jean-Pierre had been a bouquinist for 40 years and had seen it all before. “I’m not too worried,” he concluded. “We have been here for more than four centuries – including some pandemics. It’ll take more than this to get us down. “