The banks of the Seine would not be the same without the established Bouquinistes of Paris. The booksellers and their green painted boxes have become one of Paris’s many iconic symbols. It was once said that the Seine is the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves! Always in the open air during any weather “by the wind, the rain, the frost, the snow, the fog, and the great sun, that they end by looking much like the old statues of cathedrals” (Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard).
What are the Bouquinistes of Paris?
Spanning three kilometres, from the Quai du Louvre to Pont Marie (right bank) and from the Quai Voltaire to the Quai de la Tournelle (left bank), the booksellers display used and antiquarian books, as well as old magazines, stamps, souvenirs, magnets, posters and postcards in open green boxes. These 900 boxes alongside the Seine contain some 300,000 books and are run by 240 bouquinistes. They are open several days a week (depending on the weather) from 11.30 am to sunset.
The “vert wagon paint” colour of the boxes refers to the dark green of old train carriages.
The Bouquinistes of Paris: a bit of history
In the 16th century, peddlers called “libraires forains” used to wander along the banks of the Seine. In 1557, when the Wars of Religion raged, they were accused of being thieves who sold forbidden Protestant pamphlets targeting the government and the church.
With the opening of Pont-Neuf at the beginning of the 17th century, the number of booksellers who held the first public readings accompanied by musical entertainment and open-air shows increased. They used wheelbarrows to transport their books and sold them from trays fastened to the parapets of the bridges with thin leather straps.
The term “bouquiniste” [boo-keen-eest] was first mentioned in the dictionary of the Académie française in 1789. It is believed to derive from the Dutch word “boeckin” meaning “small book”, or the German word “Buch”. The word “bouquin” in French is synonymous with “livre”. The French Revolution profoundly affected the book trade in Paris, which until then had been monopolised by nobles and clergymen. The booksellers’ business really took off when churches, mansions and châteaux were dismantled and emptied of their contents. A multitude of books that had once belonged to the rich found their way to the Bouquinistes stalls. Thus these entrepreneurs, who had established themselves on low-cost sites on the banks of the River Seine, found their business expanding at the expense of established bookshops.
In 1859 second-hand booksellers were granted the right to establish their business at fixed points along the banks of River Seine by paying a concession fee. The Bouquinistes were each allocated 10 metres of railing from which to trade with opening hours from sunrise to sunset. In 1891, the sellers were authorised to permanently attach their boxes to the railings. During the Paris World Exposition in 1900, more than 200 Bouquinistes were identified along the Seine. In 1930 the dimensions of the green metal boxes were fixed for all booksellers.
The Bouquinistes model has been exported to other cities, such as Lyon, where bookstalls operate on Quai de la Pêcherie alongside the River Rhône.
The Bouquinistes of Paris: a threatened activity
The Bouquinistes’ activity is therefore threatened by the wide spread of the Internet. Old book sales are in a decline as fewer and fewer people are reading paper books and magazines. They have recently diversified their offers to include tourist merchandise (limited to 1 out of 4 boxes) to survive.
The creation of a pedestrian precinct along the lower banks of the River Seine partly explains the Bouquinistes’ loss of revenue. The upper banks are indeed less attractive with the noise generated by cars, buses and trucks.
Rules to abide by
The Bouquinistes follow a list of rules, particularly article 9 of the by-law dating from October 1993, signed by then mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac.
The boxes used by book stores will be of a type approved by the Administration with an external bodywork determined by the dimensions below, for a maximum length of 8.6 metres:
- Length: 2 metres
- Width: 0.75 metres
- Seine side: 0.6 metres
- Shore side: 0.35 metres
(These dimensions are for closed boxes, lids included).
During use, the upper edge of the opened box should not be more than 2.1 metres above the ground.
To keep the tradition based on vintage books, the City of Paris allows no more than one box of souvenirs for every three boxes of books.
Today four boxes are allocated to each bookseller. The annual rent of €100 is based on the wall length on which the boxes are fixed rather than the area they take up on the pavement. To get the most popular and coveted spots on the river banks located around Notre-Dame, seniority will be a decisive factor. It could take up to eight years on a waiting list to become one of Paris’ Bouquinistes. The maintenance of the metal boxes (including the green paint) is the responsibility of the bookseller. Their goods are locked safely inside the box at night, protected by metal bars and padlocks.
A unique statute makes them the only traders in Paris to work on the pavement without paying tax!
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin and (v) for verbs
- banks = rives (f)
- book = livre (m)
- bookseller = libraire (m)
- book trade = marché du livre (m)
- box = boîte (f)
- bridge = pont (m)
- to buy = acheter (v)
- Left Bank = Rive Gauche (f)
- mayor = maire (m)
- peddler = colporteur (m)
- parapet = parapet (m)
- public reading = lecture publique (f)
- rent = loyer (m)
- Right Bank = Rive Droite (f)
- river = rivière (f), fleuve (m)
- second-hand = d’occasion (m)
- to sell = vendre (m)
- stall = étal (m)
- to trade = commercer (v)
- Wars of Religion = Guerres de Religion (f)
- wheelbarrow = brouette (f)
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