Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bouquinistes Fall on Hard Times

Les Bouquinistes have been around forever.  History can trace these booksellers who make their home along the banks of the Seine as far back as the mid-1500's.  Ingenious peddlers would bring their wares into the city in a wheel barrel and lay claim to a bit of earth along the river embankments to sell their books (initially forbidden Protestant pamphlets in a staunchly Catholic city).  Later, trays strapped to the stone walls with thin leather belts served as their storefront.   In the 1890's, these sellers were allowed to permanently secure boxes to the walls along the Seine and have remained fixtures in the city of Paris that continue to be popular with residents and tourists alike.  The photo above shows visitors in the 1960's taking in the historical volumes that may have been owned by the clergy or noblemen but were freed up after the Revolution.  Entire libraries became available and were sold cheaply by these vendors.

Each bouquiniste is given four boxes, all the same size paying rent for the stone walls they are attached to--usually about 100 euro a year.  Only one box out of the four is allowed to sell items other than books but I venture to guess that has changed significantly.  Items often times are set up on the sidewalk in front of the boxes, obscuring all the literary gemstones displayed behind.  Currently, there are 250 of these established sellers with an eight year waiting list for the honor of renting the esteemed green boxes.  

Today if you pass by these precursors to our current mega-booksellers (B & N, Borders, Amazon...) you will see the toll modern technology has taken on these age old vendors: tchotkies.  You know, those annoying key chains with Eiffel Towers or magnets in the shape of the Arc de Triomphe.  Little odds and ends that in a mad rush to bring things home for family and friends you will quickly buy and say, "I bought these from the bouquinistes", and it will sound so French.  

Actually, these items are evidence of a bigger problem:  vendors struggling to survive in a world where antique books and etchings can be purchased for less online.  They find themselves having to make ends meet by hawking garish scenic oil paintings or postcards in order to pay their bills.  City hall, alarmed by the fact that these knick-knacks are tarnishing the "cultural landscape" along the Seine have invited the bouquinistes to crisis talks in order to promote more intellectual merchandise.  The booksellers are divided even amongst themselves as many have remained true to their heritage;  filling their stalls with first edition works by Jules Verne, vintage graphics or widely popular comics.  Sellers in the more touristy area of Saint Michel have certainly turned to the tchotkie trade, almost to the exclusion of books.  It does indeed change the tone of this long standing Parisian tradition. 

Time will tell what direction this all will take.  It would be sad to see this part of Paris dissolve into a cheap marketing scheme aimed at tourist's whims for what really isn't French at all. Rather, as a tourist, bring home one of those old manuscripts.  Even if you can't read it, you will own a part of history instead of a statue made in China. 

Photo credit:  byronv2@flickr, Miss Shari@flickr     


Phivos Nicolaides said...

Beautiful pictures remind me well known scenes in the streets of Paris!

Shari said...

Fascinating! I found this post through a link alert (that's my postcard up on top); now I'm a subscriber. :)

Very sadly, I've never been to Paris, but the bouquinistes are part of my fantasy itinerary. I wouldn't mind a *few* tacky keychains and samey postcards off to the side, if it helps, but it would be terrible if the booksellers there went the way of the flea markets here. (I think it's been decades since I've seen a flea market that wasn't full of new low-end electronics and made-on-TV products. No more kitschy finds cleaned out of attics - I guess that's what eBay is for.)

Kim said...

Shari--I am so glad to have you along for the ride. You would love Paris and the bouquinistes even with all their crazy trinkets. Walking along the Seine and browsing their neatly arranged stalls is what Sunday afternoons are all about there. It's my hope that you get to do that someday!! And you are so right about flea markets. I do for all the attic clutter not sunglasses and fake handbags:-((