The Fight for the Bouquinistes: Killing a Medieval Profession – The American Spectator

A beggar’s book outworths a noble’s blood.

Henry VIII, Act I, Scene I

Above the piano in our living room hangs a painting by the French neo-impressionist Jan Bonal. It is a pointillist Parisian street scene, executed much in the manner of Seurat or Signac, and carefully overlaid with the voile velour, the delicate velvet veil that is so characteristic of Bonal’s landscapes and cityscapes. The painting’s vantage point can be found in the IIIe arrondissement, and more precisely at 92 Quai de l’Hôtel de ville, where the viewer looks out across the Seine towards the elegant Haussmann apartment buildings of the Île de la Cité, above which soar the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris’s western façade, and the cathedral’s needle-like flèche, subsequently lost in the devastating fire of April 15, 2019. It has been some years since last I passed by this particular spot — I was making my way from the Mémorial de la Shoah towards the Latin Quarter if memory serves — but I am grateful that, with the assistance of Bonal’s cityscape, I can revisit it on a daily basis. (READ MORE: Poles Vote on Immigration While Other Europeans Suffer)

My favorite feature of the painting has always been the row of lovingly portrayed green boxes positioned along the quay, instantly recognizable as the iconic bookstalls of the Parisian bouquinistes, or outdoor secondhand booksellers, which Bonal afforded pride of place upon the canvas. Some 900 such boxes still line the banks of the Seine, from the Quai de la Tournelle to the Quai Voltaire on the Left Bank and from the Pont Marie to the Quai du Louvre on the Right Bank, making the river the only one in the world, as the old saying goes, that courses between two bookshelves. The dimensions and appearance of these boxes have been carefully regulated since the 19th century — they must be two meters long and 0.75 meters deep, the upper edge of the opened box must not reach over 2.1 meters in height, they must be painted a uniform shade of carriage green, and be kept open for business at least four days per week. The two miles of riverfront bookstalls, with their estimated 300,000 volumes for sale, are thereby kept in good order, free from the heaped-up bric-a-brac one finds in the open-air marchés aux puces at Montreuil, St-Ouen, or the Porte de Vanves.

Parisians, expatriates, and tourists alike have long been charmed by the bouquinistes, who have been plying their trade since the 16th century. Honoré de Balzac, in his 1845 account of Parisian street life Une rue de Paris et son habitant, marveled at how “curiosity makes one lose more time in Paris than anywhere else,” particularly when perusing the book-filled booths strung out along the Seine quays: “How may one walk without looking at those little oblong boxes, wide as the stones of the parapet, that all along the quays stimulate book lovers with posters saying, ‘Four Sous—Six Sous—Ten Sous—Twelve Sous—Thirty Sous’? These catacombs of glory have devoured many hours that belonged to the poets, to the philosophers, and to the men of science of Paris. Great is the number of ten-sous pieces spent in the four-sous stalls!” Even today, a bouquiniste’s box remains, as Umberto Eco put it, a “place for trouvailles,” for lucky finds. The seemingly endless procession of secondhand bookstands, so enticing to bibliophiles, Bohemians, cash-poor students, flâneurs, and sightseers, provides us with a glimpse of what the bustling premodern paysage parisien was once like, back when places like the Pont Neuf esplanade positively teemed not just with booksellers, but with pastry vendors, junk dealers, bouquettières, quack doctors, jugglers, street players, and customers from every walk of life. Only the humble bouquinistes have managed to survive until the present day, and even their time-hallowed position at the center of Parisian public life is growing increasingly precarious.

The Games of the XXXIII Olympiad will be held in the City of Light beginning on July 26, 2024, with a spectacular opening ceremony set to take place along the Seine. Given the estimated 600,000 spectators and 10,500 athletes who will be in attendance and the extensive nature of the parade route, the Paris Police Prefecture has been presented with something of a security nightmare. Concerned that an incendiary device might be placed in one of the bouquiniste boxes, the authorities have ordered the removal of around 570 of them for the duration of the proceedings. The plan to cart away the boxes is apparently not predicated solely on security concerns, given that Pierre Rabadan, the deputy mayor of Paris, informed the affected booksellers during a July 2023 meeting that “the boxes needed to be removed because they obstruct the view.” Tony Estanguet, president of the Paris 2024 organizing committee, was thoughtful enough to apologize for the disruption but still maintained that the stalls’ proximity to the Seine “means that for some of them there is an incompatibility with the normal organization.” The Cultural Association of Booksellers of Paris has countered that this is “as if the prefecture decided that the Eiffel Tower was too high and that the third and second floors had to be removed because they came within the scope of the cameras during the ceremony,” further noting that the legendary green book-boxes were left in place in 1957 when Queen Elizabeth II’s first royal visit to Paris was marked by a similar river parade. Jérôme Callais, speaking on behalf of the bouquinistes, went so far as to declare that “we agree that we will not move” and that “it’s out of the question to touch our boxes…. The only thing we ask is that they don’t touch our boxes. We are fragile enough as it is. We want to last a few more centuries.”

The Case for Bouquinistes

The Paris bouquinistes may have helped make the banks of the Seine a UNESCO World Heritage Site of “outstanding universal value,” but their line of work has never been a prestigious one. A 1697 tract entitled “Requête en Faveur des Bouquinistes,” likely written by the librarian and historiographer Étienne Baluze, sympathetically described how:

Les pauvres libraires qui nont pas moyen de loüer des boutiques ont tasché de gagner leur vie en estallant des livres depeu de conséquence sur les quays et sur les rebords du Pont- Neuf. Ces livres sont de vieux fonds de magazins de libraires, quon ne leur demande pas, le fretin (quils appellent parmy eux carimara) des bibliothèques, la despouille de quelque pauvre prestre décédé , de meschants paquets achetez aux inventaires , tous livres quon nira jamais demander dans les boutiques de libraires. Cependant on se sert de ce prétexte pour empescher ces pauvres gens de continuer leurs estallages, parce, dit-on, quils empeschent quon ne visite les boutiques de libraires; ce qui est très-faux. Car on ne trouvera pas à ces estallages des livres de conséquence, pour lesquels avoir il faut nécessairement aller chez les grands libraires.

[Those poor booksellers who have no means of keeping shops have tried to earn a living by selling books of little consequence on the quays and on the edges of the Pont-Neuf. These books are overstock from booksellers’ shops, which are no longer in demand, the leftovers (which they call among themselves “carimara”) from the libraries, the earthly possessions of some poor deceased priest, damaged specimens bought from the inventories, all books that you would never ask for in booksellers’ shops. However, there is a pretext used to prevent these poor people from continuing their stalls, namely, it is said, that they prevent people from visiting the booksellers’ shops; which is quite false, because one will not find in these stalls books of consequence, which one necessarily only finds at the bigger booksellers.]

By 1970, the bouquiniste Louis Lanoizelée was taking to the pages of the Revue des Deux Mondes to lament the prospective decline and fall of his profession:

Bien sûr, les étrangers, visitant Paris, seront toujours curieux et charmés par le pittoresque de ces étalages de bouquins posés sur les parapets des berges de la Seine.Mais, quand le dernier vieux bouquiniste, qui vendait de vrais livres doccasion, épuisés et rares, aura disparu, l’âme des quais quittera ces lieux de promenades littéraires, artistiques et surtout de rêveries. Le bibliophile recherchant un livre manquant à ses collections regardera d’un œil désabusé, les gravures fortement coloriées, les cartes postales, les livres soldés ou neufs, les romans policiers et toute cette littérature plus ou moins pornographique qui envahit les boîtes des quais comme une lèpre malfaisante. Il se dira que les bouquinistes des quais ont la même marchandise que les libraires en boutique et que cette nouvelle génération de marchands des quais vend de la…

Read More: The Fight for the Bouquinistes: Killing a Medieval Profession – The American Spectator