Mar 17th, 2015, 11:49 PM

The Bouquinistes along the Seine: Past, Present, and Future

By Marc Feustel
Booksellers along the Seine. Image Credit: Pierre-Jean de Chambon
Written by Pierre-Jean de Chambon

They have become part of the Parisian cultural legend — those history-battered, book-cluttered green boxes that run along the pavement on the banks of the Seine. To local Parisians, the Seine booksellers are called bouquinistes — flogging books, old newspapers, magazines, posters, maps, postcards and assorted other trinkets. It’s hard to imagine Paris without them.

Spending time wandering along the Seine and looking through the book stalls is a quaint way to spend an afternoon in Paris. Books have become a trendy market again. And there is no better location in the city to browse. The book stalls run along the stretch of the Seine, on both right and left banks, allowing visitors to stroll by the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Musée d’Orsay and other famous Parisian staples.

The bouquiniste stretch back to 1859, during the Second Empire, when the Paris town hall granted free concessions to booksellers. Today, there are some 240 licensedbouquinistes along the Seine using a total of roughly 900 boxes. While the job of bouquiniste might seem somewhat archaic today, there is plenty of competition to run one of the book stalls. In 2010, Paris city hall received more than one hundred applications for 22 boxes.

Recognized by UNESCO in 1991 as a world heritage site, the bouquinistes have become a must-see for the 27 million tourists who visit Paris every year. The booksellers have had to widen their range of products to attract ready buyers. Some sell padlocks, which tourists often end up attaching to the Pont des Arts as “love locks”, which have become controversial due to the damage caused to the bridge.

Perhaps that is the big question about the Seine booksellers — whether they can retain the nostalgic appeal of their tradition going back to Napoleon III, or whether they lose their charm as they cater commercially to the whims of tourists. Though even if some bouquinistes have lost some their authenticity, a sharp-eyed book connoisseur can still find some great first-edition books cherished by collectors.