Walking through Paris in search of new tips and hot-spots for readers, I realized I’d neglected one its most classic locations, despite the fact that I often take time to skulk around the “bouquinistes” (second-hand booksellers) of the banks of the river Seine.
Stretching out for over a mile in the center of Paris with the Cathedral of Notre Dame as a backdrop, and with the famous narrow streets and restaurants of the Quartier Latin a stone’s throw away, this has to rank amongst the top of any list of classic Parisian experiences.
Relics of a Bygone Age
To me, nothing embodies Paris’s essence more than the Seine’s bouquinistes, who have been “part of the furniture” for hundreds of years now. They are completely unique to Paris: I know of no other city in the world which can boast such an array of book traders.
The first bouquinistes appeared as early as the mid-16th Century, when they would trade their goods from carts, more often than not surreptitiously, as they would sell illegal Protestant pamphlets during the Crusades.
It was after the French Revolution, however, that the bouquinistes of the Seine really began to prosper: they had access to entire libraries confiscated from the rich, although it was not until the end of the 19th Century that they were granted the right to permanently bolt their stall boxes on the stone wall of the river banks.
After 1952, the size of the boxes and even their color became officially regulated.
From Current Publications to Priceless Antiques
Today you’ll find the bouquinistes’ stalls stretching out for over a mile along both sides of the Seine around the Ile de la Cite, from the Pont Marie to the Quai du Louvre on the right, and from the Quai de la Tournelle to the Quai Malaquais on the left.
In this idyllic setting and with Notre Dame as the backdrop, you can dig up all sorts: antique prints and engravings, old issues of Paris Match (a major national news magazine), maps, old books, very old books, rare books, comic books, posters, postcards, souvenirs and other odds and ends.
The stalls themselves essentially consist of boxes bolted to the stone wall of the river bank, which are locked up at night. Although some of their goods nowadays are strictly for tourists, there are still plenty of rare and priceless items for the serious connoisseur.
You never know what you’ll come across whilst rifling through the bouquinistes’ collections, and if they don’t have what you want, some even say they’ll find it for you; it is their trade that keeps treasures in circulation that might otherwise perish.
There is even a well-know anecdote told in Alexander Wollcott’s While Rome Burns, recounting the time when novelist Anne Parrish found a copy of Jack Frost And Other Stories at a bouquiniste. It was her favorite childhood book back in her days at a Colorado Springs nursery, but she’d not managed to see a copy of it until then. The tale goes that, whenshe showed her finding to her husband, he opened it to find inscribed on the flyleaf, “Anne Parrish, 209 N. Weber Street, Colorado Springs”.
Today the bouquinistes of the Seine number around 250, and their trade is well regulated: they must be open for business a minimum of four days a week no matter the weather or foot traffic, and no more than one box out of four is permitted to contain “souvenirs” – the rest must be literary material.
Interview with a bouquiniste
Some of the bouquinistes are chatty, others less so, but I always manage to land on one who likes chin-wagging as much as I do. I was lucky to strike up a conversation with 64-year old Allain Ferlich, a veteran of 30 years on the Quais.
Smoking a Dominican mini cigar and leafing through an old copy of La Gazette (the first weekly magazine ever printed in France, back in the 1600s) as if it was this week’s Paris Match, he seems to know every other person walking past his stall. “There are no set hours,” he tells me, “and I’m not afraid of the heat or the cold. I love to read, I’m talkative and I’m curious. So this is perfect for me.”
Chez Ferlich, the definition of “old” seems a little different than at the average bookseller’s. I see him flip through a book printed in 1943 which doesn’t even make the cut. Most of his books are works of art in themselves: beautiful, gold-lettered, leather-bound volumes written by authors such as Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola.
Sadly, Ferlich is on the point of retiring. Once he is gone, it will be up to the City to decide who gets his spot. “They have a waiting list of one or two hundred people waiting to do this,” he tells me.
An Endangered Species?
Just like the Panda, bouquinistes are a race in threat of extinction. For one thing, the underground tour bus park under the Carousel, next to the Louvre, has reduced foot traffic along the Quais quite considerably.
Then there is the internet, the biggest bookstore with which none can compete, encroaching on their revenue. This has forced some of the booksellers to turn to the more remunerative sale of tourist souvenirs, miniatures and trinkets.
But for those with a passion for books and who value the hunt as well as the book’s “pedigree”, the bouquinistes will always be irreplaceable – so don’t forget to drop by and keep one of Paris’s oldest pieces of heritage alive (and free from tacky tourist trinkets).