Turning the page

PARIS (AFP) – The open-air booksellers of Paris, a fixture along the banks of the Seine for centuries, are seeing their numbers dwindle after two years of Covid, with stalls going empty thanks to a dearth of local and foreign customers.

Tending dark green boxes packed with second-hand works that are often rare or special editions, the dealers enjoy rent-free access but must follow rules set by the city, including a minimum number of days open each week.

Vendors like Jean-Pierre Mathias, 74, have become as much a part of the Paris landscape as the nearby Notre-Dame cathedral.

For him, it’s not just a job but a calling, a chance to engage with curious clients in the fresh air, and something to get him up every day.

“My boxes are a hundred years old, they still open fine and thanks to them I’m still in good health – a bouquiniste doesn’t stop working until he can no longer open them,” said Mathias, using the French term for the venerated dealers.

But he acknowledged that “some of my colleagues don’t open much these days, they’ve given up a bit with this crisis”.

Times have been tough for the roughly 220 booksellers since 2018, when the “yellow vest” anti-government movement erupted, sparking protests for months and driving away potential clients as police imposed lockdowns across much of central Paris.

Times have been tough for Paris’ roughly 220 bouquinistes, hit hard by the pandemic. PHOTO: AFP

And then Covid struck, depriving one of the world’s most visited cities of tourists looking for special literary editions – or the vintage posters, Eiffel Tower keychains and other mementos many sellers now rely on to supplement their earnings.

In a pristine spot on the Left Bank, opposite the statue of Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet, Mathias tended the only stands open in the shadow of the Louvre museum – the other boxes were all padlocked shut.

“A lot of times we’re just there standing around, you have to be really dedicated to open” when clients are scarce, especially tourists, said president of the Bouquinistes association Jerome Callais. “Only a fourth of our clients come from the Paris region,” he said.

City officials recently launched a call for candidates to take over 18 empty spots along the Seine, but so far only 25 offers have been submitted, compared with around 60 for a similar number of openings in recent years.

“We’re looking for literary specialists who can perpetuate the biggest open-air bookstore in the world,” deputy mayor Olivia Polski, in charge of local commerce, told AFP.

“But we still have a month to go” before the deadline for offers on February 18, she said.

For Callais, who has ferreted out rare gems for clients at his stand across from the Louvre museum for three decades, it’s a chance to work “in an extraordinary setting”.

“Being a bouquiniste is often your last job – you’ve done other things before. But once you start, you can’t stop,” he said.

“We’re a key symbol of Paris, unique in the world – we’ve been here for 450 years,” he added.