Tales of a riverbank revolution

Open-air book stalls have been a fixture of Paris's Left Bank for centuries. Now, an invasion of tourist tat has left them fighting for survival.

Uncivil war has broken out on the elegant quays of the river Seine – a war fought with rare books, posters of pop stars and plastic models of the Eiffel Tower.

For four centuries, some say for 1,000 years, the river parapets of Paris have been lined by the stalls of book-sellers, or bouquinistes, offering 18th-century tomes on poultry-breeding; or old copies of Paris-Match ("Grace et Rainier, le marriage!"); or rare copies of the works of Voltaire; or long-forgotten American paperback thrillers (in French translation).

Over the past 10 years, the familiar green boxes on the walls of the Seine quays have been progressively invaded by other merchandise, such as posters of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Marilyn Monroe; Eiffel Tower key-rings (€1 each); and replica Parisian street signs.

To stroll along the Left Bank close to Notre Dame cathedral used to be to promenade, simultaneously, through one of the most beautiful of all cityscapes and the biggest open-air bookshop in the world. The little book stalls – 235 of them, on both sides of the river – are still there. Some of them remain purely, or largely, bookshops, specialising in old tomes on the cinema, or science, or military history, or the works of Jules Verne. Others have become almost indistinguishable from souvenir stalls, festooned with posters of typical Parisian views in untypical colours or garish reproductions of early 20th-century, metal advertisements for cures for chillblains.

After years of neglecting the growing difficulties of the bouquinistes, the Paris Town Hall, which owns the spaces and lets them free of charge, has decided to clamp down. Over 40 stall-holders have received registered letters in recent weeks. If they do not obey the rules – which prescribe that at least 75 per cent of their stock must be books, old magazines or fine engravings, and that no more than 25 per cent may be tat – they risk being thrown off the quays by April.

The warning has forced some stall-holders to switch rapidly, and reluctantly, back to books. It has also revealed deep divisions, and jealousies, within the ranks of the bouquinistes themselves.

Here are some tales from the river-bank. "The truth is that, since the 1990s, and the coming of the internet, the economics of second-hand book-selling – pure book-selling – has gone to hell," said Jean, 40, who has been a bouquiniste for 10 years. "There are some bouquinistes who complain that the souvenirs have ruined the trade and scared the real book-lovers away. They make me puke. They are the people who are never here, or OK, yeah, they come for a few hours on a Sunday when the weather is fine. They usually have another source of income. If you want to make a living here, the fact is that books are no longer enough. If the bouquinistes – the true bouquinistes, not the dabblers – are to survive, you have to keep the revenue, and also the animation and the life, that the tourist stuff generates."

Jean openly admits that he used to display 75 per cent souvenirs and 25 per cent books: the reverse of the officially decreed limits. Since he got a warning letter from the Town Hall in October, he has switched back to 75 per cent books. "And do you know how many books I have sold since then?" he asked. "Maybe one a month."

Sophie Leleu, 42, has also been a bouquiniste for 10 years. Her father was a bouquiniste before her. She specialises in books on natural science. Despite an ideal tourist pitch, on the Left Bank opposite Notre Dame, she sells no souvenirs. She admits, though, that she could not survive without her other sources of income, including her husband's job.

"People complain that the internet and eBay and the collapse of reading habits have ruined the market for second-hand book shops and our stalls. I don't buy it," she said. "I get in trouble with my colleagues when I say this, but what has really ruined the market for the bouquinistes is the tourist rubbish that some of them sell. It used to be a pleasure for people to walk along here. Now there is all this ugly stuff everywhere ... The truth is that it is easy to buy and sell loads of souvenirs. It is much harder to go out and find interesting books to re-sell. But the books are still out there if you look for them."

Ms Leleu also disputes the notion that the French are reading less. "There are more new books published in France than ever before. We can't be reading less."

She is trying to persuade the Town Hall to take a positive attitude, not just a punitive one. She has an appointment at the Town Hall next week and hopes to persuade the city to "celebrate" the bouquinistes phenomenon – known and copied all over the world – and link the little open-air stalls to the annual Paris reading festival.

The city has two other quarrels with the bouquinistes. It accuses them of not doing enough to clean the graffiti off their boxes. The boxes look very ugly when closed up and covered in "tags". The book-sellers complain that they frequently clean their stalls but that they are defaced again during the night. "The police headquarters is only a few yards away on the Îsle de la Cité but the police do nothing," Ms Leleu said.

The third complaint of the Town Hall is that some stalls – allocated free after a waiting list of up to 10 years – are being sublet for large rents. One Paris lawyer is alleged to have "collected" several bouquiniste pitches and let them to operators selling mainly souvenirs – for a total of €3,000 (£2,600) a month.

This, the bouquinistes complain, is an example of the Town Hall failing to do its own job. The rule is that no book-seller is allowed more than one pitch and four boxes. The stalls are supposed to be open at least four days a week. For years, the city of Paris failed to enforce its own regulations.

Alain Ryckelynck is the former president of the (now defunct) bouquinistes association and publisher of a newsletter, Le Parapet. "None of this is entirely new," he said. "We have often been in trouble with the powers-that-be. One way or another we have existed for 1,000 years. Even before printed books existed, there were pamphlets and manuscripts, often very seditious, sold on the banks of the Seine. There are records of bouquinistes being beheaded in the middle ages for selling pamphlets attacking the king."

But the Town Hall is partly responsible for the present problems, Mr Ryckelynck says. "For years, they ignored us. Now they want to impose a kind of Stalinist regime. Yes, it is true we are supposed to sell books, and some of the tourist stuff is very ugly. But the world has changed. There are now so many other places that people can buy, or sell, old books, like the internet or car-boot sales. Even the big bookshops have second-hand sections."

Mr Ryckelynck, and others, fear that the city – under pressure from a powerful lobby of souvenir-shop owners – may eventually ban all souvenir sales from the quayside bookstalls. He wants the Town Hall to take a more tolerant view and accept that, within limits acceptable to both sides, the future of the bouquinistes depends on selling tourist paraphernalia as well as books.

If you stroll along the Seine quays, this is an argument which makes sense. A purist minority of bouquinistes remains wholly committed to books. A rogue minority is devoted to tourist souvenirs. Their stalls display a few token rows of unsaleable books.

The great majority of bouquinistes try to survive by selling both: books for the aficionados and tat for the tourists. Without the second, they argue, a 1,000-year tradition would rapidly die.

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