The booksellers whose rickety green stands dot the River Seine have been a Paris staple for hundreds of years. Through the censorship of kings and Nazi occupiers, through the Covid-19 pandemic and frequent protests, the bouquinistes have remained.
“The Seine, they say, is the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves,” writes the London Times’ Ben Macintyre. “Stretching for two and a half miles, … the bouquinistes are collectively the largest open-air book market in the world, with an estimated 300,00 volumes on sale in 240 separate stalls of watertight, dark green boxes, rain or shine.”
Now, plans for the 2024 Olympics are pitting the merchants against the city government. Paris decided nearly two years ago that the opening ceremony would take place on the Seine instead of in a stadium or another enclosed venue. The choice to host athletes on more than 160 boats breaks with tradition—and creates a security nightmare for the city’s law enforcement.
Paris officials want to dismantle and temporarily relocate the stands ahead of the ceremony. The government will cover the cost of the moves and damage done to many of the fragile structures.
The sellers themselves, however, say that they were not consulted on the decision, which they argue could drastically alter the literary landscape along the river.
“Are they even going to offer us the same spots again after the games?” says bookseller Guillaume Castro to CNN’s Oliver Briscoe. Another merchant, Jean-François Medioni, voiced similar concerns: “I’m afraid that we get them back either in a year, or maybe never, or with someone else’s things in them.”
As Jean-Pierre Mathias, who has kept a stall for about four decades, tells the New York Times’ Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle and Jenny Gross, “Paris without the bouquinistes is like Venice without the gondolas.”
The booksellers see their work as the continuation of a rich cultural tradition—and they see the government’s demand as a threat to their unique ideals and lifestyle.
“It’s not a job, it’s a philosophy of life,” Jérôme Callais, the head of the Cultural Association of the Bouquinistes, told the Guardian’s Jon Henley during the pandemic in 2020. “You don’t earn much, not much at all. You do it for the fresh air, the freedom, the relationships with your regular customers, the contacts with total strangers … it’s a very human profession.”
Anti-establishment sentiment runs in the blood of these booksellers. In 1649, the city banned the small book stands from the Pont Neuf, now the oldest bridge in Paris—and the beating heart of the city at the time—due to pressure from bookstores that wanted the business. At various times, the stalls sold anti-monarchist literature; much later, the sellers helped to hide and distribute resistance materials during the Nazi occupation.
Though their wares have changed since then, they are still required to follow certain rules: For instance, 75 percent of their stock must be books and magazines, while tourist souvenirs can make up no more than 25 percent, in an effort “to retain the literary, intellectual quality of the stalls,” according to Alex Ledsom of Forbes.
Paris officials claim they are open to further discussion. In a statement to CNN, the city government says, “We would like to hold a meeting, alongside the Police Prefecture, at the start of term [after the summer recess] to follow up on this decision.”
But with less than a year to go before the Olympics begin in France, the fight over the bookstands will likely only intensify.
“The stage is set for a battle royale between the forces of literature and sport, tradition and modernity, the individual and the state,” as the London Times puts it. “The bouquinistes are manning the barricades, and the revolution has only just begun.”