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‘Bouquinistes’ eager to turn page on Covid

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The closed ‘bouquiniste’ booksellers stores along the banks of the Seine on March 20, 2020, on the fourth day of a strict lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 caused by the novel coronavirus. AFP

‘Bouquinistes’ eager to turn page on Covid

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 acknowledges 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.

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 Jerome Callais, president of the Bouquinistes association.

“Only a fourth of our clients come from the Paris region,” he said.

Part of Paris

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.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A picture taken from a double-deck tourist bus on February 22, 2018, shows the stalls of the Bouquinistes along the banks of the Seine, in Paris. AFP

“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, said.

“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.

For Mathias, who specialises in psychology works, he and his colleagues fill a niche that has become all the more important after the closure of historic Latin Quarter bookshops like Gibert Jeune in recent years, and the rise of Amazon.

Many of his clients are students from the Sorbonne and other universities nearby, because “there aren’t any psychology bookstores in Paris anymore”.

“But there are fewer of them these days – between having to work from home and crimped budgets, it’s harder for them as well,” he said.

Jean-Michel Manassero, a retiree who was visiting his children in the capital, said that even though he buys books online, he still sought out the expertise and “hidden gems” along the Seine.

“Here it’s different, you’re drawn to a strange or unique book, and they have their own story – sometimes you find the notes left by previous owners,” he said.

“It’d really be a shame if they disappeared, because they’re a part of Paris life,” he said, after paying for an unlikely find with a battered cover: How to Become a Medium.

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