Kirsty Lang called the Seine ‘the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves’. It is the Bouquinistes, booksellers who offer used, second hand and antiquarian books, who make it so. Today these seductive ‘merchants of the mind’ are a familiar sight along the banks of the Seine in Paris, an exhilarating one for those who delight in the hunt of book collecting, and a honeypot for tourists and visitors seeking immersion in Parisian street culture or just a souvenir to take home. The Bouquinestes pursue their trade along the right bank of the Seine from the Quai du Louvre to the Pont Marie and on the left bank from Quai Voltaire to Quai de al Tournelle, their stalls mingled among those of stamp, coin, ephemera and comic dealers, and others selling old prints, engravings and journals, offering a dazzling array of secondhand and collectible books and hours of fascination for the treasure hunter.
Paris peddlers called ‘libraries forains’ are thought to have begun to offer used books along the banks of the Seine sometime around the 16th century. Purveyors of new books treated them with hostility, fearful that they would undermine their own trade. Similarly, the civic authorities were suspicious of the fledgling bouquinestes. Their activities could not easily be subject to official censorship and they were therefore considered a potential source of radical influence and dangerous. In 1557, during the Wars of Religion, the libraries forains were accused of being thieves and of selling forbidden Protestant pamphlets, embarrassing and troubling to both the government and the church. Their numbers were increasing at the beginning of the 17th century, and some of them saw the opening of Pont-Neuf in 1606 as an opportunity for public readings, musical entertainments and open-air shows. Edward Fournier wrote, in his 1862 history of Pont-Neuf that the “This famous bridge was not content to be the most varied and the most gigantic of open-air shows, it was also a huge reading room … the books were there in multitude and along parapets spread like the double radius of the largest libraries”. The libraries forains often used wheelbarrows to haul their bookish wares from spot to spot and sold them from trays fastened to the parapets of bridges over the river with leather straps.
After a series of attempts on the part of the authorities to control their activities, a 1649 settlement finally prohibited stalls, and any other display of books, on the Pont Neuf and travelling booksellers were driven out of the city, and could only gain re-entry under licence. The prohibition held for a while but slowly the booksellers returned to Pont-Neuf and the banks of the Seine, quietly tolerated by some regimes, deterred, persecuted or removed by others. In 1721 Louis V forbade the display of books on pain of fines and imprisonment and in 1756 all trade on Pont-Neuf was banned. Under the more moderate regime of Louis XVI, booksellers again returned to the Seine. During the French Revolution, despite the dangers of street trading, the Seine book peddlars prospered, the valuable content of the libraries of the nobility and clergy, systematically looted by the sans-culottes, making its way to their stalls.
Napoleon was tolerant to the bouquinestes, who in the early 19th century began to settle in particular spots. In October 1822 the profession was legally recognised for the first time and 1859 a concession was introduced which permitted bouquinestes to trade at specific places albeit under strict conditions. A little later, in 1891, they were permitted to attach their boxes to railings permanently. During the Paris World Exposition in 1900, there were thought to be some 200 bouquinestes along the banks of the Seine. New measures in the 1930s formalised the bouquinestes’ trade, requiring them to sell books exclusively and preventing them from operating a second shop elsewhere.
Today each of 240 bouquinestes occupies 10 meters of railings long the Seine for an annual fee, making use of 900 distinctive bottle green boxes (the size of the boxes was fixed in 1930) to house hundreds of thousands of books, stretched along 3 kilometers of the banks of the Seine. Together they make up what is claimed to be the largest concentration of open air bookselling in the world. The banks of the Seine in Paris were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.