Usually, Sundays are good days for the bouquinistes. Legions of strollers – tourists, out-of-towners, Parisians – throng the banks of the Seine, and the open-air booksellers whose green boxes have lined the quays for 400-odd years do good business.
One recent Sunday, though, Jérôme Callais made €32. And there was a day that week when he made €4: a single paperback, he can’t even recall which. It has not, Callais said, sheltering from driving rain on an all but deserted Quai de Conti, been easy.
“In fact, it’s been terrible,” he said, surveying a long, long row of shuttered boxes. “The culmination of three disastrous years. First the gilets jaunes and their protests. Then the transport strikes last winter. And now Covid: travel bans, lockdowns, curfews. In financial terms, a catastrophe.”
Not that anyone ever became a bouquiniste for the money. Even in non-pandemic times, small-scale, secondhand bookselling in the era of smartphones, e-readers and Amazon is never going to be much of a money-spinner.
Callais, 57, president of the Association Culturelle des Bouquinistes de Paris, has had his stall hard by the Pont Neuf for more than 30 years, following a brief early career as a reserve double-bass player with the Radio France Philharmonic.
“It’s not a job, it’s a philosophy of life,” he said. “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. But right now, it’s suffering. I hope this pandemic won’t prove the coup de grace.”
Despite frequent bans by assorted French kings, bouquinistes – the first dictionary entry for the term was in 1752 – have been hawking their wares along the Seine since the 16th century, originally from handcarts, voluminous pockets and trestle tables.
In 1891, having survived an attempt at outright banishment by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the architect of modern Paris, they won permission to display their books – and, crucially, store them overnight – in their now-familiar boxes.
“Bouquinistes are transmitters of culture,” said Callais. “We are not booksellers like other booksellers. With a bookshop, you have to go there specially. With us, you’re just walking past. We’re serendipitous. And we sell what other booksellers don’t.”
Today, 240 franchises – each 8 metres long, housing four 2-metre boxes – are assigned by Paris city hall on five-year licences: a giant 300,000-volume open-air bookstore stretching for 2.5 miles (4km) over 12 quays, from Pont Marie to Pont des Arts on the Right Bank and Pont de Sully to Pont Royal on the Left.
The bouquinistes are a mixed bunch of roughly 85 women and 125 men. They include former news agency journalists, philosophy teachers, musicians and chemists, as well as a smattering of younger people drawn by the outdoor life and the romance.
“This job has allowed me to chat to Emmanuel Macron, Joseph Stiglitz, and a contract killer whose name I’d better not reveal,” said Gilles Morineaux, who has had his stand on the Right Bank for 20 years. “I don’t earn much, but I’d never have met such people if I did my trading online.”
For many, said Callais, it is “their third, fourth, maybe fifth job – but also very often their last. Once you’ve tasted the freedom of it, you don’t really want to do anything else.” Most are over 50, and nearly 40% are over 65.
They pay no rent, but must undertake to open at least four days a week (except in bad weather), and to “exercise the profession of bookseller”, which is to say, sell mostly secondhand books, magazines, documents and prints – although one of their four boxes may, if desired, also offer ephemera and trinkets.
The souvenirs – Eiffel Tower keyrings, Arc de Triomphe beer mats – have become “a bit of a necessary evil” over the last few years, said Callais. Some colleagues “do rather overdo them”. But usually, about 30% of many bouquinistes’ clients are foreign tourists, and not many of them want secondhand French books.
Most of Callais’ colleagues are généralistes, selling an eclectic range of literature at prices averaging from €3 to €15. Some specialise, and can do well: Bernard on the Quai de la Tournelle does crime fiction; Jean-Marie is into comic books; Clément focuses on Russian and Slavic literature. None are prospering now.
One enterprising bouquiniste, David Nosek, a former sound engineer, has set up a collective sales platform, bouquinistesdeparis.com, showcasing about 2,000 titles that can be reserved online and collected in person, which he hopes will drum up some more business in the absence of passing trade.
But according to Callais, 227 franchises were operating at the beginning of the year; 221 are open now – at least, in theory. In practice, except on sunny weekends, as many as 80% of the railway-green boxes are more or less permanently closed, and most bouquinistes’ incomes have plunged by a similar percentage.
“The customers have simply stopped coming,” he said. “People who in a good month were grossing €2,000 are down to €500, or less. For some – if their flat’s paid, their children have left home, their partner has a decent job – it’s manageable. For others, things [are] starting to get really very difficult.”
The booksellers are eligible for aid from a government support scheme for small businesses, but it has taken time to arrive and for many – because it is based on a proportion of last year’s earnings, which were also low – it will not amount to much.
Whatever happens, the few bouquinistes open – like Callais – on a recent December weekday afternoon were determined not to give in any time soon.
Sylvie Mathias, 58, a former Reuters journalist, said her philosophy and literature stall – Artaud, Durrell, Tzara – had made her all of €65 the previous day. “I’m not doing badly, all things considered,” she said. “It will pick up in the spring. But hopefully things will be shaken up a bit by all this. They need to be.”
Her husband, Jean-Pierre, 200 yards upstream, concentrates on philosophy, psychology, cinema, fashion and engravings. Business would take a good while to return to normal, he said; even with the vaccine, people were unlikely to travel soon.
A bouquiniste for 40 years, Jean-Pierre had seen it all before, however. “I’m not too worried,” he concluded. “We’ve been here for more than four centuries – including a fair few pandemics. It’ll take more than this one to finish us off.”