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The Seine has been described as 'the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves'. The interesting folk who make this happen are the Bouquinistes, booksellers who ply their trade along the banks of the Seine: on the right bank from Pont marie to the Quai du Louvre, and on the left bank from Quai de la Tournelle to Quai Voltaire.

There are two tales that claim to be the origin of these famous booksellers.

Some claim that several centuries ago, a ship transporting books sunk in the river near the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Desperate to recover some of their lost wages, the sailors threw themselves into the water to save as many books as possible. They sold the salvaged books on the banks of the Seine to Parisians passing by.  As it became quite lucrative, the bookselling tradition was born.  While this is a lovely story, there is no real evidence to back it up.

Most likely this tradition started around the 16th century when market peddlers started to sell books. In 1649, following a push by disgruntled bookshop owners, a decree was passed prohibiting the sale of books on the Pont Neuf. The law was later revoked and since 1859 the bouquinistes have been allowed to sell their books along the river from sunrise to sunset.

The bouquinistes sold bouquins, small and old damaged books.  None of the high-minded society of the time would have dared buy any of these low value books!

The political and religious events of the following three centuries certainly helped the development of the trade. The bouquinistes were able to discreetly sell pamphlets targeting the government and the church.  At that time, they had no fixed selling point, using wheelbarrows to transport and sell their wares. They could hastily pack their pamphlets and flee when they saw a policeman approaching.

Their stalls became a place where citizens and students could vent their frustration and anger. The bouquinistes had become the insubordinate of the country and remained under scrutiny. They circulated more pamphlets in the year that led to the French Revolutions. 

Sadly, the trade really took off when so many mansions and chateaux were demolished after being emptied of their contents.  A myriad of books which once stood on the library shelves of the rich and powerful found their way to the stalls of the bouquinistes. Their overnight surplus of these once expensive books boosted this flourishing second-hand trade.

The bouquinistes played another major role during WWII, when they helped the French Resistance transmit coded messages in the pages of the books. The Germans could not find them, as it was like ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’.

The Bouquinistes received permission to permanently attach their boxes to the parapets in 1891.

There are now 240 bouquinistes making use of over 900 “green boxes” to house some 300,000 old books, journals, stamps, posters, trading cards and more. 

They operate under a license granted by the City of Paris with the best spots awarded on seniority. Bouquinistes buy the four “green boxes” they’re entitled to and pay a small rent of around €100 per year. They need to maintain the boxes and keep them looking smart using “vert wagon” paint which is the colour of old train carriages. They also have the obligation of being open at least four days per week.

Most bouquinistes specialize and sell books and documents related to fashion, history, cinema or foreign writers although there’s no telling what treasures you might find.  As times are becoming harder, the bouquinistes are now allowed to sell tourist items to make ends meet, however, at least three of their four boxes must be dedicated to the sale of books.

Some believe the trade could be on the decline, but the waiting list to become one of Paris’ famous bouquinistes is still nearly eight years long.

Since 1991, the bouquinistes have been recognized as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and have inspired booksellers in other cities such as Ottawa, Beijing and Tokyo.

When you visit Paris, stroll along the Seine, stop and scan these green boxes; they are a real treasure trove.


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