Parisian Life

Qui sont les Bouquinistes ?

The bouquinistes are free agents, smugglers, bandits. Let me explain: whilst the bookshops are well established in the Paris of the Renaissance, these wide-boys pirated their profession. Offering their boekin (from the Dutch for “little book”) on trestle tables, in wicker baskets, or even on the ground, these “bouquinistes” are the bête noir of licensed booksellers and the police. Especially as they were selling banned books that were printed in Holland.

So, this is why their “business” has been regulated since 1578. No one may hawk books other than the 12 authorised retailers who can be found next to Pont Saint Michel, beneath the Palais de Justice, and at the foot of Notre Dame. In other words, at the seat of power…

Once respected, this rule was smashed with the opening of the Pont Neuf, which became the location for all the trafficking as the crowds passed. It even developed into a parallel market; the bouquinistes became the army of shadows of printed protest. The State tried in vain to contain the invasion but it spread all over, as far as Place de la Révolution: 120 were counted in 1732 and more than 300 in 1796.

In the 19th Century their political role diminished. The Second Empire’s public works projects (led by Haussmann and known as the “Grands Travaux”) forced them to leave the boulevards and darker streets to set up shop on the quays, the majority on the Left Bank, between the Institute and the Beaux-Arts. But it was in 1891 that these nomads went middle-class, as they were finally accorded the right to leave the wooden boxes they use to display their wares on the quays. Since, as the army of shadows faded and order was restored, these free agents took up residence.

In 1904 they formed a trade union and everything became organised. Today they number 240, share 900 wooden boxes, and the prefecture of police accords them each 8m 60cm. No box may exceed 2 m long, 75cm wide, and 2m 10 in height while it is open (so as not to block the tourists’ view of the Seine). As for their concession, it’s renewed every year, at Paris’ City Hall. In the beginning, priority was given to wards of state, war widows, and the infirm. Today anyone can apply, but the trade association is not the most sympathetic…