PARIS (Reuters Life!) - With over 200 stalls lining the banks of the river Seine, Paris’ antique booksellers or bouquinistes are a familiar feature of the city landscape, and one that can trace its history back more than four centuries.
But in recent years, faced with a changing market, an increasing number have moved away from bookselling and tapped into Paris’ lucrative tourist trade, stocking cheap souvenirs alongside fading classic volumes of Rousseau and Moliere.
Irritated by the proliferation of plastic Eiffel Towers and Paris-themed fridge magnets, Paris city council has cracked down on the trend, reminding the bouquinistes that only one of their four boxes can be devoted to souvenir-selling.
The move has angered many traders who accused the authorities of over-zealous meddling and say they can no longer earn a living from selling second-hand books.
But the town hall says the bouquinistes get their plots free of charge and therefore have a duty to respect the rules and preserve a long-standing cultural tradition.
“The Paris city council isn’t interested in handing out free plots to people who want to sell souvenirs made in China to Chinese tourists on holiday in Paris,” said Lyne Cohen-Solal, deputy mayor in charge of commerce and crafts.
“The bouquinistes are part of Paris’ cultural and commercial heritage, one of the treasures of the city, it’s normal to want to help protect them,” she told Reuters in an interview.
There’s no denying that the bouquinistes boast a rich history. According to one bouquiniste, Alain Ryckelynck, today’s traders date back as far as the 16th century when traveling booksellers peddled their wares from boxes strung across their chest or tables set up in the street.
By 1620, there were 80 official bouquinistes trading mainly along the Pont Neuf — but it wasn’t until 1859 that the town began distributing concessions for spots on the parapets of the Seine and the familiar boxes of books began to appear.
Stephane Kronis, a bouquiniste for over 20 years, says times have changed, and the market for used and antique books just isn’t there any more. Young people are more interested in television or the internet, while serious collectors can track down rare volumes via online booksellers or on eBay.
Although not yet tempted by the souvenir market, Stephane says he understands those who’ve felt the need to branch out.
“We’re here to make money, not for the fun of it. Each year I make less and less money and it seems that selling to tourists can be quite lucrative,” he told Reuters.
Across the river, bookseller Alain Provot says that like any business, the bouquinistes have to adapt to a changing market or face extinction.
He admits though that some have been going too far, filling their boxes with cheap books and covering them with hanging displays of Chinese-made tourist tat.
“I’d understand if people stocked locally made crafts — we’ve got plenty of French artists and craftsmen that have nowhere to display their work,” he told Reuters.
Cohen-Solal says the town hall is looking at other alternatives to help the traders cope with a fall in customers, such as selling pens, ink-blotters and other book-related goods.
In the meantime, a stroll down the Paris quays shows many are stubbornly sticking to the souvenir trade, side-stepping the rules by setting up trestle tables and standing displays.
This isn’t the first time the bouquinistes have felt the need to branch out from book-selling — Ryckelynck said at the start of the 20th century, the stalls freely stocked antiques and bric-a-brac to attract customers, and it was only in 1930 that rules were introduced obliging them to sell books.
Editing by Bate Felix