The green, second-hand book kiosks that line the River Seine are beloved by both tourists and locals, but new plans could see the distinctive sheds dismantled as part of a massive security operation for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, set to take place along the river. But the bouquinistes are fighting to keep their open-air shops open.
On a warm August afternoon, there is plenty of interest in the bookshops along Paris’s riverbanks. Tourists and locals walking the route between the Seine and the Hôtel de Ville city hall browse through the kerbside stalls, propped open to display vintage and second-hand books, posters, old maps and souvenirs for sale.
Hundreds of these green “boxes” are attached to the riverbank walls along a three-kilometre stretch of the river that passes right through the heart of the French capital. They are as familiar and distinctive a Parisian sight as the tops of Notre Dame’s towers rising above the rooftops behind them.
“We’ve been along the quays of the Seine for 450 years, and on the parapets since they were built by Napoleon III,” says one bouquiniste who has been an official delegate representing the booksellers along the central stretch of the right bank for 30 years.
Now the traditional shops are facing an unexpected threat. At the end of July, Paris city hall said that the kiosks would have to be removed when the city hosts the Summer Olympic Games in July and August 2024.
The opening ceremony is set to be a ground-breaking event, taking place – for the first time – not inside a stadium but along the river itself, with massive crowds expected to watch from the quays.
The unique open-air spectacle requires a colossal security operation and the kiosks must be taken down as a safety measure, the Paris prefecture said in July.
“They’re worried that people are going to climb on the boxes. But if the boxes are open, they can’t. And there’ll be railings [installed], which are dangerous too,” says Juliette, who has been selling books along the quays for a year. “All the booksellers here will tell you they don’t agree with the plans.”
Her sentiments are echoed by Lim, who is running his wife’s shop for the day. He has just sold a second-hand children’s book to an elderly French customer. “I don’t understand why they would remove them. The boxes are a part of Paris,” he says.
“The biggest problem for me is the symbolism,” says Camille, who has sold books on the Seine for 10 years and has owned her own kiosks for five.
“For a ceremony that will last four hours, they want to make us move for months. We are part of the Paris landscape. Removing us is like removing a building.”
The bouquinistes also have practical concerns. The summer months are typically the busiest time of year for the open-air shops, as good weather brings more foot traffic and tourists to the city centre.
“Summer is the time when we make money for the rest of the year. It’s what allows us to survive. If we miss a summer of work, it’s very difficult to bounce back,” Camille says, pausing to sell a collection of vintage Vogue magazine photos to two tourists in their 20s.
Tourist numbers in Paris are expected to rise to more than 10 million in summer 2024, thanks to the Games.
To make sure the booksellers don’t miss out completely, Paris city hall has suggested they could move to a dedicated book market near the Place de la Bastille in order to keep trading over the summer months.
The idea has not been well received. In their current location, the sellers are perfectly positioned to attract foot traffic from the busy Arcole bridge that connects tourist sites on the Île de la Cité to the vibrant Marais district on the right bank. By contrast, “there’s no one at Bastille”, says Juliette.
The idea of going from bouquiniste to market stall seller also doesn’t appeal. There is an evident sense of pride among the shopkeepers that their presence in the city centre contributes to the capital’s cultural heritage in a unique way. “People who come to us come for the boxes, for their character. They represent Paris,” Juliette adds.
Paris city hall has said it will manage the removal, storage and reinstallation of an estimated 570 kiosks “located within the opening ceremony security perimeter” ahead of the games, but questions abound on how the feat will be achieved.
“Where will they put them? How will we get them back? And how long will it last for?” Lim asks. “[City hall] doesn’t have the answers. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Shopkeepers are also worried about the impact the move will have on the kiosks themselves.
“They’re not made to be moved,” says Camille. “Each box is made differently because they’re all made by different people. It takes a lot of time to take them down and a good understanding of how they’re made.”
“Some boxes are very old. Mine are [30 years old], and every time I’ve moved them, they get a little damaged.”
Then there is the stock to think about. A seller with multiple kiosks can store thousands of books inside, some of which could be rare and fragile collectibles.
Camille has 2,000 books that will need to be stored elsewhere if her kiosks are dismantled. “I don’t have anywhere else to keep them. Unless I fill up my apartment for two months,” she says.
A few kiosks down, the 30-year booksellers’ delegate runs a stall that looks, at a glance, sparser than the others. There are no souvenirs or posters for sale; instead, his is dedicated entirely to rare, vintage books. In fact he is rarely at his own, instead walking from kiosk to kiosk speaking to different customers and shopkeepers, enjoying the atmosphere and opportunities for conversation that the rows of booksellers bring to what would otherwise be a busy riverside sidewalk.
His role as delegate puts him in regular contact with Paris city hall, and he was shocked at how officials broke the news of plans to remove the bouquinistes.
“There was no discussion,” he says. “I thought we were going to a meeting to prepare for the Games. But city hall had already made an administrative decision, validated it with the prefecture, and none of us bouquinistes were consulted during the process.”
He fears local officials do not value what the bouquinistes bring to the riverside, saying there have been previous attempts to convert the boxes into enclosed rental spaces or to move the shopkeepers outside of the city centre. His major concern is that, once removed, the kiosks may never return.
“All we have is a verbal promise, and we can’t just work with that. The sensible thing to do is to stay where we are, and we hope we have support to do that.”
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