We love the Bouquinistes in Paris because these book stalls are a key part of the Seine banks’ landscape whether you’re on your way somewhere, relaxing on a stroll or visiting the city. The row of book stalls runs for hundreds of metres and people flock here to read, bargain hunt and chat to the managers of these coach green stands. Passersby stop here to find a specific tome or because a cover, vintage poster or unusual title has caught their eye. The Bouquinistes are Parisian landmarks in themselves, treasure chests and time capsules bursting with hidden gems if you take the time to look.
Our visitors love them and they have had Intangible Cultural Heritage status in France since 2019, so let’s delve into the history of Bouquinistes.
A few figures:
- 3km of book stalls
- +/- 230 booksellers in 2022
- 900-odd boxes
- 300,000 antique or contemporary publications
- 2019: Listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage in France
Let’s speak “bouquiniste”
Root: “le boucquain”
Bouquiniste comes from the word bouquin, meaning book. It has been spelt this way since the 16th century. Its roots come from Flemish with the medieval Dutch word “boek” and its derivative “boeckin” meaning little book.
It first appeared in the Trévoux dictionary in 1752 which defined it as “sellers of old books, bouquins.”
The boîte: smart design and out of the box
Booksellers store all their merchandise in boîtes (the official technical term) rather than a bookshop or bookcase. The Town Hall allocates booksellers a box that is essentially like a safe. The boxes are specifically designed to melt into the Parisian landscape and match their surroundings. That means the boxes must be coach green to match the Wallace fountains and Morris columns, just like the very first métro. When open, the lid must not exceed 2.1m above ground level so as not to restrict the view for passersby. Most are in zinc-plated wood, patinated and even a little rusty from the fog and rain, but the boxes have withstood the elements. Some of them have been here for over 120 years!
Then it’s up to every bookseller to have their own signature, design and display style. A little red heart for must-read books, a cute gold peg to hang a new release on a string… It’s all about the boxes being in their element, whimsical and part of the Seine’s riverbanks.
What does being a Bouquiniste involve?
If you want to be a Bouquiniste in Paris and have one or more boxes, you need to apply to the Town Hall for a 5-year tenancy contract. The outdoor booksellers don’t have to pay anything during the contract term: no rent or taxes but they must open their stall at least 4 days a week except in the event of bad weather.
There are strict criteria regarding the items that a Bouquiniste can sell as a book stall “is and must fundamentally remain a book shop.” In other words, the stand is not the place for knick-knacks or souvenirs, despite the temptation to give into demand from tourists. That means a Bouquiniste can sell new or second-hand books, vintage newspapers and posters, etchings, postcards, vintage stamps, coins, medals, antiques and Paris souvenirs (the must-have Eiffel Tower keyring).
Bouquiniste riverbank visitor trail
This open-air bookshop runs nearly 3km along the railings on both banks of the Seine. Here’s where to find them:
- Right bank: between Pont Marie and Pont des Arts, Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville and Quai du Louvre
- Left bank: between Pont Sully and Pont Royal, Quai de la Tournelle and Quai Voltaire.
The route is ideal for a stroll, browsing the green boxes and soaking up the architectural wonders along this part of the river: the Louvre, Institut de France, Hôtel de la Monnaie, île de la Cité, Notre-Dame, Conciergerie and more.
History of the Bouquinistes: the ad-lib book trade
The dawn of the printing press in 1450 and boom in the book trade saw small booksellers appear on the banks of the Seine: colporteurs who carried a basket around their neck or shoulders and estaleurs with trestles and canvases selling second-hand books on the riverbanks. Their meeting point and favourite place to sell was Pont-Neuf, built in 1606.
But not everyone liked this ad-lib and unregulated trade, especially bookshops, so they campaigned for booksellers on the Pont-Neuf to be banned in 1649! It helped reduce unfair competition and restrict the spread of certain satirical gazettes and political or religious pamphlets which were on open display at these little Pandora’s boxes.
The Bouquiniste didn’t become a recognised profession until the First Empire when the administration listed it on the Paris Trade Register.
They almost disappeared during the reign of Napoleon III when Baron Haussmann tried to rid the riverbanks of them for his urban landscape projects. But the Bouquinistes stood firm: they got the right to sell and leave their goods overnight at the retail point as well as the council officially recognising their boîtes.
Bouquinistes, cultural references and heritage
Bouquinistes and their book stalls appear in countless films and TV programmes, old and new, French and foreign. Just take the 1959 film The Magnificent Tramp starring Jean Gabin, Charade with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant walking along the riverbank, the daydreaming American Gil played by Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Amélie and the cult series Emily in Paris.
The coach green boxes even inspired a Chanel catwalk show: Karl Lagerfeld brought the rows of book stalls to life, lining the catwalk for his 2018/2019 autumn-winter collection under the Grand Palais’ glass dome.
Paris, the only city in the world where a river
flows between two rows of books
The Bouquinistes are part of Paris’ cultural and literary heritage: whether you’re a local, walker or visitor, it’s always worth stopping to chat to one of these passionate booksellers or dig around one of the boxes to unearth a souvenir, a unique copy of your favourite book, something to join your stamp or coin collection or a pretty souvenir from Paris.
In recent developments, the 2024 Olympics and the Olympic torch parade through the streets of Paris have put the existence of Bouquinistes under threat. Their presence poses a safety risk and the rosy image this open-air bookshop has may well disappear. But remember, time after time, no matter the event or government, the booksellers have stood firm and managed to protect their stalls!
So make the Bouquinistes a must-see sight as you explore the capital on your next language stay in Paris.