A tradition that lasted for 450 years.. Booksellers on the sidewalks of Paris face the health crisis

The tradition of second-hand booksellers began with street vendors in the markets since the 16th century, and symbolizes the sellers who are always looking for the sun to sell their books.

Video duration 02 minutes 27 seconds

Curious and reading enthusiasts from all over the world have been drowning in booksellers’ stalls on the banks of the Seine River in Paris for centuries, finding in them old anecdotes and editions that are not available, but the Corona pandemic is now threatening the life of this cultural landmark in the French capital.

“We have a great framework,” says Jerome Calais, president of the Paris Booksellers’ Cultural Association, after spending 30 years on the wharf of Conte Ho and 220 other booksellers searching for old books for sale.

“Being booksellers means it’s usually our last job,” Calais added. “We’ve taken on other jobs, but when we start selling books we can’t stop.”

Jean-Pierre Mathias, 74, who has been sitting in front of the statue of Condorcet for 30 years, supports Calais’s idea. “My 100-year-old booths are always open, they allow me to stay healthy, and the bookseller only stops when he can no longer open them,” he says.

Pandemic stress

However, Matthias does not hide that the profession is facing a crisis, as many of his colleagues “are not opening up much and have given up a little in the face of the current situation.”

He used to receive psychology students looking for books that they could find only among the shelves of his library.

He added, “There are no longer bookstores selling psychology books in Paris, I occupy the (first) place, and they are a little less in number, so the situation is more difficult between remote work and a limited budget.”

Bad weather did not alone affect the libraries on the banks of the Seine this January, opposite the Louvre Museum, only two libraries receive customers on the Conte quay. Booksellers are on closure, even though they are suffering.

“We are making a lot of plans, we must persevere to open at a time when tourists are scarce,” Calais said, noting that “only 25% of our customers come from Ile-de-France,” that is, 75% of customers come from outside Paris and its suburbs.

“Unique in the world”

The Paris municipality has called for applications to be submitted until February 18 to fill the libraries, and Olivia Polsky, deputy mayor of Socialist Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said, “We are looking for book specialists in order to maintain the continuation of the largest open-air library in the world.”

Polsky added that the municipality has received only “25 applications” so far, compared to about 60 applications in previous years for the same number of vacant sites, but there is still a month before the deadline expires.

With the support of Paris, booksellers applied for membership in the intangible world heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“We are a major symbol of Paris, unique in the world for 450 years,” Calais says.

Despite the cold, the few bookshops open to customers still attract readers and the curious like Jean-Michel Manassero, who strolls in front of the Jean-Pierre Mathias library.

“We try to meet and exchange our ideas and talk, it’s fun,” said Manasero, who is retired, acknowledging that he sometimes resorts to digital reading.

He added, “The situation is different here. We are attracted by a strange book, a special book. Each book has a story. Sometimes there are comments written by people who have read the book before.”

Manasero noted the decline in the movement of libraries, saying, “It is becoming increasingly rare to see them open.” “It would be very unfortunate if it were to disappear because it is part of life in Paris, it gives an interesting and unusual movement to the sidewalks,” he added.

The history of green boxes

The tradition of second-hand booksellers started by street vendors in the markets since the 16th century, symbolizes the sellers who are always looking for the sun to sell their books.

The term “Boucquain” (little book) appeared in 1459 AD, and then became synonymous with the word “book” at the end of the 16th century. The term “Bouquiniste” (“bookseller”) first appeared in the dictionary of the French Academy in 1789, to mean “anyone who buys or sells old or used books”.

During the French Revolution (1789-1795), the sharp decline in written production and the paucity of printing, which was restricted to revolutionary newspapers and pamphlets, increased the status of second-hand booksellers.

During Napoleon’s rule, the sidewalks were decorated and booksellers’ stalls spread from Voltaire Quay to the Pont Saint-Michel, leading to the thought of establishing fixed points of sale in Paris in 1859 by the public authorities so that they could obtain the same rights as the general merchants of the city.

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