They are part of the Paris legend. The 217 booksellers spread out their 900 stands along the capital’s 11 quays, which represents a 3 kilometre walk. The onlookers pass at their sides, rummage through the well-known green stands, buy a book here and there, a poster, a vintage print. But who are these men and women who brave the wind, the cold and the rain? Winter is here, but they are still at the task. Enter into the outdoors’ biggest bookstore.
On this day, it is still winter in Paris, with the snow and the cold.
Despite the freezing temperatures, the banks of the Seine are alive.
-There you are, Miss.
-Thank you so much. Do I owe you 20 euros?
-Well, 10 and 10… 20 it is!
Clara, Marie and Francis are booksellers. Their boutiques are large green stands which they leave permanently against the walls of the quays. On the inside, there are hundreds of books, prints, and vintage posters designed to attract the regulars. Jean-Pierre is one of those:
-To see the booksellers, it’s one of the objectives of going for a walk. There, today, I bought a book, yeah, yeah. I’m leaving with a little something… no pre-conceived notions, but sometimes you have book titles in your head, and today I found one of them, so I’m happy.
-What conception do you have about the bookseller’s profession?
-I don’t know a lot about this kind of work. I don’t know. Are they bookstore owners? I’ve always had trouble imagining that they only do this. Are they here and then do they have somewhere else another basis for their business? I don’t know, I don’t know.
The profession of a bookseller is intriguing and surrounded by unknowns. On the Quai de la Tournelle, seated on a folding chair, book in hand, Clara waits for her customers. Her son was a bookseller but moved away from Paris to pursue his studies. So, Clara wanted to take up the torch… and it’s lasted for 26 years. For her, you don’t just become a bookseller!
-You still need to have literary knowledge, I think, and to have read a lot, to know history. I’ve seen substitutes, and they’re useless. Personally, I’ve never had a substitute…it happened to me once, but there was such a mess in my stand that I never did that again. I really liked the guy, but he didn’t know anything… Oh, it was ugly. There’s still some straightening up to do, see? You can’t mix World War I history with children’s books or with literature!
What Clara likes is the freedom which the profession encompasses.
-You don’t push a door open. People are free here. See, you can go for walks, you look around, you’re not obligated to buy. But, when you go into a shop, it’s a different approach. Here, you have a lot of freedom. And then, sometimes people will spot a book, and they’ll come back. They don’t immediately make a purchase. It’s curious, that. It’s another type of business, that of a bookseller. It’s different.
Going back up towards the Arab World Institute, Marie can always be found on the Quai de la Tournelle. She was a long-time customer of the booksellers before taking the leap ten years ago to become one of them herself.
Like her neighbour, Clara, she finds the profession to have its very own ways.
-It’s not a job which is out of the ordinary, but it is a state of mind. It’s… it’s something that’s not really quantifiable. It’s not like a bookstore where there’s a sales strategy and all that; that can’t be applied to booksellers. A bookseller, in general, does what he loves in terms of reading materials, prints or other things, old documents and such. So, it’s according to the mood of the day!
What Francis likes are the comic strip books. On the Quai des Grands Augustins, across from the Fontaine Saint-Michel, his four stands are overflowing with comic strip books of all kinds. It’s a question of organisation. Nothing is left to chance.
-As far as categorizing, arranging, yes, no… Well, in any case, you have to have up front the things which are attractive. If you only put out the comics which don’t sell, then when people pass in front, they’re going to say, “There’s nothing interesting.” So, inevitably, there are the classics: Asterix, Tintin, see… Blueberry…all of those are classics. After that, there are more recent ones such as Sambre, that’s new, or the Secret Triangle. So, you need a bit of a mix of everything. But, otherwise, I categorize them by publisher, see. Here you have all of the Soleil, the Delecourt. Over there, it’s all the Glenat, etc., etc. So that people can find them, I put all of the Tintin together. For Asterix, it’s the same; I categorize them in order, which makes it much more handy.
The booksellers find their books from different places: auctions, bric-a-brac collectors, markets, on the Internet, or in people’s homes…
It’s easy to keep a stock. But selling it is not as simple.
So, can you earn a living as a bookseller?
-It’s very difficult. You see, it’s changed a lot these past ten years. Ten years ago, it was still wonderful. You could live off of it. I’ll tell you what changed everything. It was the dawn of the euro. Oh, that was a catastrophe because people quickly supposed that a book that was 20 euros, they supposed that it was a terribly expensive book.
-For me it’s still interesting to be a bookseller.
-Do you come every day?
-Every day. Every afternoon. So, yes, it’s a job! You have to show up! If you don’t go to your job when you’re employed, you’re going to get fired. Well, it’s the same thing. If I don’t come, my customers are going to say, “He’s not coming back”, so they’ll go elsewhere. You understand, it’s all quite clear. You have a loyal clientele, but you also have to be loyal. If not, it’s no longer useful.
Armed with Scotch tape and scissors, some concoct a tiny workshop of book coverings because many booksellers have made the choice to wrap their books in plastic film.
-It’s almost a necessity. It’s the humidity, the dust, the passers-by. Otherwise, they’re going to open a book, and they’re going to damage it because if it’s not sealed, they’re going to start reading it. So, later on, it’s going to cause a heap of trouble. You’ve got to explain to them that they mustn’t read, and then they’ll say, “Why don’t we have the right?”, yada, yada, yada… So, everything is covered, and it’s a lot simpler!
But these customers who rummage about in the stands… who are they and what are they looking for? Christophe is one of the regulars. A writer, passionate about books and a great walker, he frequently paces up and down the quays. He doesn’t come here by accident.
-You find a lot of editions which no longer exist in the shops, out of print editions. And then it’s also a question of savings because these are used books, so of course they’re less expensive. I was born in Paris, I live in Paris, I’ve always lived in the heart of Paris and you can’t avoid the booksellers, they’re one of the riches of Paris!
The requests to become a bookseller are numerous. More than 200 are on a waiting list, and only about ten spaces are allotted each year by the Mayor of Paris. The job’s attraction is its freedom since with this, there’s no need for a diploma! Moreover, even if booksellers are businesspeople and have to pay for associated obligations, they have no rent to pay. Marlene Tessier works in the Department of Economic Development and Employment. She explains the regulations which govern this profession.
-The applications are examined according to when they arrived and also according to the nature of the projects which are presented, as to which activities will be developed on the quays. There is definitely a regulation dating back to 1993 concerning notably the appearance of the stands, their dimensions, their colour which is freight car green, as well as the nature of the products sold, since it’s exclusively books which must be sold. Rare books for most of the stands, with a very limited number of accessory products being approved.
-There are some who push it. They’re doing just that, and the job of the bookseller is not to sell Eiffel Towers.
-The embankments of the Seine have been invaded by souvenir merchants. I’m not even talking about Eiffel Towers because the Eiffel Tower is a part of Paris’ cultural heritage. But there’s really everything and anything, and there are certainly stands which are completely devoted to souvenirs. I believe that’s what has lowered the customer base and the visits from library lovers.
The book does not appear to be dead, however. And for Clara, the quays still hold their attractiveness.
-People are still reading, they’re coming back. And then, you see the Arab World Institute, which attracts people who come to see the exhibitions. Now, there is the Cloitre des Bernardins on Rue de Poissy. There are still some interesting things to see in the neighbourhood. There’s the Ile Saint-Louis across the way, Notre Dame next to it. It’s still a pretty environment. Personally, I find that it is fine here.
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