Tue December 7, 2010

On Banks Of Seine, Niche Booksellers Fight To Survive

If you've ever strolled along the Seine River, you've surely walked past the famous Parisian booksellers and their stalls. Known as bouquinistes, these often crusty old characters sell rare books, posters and historic memorabilia out of green wooden boxes mounted on the walls alongside the river.

But increasingly, the bouquinistes are forced to peddle less lofty merchandise to make ends meet. Among the literature at Andre Paul's stall are Eiffel Tower key chains and drink coasters printed with impressionist scenes.

"Just because we're in the business of selling culture doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to make a living at it," Paul says. "It's hard work being out here in the weather and with the traffic noise. So sometimes we have to compromise and sell a few trinkets along with our books."

'Cultural Commerce'

There are about 250 bouquinistes along the Seine. Each has four boxes loaned to them for free by the city of Paris. In exchange, bouquinistes are allowed to fill only one box with tourist mementos. Paris city hall recently launched a competition to attract new bouquinistes to stalls that had lain empty. About 300 candidates applied for 30 slots.

Lyne Cohen-Solal, deputy mayor in charge of commerce, says it's important to find the right candidates to "dispense the culture."

"I think for Paris, it's ... very important to have real people, real professional people as bouquinistes, and not ... people coming there just to make money," Cohen-Solal says. "It's important to have cultural commerce."

Many bouquinistes are former professors or journalists and often specialize in a certain genre. Alain Huche sells cookbooks and old menus. He pulls out a restaurant menu from a dinner held in 1871 during the Prussian siege of Paris when hundreds of people starved to death.

"They ate the zoo animals, including the last elephant," Huche explains. "They also ate rats and cats."

'You Get The Same Thing Everywhere'

The first bouquiniste in Paris opened his stall in the 1600s. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte placed them on the banks of the Seine and began to regulate the trade. Now, three and a half miles of the riverbank are decorated with the watertight, dark green boxes. As Deputy Mayor Cohen-Solal puts it, Paris is the only city whose river runs through two bookshelves.

Jean-Pierre Matthias is a 25-year-veteran of the bouquiniste trade. He holds a prestigious spot across from France's great literary institution, the Academie Francaise. Matthias' wife, who is also a bouquiniste, has a stall in the more touristy section near Notre Dame Cathedral. They manage to make a living -- and raise two small children -- and Matthias says he won't compromise his principles.

"Mass tourism means you get the same thing everywhere," he says. "We bouquinstes are suffering from a Chinese invasion of copies. But I'm here to raise the cultural level and to meet the demands of people who are looking for something specific."

Matthias says everything he sells is original. He doesn't offer plastic, miniature reproductions of the Moulin Rouge, like some of his neighbors. Instead, he offers a complete set of original programs from the Moulin Rouge night club, circa 1950.  "I'm one of the only ones to have the entire collection," Matthias says. "They're very rare." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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