One of the classic clichés of Paris is les bouquinistes – the book and souvenir sellers along the Seine. The word bouquiniste (boocaneest) comes from the old slang word for book – bouquin – which is much closer to our word than the modern French word livre. There have been ambulatory bouquinistes since the 16th century and many of the current 250 free-spirits have inherited the calling through multiple generations.
There were times that the bouqinistes were chased from the quais due to pressure from booksellers who despised the competition and also for political reasons because the bouqinistes were associated with selling radical pamphlets. It was only starting in 1859 that the bouquinistes were allowed to attach their green stands to the parapets of the Seine. Various other rules developed over the years, including one that prohibits two licenses in the same family. This has meant that if love blooms among the tomes, people lose half their revenue if they marry. Officially, books must outnumber souvenirs at a ratio of 3 to 1 and there are an estimated 500,000 books for sale at any one time.
Each bouquiniste is allotted four boxes of a specified size and the rent is extremely cheap – only about 100 Euros a year. With rent so low, the general wisdom is that prices are lower than what you’d pay in a bookstore for the same item. Most bouquinistes have a particular passion and specialty, whether it be for biographies, glossy art book, or comics. The lifestyle is appealing to many due to the freedom and flexible schedules. You must open your stall four days a week from March through October. If you want to join their ranks, you’ll have an eight year wait.