Bouquiniste … some words one should not translate …

In my big, fat Harrap’s Anglais/Francais Francais/Anglais dictionary bouquiniste is translated as second-hand bookseller.

In my big, fat Harrap’s Anglais/Francais Francais/Anglais dictionary bouquiniste is translated as second-hand bookseller.

Well, a bouquiniste – someone who sells old and antique books from a green-painted metal box hanging from the quays of the river Seine – is as Parisian as the zinc-topped bistro with its waiters dressed in black with an ankle-length white apron. Tourists love them – I am talking about the bouqinistes now – but the Parisians have become rather indifferent towards them. (This Parisian has not as you would see from my blog post of yesterday – More about books … a real treasure this time.)

Why have the Parisians become indifferent to them?  Changing lifestyles; it’s easier (and warmer in the winter) to pop into FNAC book chain, and then also the French are apparently not such great readers anymore. Of course, the bouquinistes sell only second-hand books, and those are about people and events in which there are no longer an interest.

The bouquinistes had therefore to start selling something else in order to fill those hollows in the money pouches tied around their waists. They began selling souvenirs and reproductions of Paris scenes and postcards and fridge magnets, woolen caps and colorful scarves, even camera films, and in the months of summer cans of Coke which they kept cold in picnic coolers. I’ve even seen one selling nuts, which is quite nuts if one thinks that the Paris bouquinists have been in existence since the 16th century and to sell books and only books.

The Paris city hall has now stepped forward to prohibit them selling things apart from books, old magazines or old newspapers.

This means that many of the ‘rogue traders’ have lost their licenses; a few of them are still though holding out for a change of heart on the part of Madame Lyne Cohen-Sohal in charge of ‘Commerce’ at the city hall. Their argument is that tourists aren’t interested in old books in a language they can’t read (French, as 99% of the books are in French) but that they are indeed buying the other things. They say that the fridge magnets and colorful scarves are especially popular with tourists.

But the city hall is not bound to change its mind, and the owners of the genuine souvenir shops on the neighboring Rue de Rivoli are clapping their hands because the bouquinists have been robbing them of customers. (Where a fridge magnet costs €3 or €5 in a Rue de Rivoli souvenir shop, a bouquinist will sell it for €1 or €1.50.)

Bouquinism (I think I’ve just invented a word), like being a bourreau (man who chopped off heads with the guillotine) runs in families. The youngest bouquinist – she has four boxes – is just 19 years old. Her name is Charlotte and the profession had begun with her great-grandmother who at 92 is still a bouquinist. Both Charlotte’s parents are also bouquinists.  She is being interviewed by the national daily Parisian.

There are 250 bouquinists and they can be found on Paris’ right bank from Pont Marie Metro (underground) station to in front of the Louvre on Quai du Louvre, and on the left bank from Quai de la Tournelle to Quai Voltaire.  They are open from sunrise to sunset, every day of the week, and there is no rent to pay for the space they occupy, but they have to keep up their boxes, paint it and so on. A candidate has to apply to the city hall for a box and give a reason why they wish to become a bouquinist. Those with the most suitable reason are granted a license.

Police photo of serial killer Landru

Apart from the Michelin Green Guide I blogged about yesterday, I also found another treasure at a bouquinist. It is the Sunday, February 22, 1922 edition of the newspaper Excelsior with the public execution by guillotine of serial killer Landru (Bluebeard) outside the jail at Versailles splashed over the front page.

A last word: in 1940 when the Germans drove their big tanks across northern France and occupied half of the country which included Paris, they closed the bouqinistes down. Not that the Parisians had minded: they had more urgent things to buy in occupied Paris than books.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

One Response to “Bouquiniste … some words one should not translate …”

  1. 1
    Jo Wake Says:

    How well I remember the bouquinistes, maybe they should try selling old books in other languages rather than fridge magnets etc.

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