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World’s Largest Bookstore Shuts Down for the Olympics
...and may never reopen
It has been called the only bookstore to have a river run through it. As early as 1559 there were royal decrees attempting to shut down these booksellers along the banks of the Seine in Paris. But the desire for knowledge has always won out. By 1620 there were already eighty of the mobile bookstalls in downtown Paris. It wasn’t until 1859 that the “Bouquinistes” would be permitted to put their dark green boxes in a fixed location on the sidewalks along the river. There are currently almost 250 independent booksellers collectively offering over 300,000 books, making it the largest open-air bookstore in the world.
The bouquinistes consist of an even number of men and women, which is rarely the case in other professions. After waiting for roughly four years to obtain a permit, some have been selling books for over forty years. As I explain in my upcoming book Paris for Life, even though it can be tough working through the summer heat, the winter cold, and the hard rains, bouquinistes love the freedom of their work and the direct contact with their customers.
Paris will be hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics. For most businesses, this will be a time of additional visitors and increased revenue. The booksellers were pleased to hear that the opening ceremonies would be held on boats floating past them on the Seine. During the busiest time of the year, the Bouquinistes would be at the center of the activity, showing off the French love of literature and history under the sun.
But this summer, they received a notice from the city that they will need to shut down and remove almost six hundred of their boxes for an undetermined amount of time “for security reasons”, due to the four-hour opening ceremony. This means that these vendors, who have been along the Seine since the sixteenth century, will need to move their boxes and disappear, having been given no return date.
As one might expect, this has caused quite an uproar among intellectuals in Paris. Many of the green wooden boxes holding precious copies of antique books are quite fragile, not having been moved at all in this century. Any attempt to move them could prove disastrous for the books and for the owners. Jérôme Callais, president of the association of bouquinistes, feels that the idea is absurd. It appears that there have been no discussions with the vendors, and no options given. The bouquinistes are wondering who will pay for their lost income, broken boxes, and damaged merchandise. Some have said that the forced closure during their busiest time, along with no promise of ever being able to return, makes the whole idea unacceptable and could send many into bankruptcy.
An open letter has been signed by forty scholars, disagreeing with the decision of the mayor to move the bookstalls to Place de la Bastille, possibly permanently. “The symbolism, when culture is so disrespected and the irreplaceable wealth of books sacrificed on the altar of the business of sport, more than on that of an ethereal security perimeter, is shocking.”
Who will win this battle? We’ll see. Mayor Hildago has a history of getting what she wants, but for 450 years, so do the bouquinistes.
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