How Paris booksellers make a go of it

PARIS — For centuries, used booksellers, with their unmistakable dark green boxes perched along the banks of the Seine River, have been charming and permanent fixtures of Parisian life.

Or as Christian Nabet put it, “we’re part of the scenery.” And that’s partly a problem, as he sees it.

“Look,” Nabet said, pointing toward a sizeable group of tourists who wandered past his stall with hardly a notice of the classic titles, which he has been selling in the same spot for about a decade. We’re “a little like the animals at the zoo.”

Nabet, 59, called himself a “pessimist with a smile” when it came to the profession he has practiced for 29 years, especially with business slowing down year after year. While he enjoys the independence of being his own boss at his six-days-a-week job in the world’s largest open-air bookshop, he admitted the seemingly laid-back trade is in a state of flux.

Booksellers are caught between dwindling sales and the city’s requirement that they uphold tradition and maintain the authenticity that made them charming in the first place: selling rare books instead of cheap, plastic souvenirs, like miniature Eiffel towers or prints of famous monuments.

The ubiquity of books and the outlets to purchase them along with evolving consumption habits naturally mean fewer customers, Nabet said. He makes ends meet on his less than minimum wage yearly earnings because his wife also works. Minimum wage in France is less than $13 an hour before taxes, or about $1,800 per month, according to national statistics. Nabet said he doesn’t own anything but also doesn’t have any debt.

“It’s still a profession that people dream of doing,” he said. The waiting list for one of the green boxes when he started was three years long. He looks on the brighter side of things: Unlike some of his neighbors' spots, trees shade the spot he acquired on Quai Montebello more than a decade ago. And on a steamy day in late June that reached 89 degrees Fahrenheit, that helped.

About 215 “bouquinistes,” as they are known in French, are installed along a 3 kilometer (almost 2 miles) stretch of prime Paris real estate, said Marlene Tessier, of city hall’s economic and cultural development department. Their stalls on both riverbanks display some 300,000 books and are just steps away from some of the city’s most visited tourist sites, including the 13th century cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, and the Louvre museum. Since 1992, the stretch has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The spaces belong to the city and are allotted free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis as vendors retire, move on or die, but the job was never intended to be a person's only source of income. In exchange for the city’s generosity, vendors must respect two requirements, Tessier said. Boxes must be kept clean and free of graffiti and at least 75 percent of the merchandise sold must be books.

Vendors can maintain four boxes: three for books and a smaller fourth for knickknacks and the like. But Tessier said for the last 10 years the city had been lax in enforcing the rules, leading some vendors to “exaggerate” their fourth-box merchandise. Officials are doing more spontaneous stall checks now and could begin punishing noncompliance by withdrawing authorization either temporarily or permanently.

The problem, some vendors said, is that most of the clientele who stroll by these days are tourists who aren’t necessarily interested in buying old books in French, especially if they don’t read or speak the language.

“It’s not practical” what the city is trying to do, said Alain Ryckelynck, 63, who previously headed a bookseller’s union and who has been in the business since 1973. His collection includes old editions of National Geographic.

“You wouldn’t ask an architect for medical advice nor a car mechanic for cooking recipes,” he said, pondering aloud why city officials who have largely ignored the bouquinistes in the past were now meddling in their affairs. He said they were qualified as experts neither in culture nor in business.

In addition, he said, booksellers have always enjoyed their independence to sell whatever they wanted so any official meddling can “quickly feel like a punishment.” First mentioned in writings in 1750, the bouquinistes have a history of selling “forbidden books” that went against the church or against the king, Ryckelynck said. They’ve outlasted revolutions, occupations and censorship, so they’ll most likely survive this impasse too.

Ryckelynck likened his job to that of a doctor, a painter or writer, who feeds a passion first and foremost. “What interests me is the rapport with books and with people,” he said. “If I can earn a little money, great.”

Meanwhile, Nabet planned to wait and see.

“Unfortunately, it’s easier to buy books than to sell them,” he said. “Even my wife buys books on the internet.”

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