Bouquinistes of Paris Turn to UNESCO to Save Ancient Trade

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David Nosek is buried in a novel, glancing only occasionally at the scrum of tourists strolling by. A few of them pause to examine the old editions, engravings and brightly colored paintings arranged on his green, metal stand. A riverboat cuts lazily across the Seine River below.

Sporting a graying ponytail and tan vest, Nosek looks like a throwback to the bouquinistes of old — the booksellers of Paris who have plied their wares along the banks of the Seine for more than four centuries.

“I like to read, I like old things, and there’s an independence to the business,” he said. “We certainly don’t get into it to get rich.”

Nosek’s business is increasingly facing 21st century threats. Kindles and online dealers are eating into his profits. At other riverside stands, Eiffel Towers and other souvenirs are edging out dusty editions of Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo — which is why a group of bouquinistes is now on a mission to save the trade’s very identity by getting it added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

“We thought it would be good to have a label which maintains the quality of our products, without sticking to the 400 years of our past,” said Sophie Leleu, one of the bouquinistes involved in the effort. “If we’re on the UNESCO list, we become like the Egyptian pyramids, or the Venetian gondoliers — nobody can remove us.”

But the bid is controversial — even among some bouquinistes. Some fear they will no longer be able to sell the souvenirs that help them survive.

Bigger challenges

In some ways, the bouquinistes’ sliding fortunes mirror broader challenges facing the traditional book industry in capitals like New York and London — although business for some independent sellers is rebounding. In France, where legislation has curbed the onslaught of chain book stores and online retailers, a number of small dealers are also thriving — but not all. Last year, the French publishing industry saw its figures plunge, compared to the previous year.

“There’s an urgency to defend the bouquinistes’ trade,” said Florence Berthout, mayor of Paris’ 5th Arrondissement, and a leading champion of the UNESCO drive. “Every year, every month, counts.”

Berthout’s district is located in the heart of the Latin Quarter, home to the Sorbonne, one of the world’s first universities. The town hall faces the Pantheon, where some of France’s greatest authors and academics are buried. The neighborhood is also home to the majority of Parisian book stores and publishing houses — and most of the city’s bouquinistes.

“There’s nothing more democratic than books,” said Berthout, the daughter of farmers from central France who discovered Shakespeare and Emile Zola, thanks to inexpensive paperbacks her parents bought. “They’re cheap, they’re easy to carry, and unlike computers, they don’t break down.”

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Status would raise the profile of bouquinistes, Berthout says, adding, “We hope there’ll be an uptick in their sales — which will allow them to stick to the heart of their trade, not the cheap souvenirs.”

Making ‘Parisians laugh’

Few believe the bouquinistes will disappear from the city’s landscape altogether. There are more than 200 today, compared to under two dozen in the 17th century. Unlike traditional bookstores, the riverside sellers don’t pay overhead. They ply their wares rain or shine, summer or winter.

“We’ve never sold new books, but we’ve never sold really old books,” said Leleu, who comes from a family of booksellers. “We’ve always sold cartoons, to make Parisians laugh. Stamps, coins, paper … this and that.”

A few bookstands away, Philadelphia native Meghan Patton wrapped up the purchase of a colorful print.

“You get the feel of Paris,” she said of the bouquiniste stalls. “They’re part of what makes the city so special.

Other tourists are underwhelmed.

Colorado author Mike McPhee, who has visited Paris for years, said he was shocked at how touristy the stands had become. Even when it came to traditional wares, “I wouldn’t trust the authenticity,” he said. “I would buy from a reputable dealer.”

Competition and politics

The bouquinistes first need to make France’s intangible heritage list before any upgrades to UNESCO status. Even this step is challenging.

“If they manage to get their application finished this year, it would be really fast,” said Isabelle Chave, who oversees the French Culture Ministry’s intangible heritage division. “Most candidates take three or four years, if not longer.”

And of the 400 so-called elements that have made the French list, only 15 have been accepted by UNESCO — including French cuisine and a type of Corsican polyphonic music. France’s culture ministry can only support one candidacy every two years for the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage bid; bouquinistes may end up competing against zinc rooftops and Parisian cafes, among other rivals.

Ahead of 2020 municipal elections in Paris, the bouquinistes’ campaign is also taking on a partisan edge. Some bouquinistes, including Nosek, say the city’s leftist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has not done enough to spearhead their drive — a sentiment shared by the 5th arrondissement mayor Berthout, a member of the center-right.

“The day she sees their dossier is likely to win, she’ll be only too happy to support it,” Berthout said of Mayor Hidalgo. “But it’s today that we need to fight.”

In an email, Paris City Hall noted it had voted to back the bouquinistes’ bid for UNESCO status, and petitioned Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen to do the same.

“The city of Paris has supported the profession for a long time,” the city’s communications office wrote. “It does not charge them any fee for occupying public space.”

Divided over souvenirs

For his part, Nosek is going a step beyond the UNESCO drive. Last year, he launched an online petition against selling kitch that he claims is distorting the trade. So far, it’s gathered more than 21,000 signatures.

“You hardly find any books anymore, only trinkets made in China,” he said. “It’s sad when the trade and the clients aren’t respected.”

Still, not all bouquinistes agree — or back the UNESCO bid. Tacky Eiffel Towers rule at Francis Robert’s stand across the river. So do keychains, plates and backpacks with Paris logos. Squeezed in between are the old comic books Robert has been selling for 40 years.

“There are days when I can’t sell a single comic book, even with an old and loyal clientele,” Robert said. “Today, it’s souvenirs that help us live — and allow us to continue selling books.”

Intangible cultural heritage status may look good on paper, he added, “But if we’re not careful, we’ll become so intangible, we’ll disappear altogether.”

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