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Preserving Parisian Literary Heritage Amidst Olympic Preparations

The charming open-air bookstalls lining the picturesque River Seine have long held a place of significance in Paris, rivalling the fame of iconic landmarks such as the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. These stalls, known as “les bouquinistes,” are not just vendors of books; they are repositories of history, culture, and the city’s literary soul.

However, the imminent arrival of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris has cast a shadow over these beloved bouquinistes. In the name of security, officials have mandated the temporary dismantling and removal of the boxy, dark green stalls, causing a stir among both sellers and admirers. The booksellers, who have been a constant presence for decades, are resisting this decision, asserting that it undermines Paris’s rich historical essence. The absence of these stalls is like Venice without its gondolas. These open-air bookstalls are not just commercial entities; they are living monuments that carry forward centuries of literary tradition.

Deep Roots

The tradition of bouquinistes traces its roots back to the 17th century when peddlers hawked secondhand books along the Pont Neuf. Over time, this practice evolved, receiving Napoleon’s endorsement in the 19th century, thus solidifying their presence along the Seine’s banks. Today, approximately 230 of these stalls stretch for about two miles, composing Europe’s largest open-air book market. Their daily presence has made them a quintessential part of Parisian life, drawing inquisitive tourists and locals seeking rare literary gems.

However, the impending Olympics have spurred city officials to take action, with around 170 stalls slated for closure for a period of at least two weeks during the Games. The officials cite security concerns, including the potential for hiding explosive devices, as their rationale for this decision.

The bouquinistes, though empathetic to the necessity of heightened security during the Olympics, are not willing to yield without a fight. Many among them have only recently begun to recover from the economic setbacks caused by the Yellow Vest protests and the pandemic-induced decline in tourism. The prospect of losing several weeks’ income during the peak summer tourist season is a worrisome blow.

To the Bastille

The police have offered a compromise, suggesting that the bouquinistes temporarily relocate to the lively Bastille neighbourhood during the Olympics. Yet, the stall owners raise valid concerns about the fragility of their stalls and the potential for permanent damage during relocation. Bouquinistes acknowledge the security needs but deem matters excessive to expect vendors to dismantle their stalls without any compensation. The stalls themselves are both heavy and delicate, making them vulnerable to damage during such manoeuvres.

Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, initially proposed a solution that involved retaining the stalls in place once police clearance was obtained, but this idea was ultimately dismissed in favour of full removal due to security concerns. As the city grapples with striking a balance between its historic identity and the demands of an international sporting event, the bouquinistes remain resilient. They are confident that their legacy as integral components of Paris’s allure will persist, even in the aftermath of the Olympics.

Bouquinistes have expressed hope that these unique stalls will continue to contribute to Paris’s picturesque charm. In the end, despite the temporary disruption caused by the Olympics, the bouquinistes are poised to regain their rightful place along the Seine, carrying forward the spirit of literary Paris for generations to come.