Lonely Planet Writer

Paris' riverside booksellers seek Unesco status to preserve tradition

Strolling along the Seine is an enjoyable experience merely for the sheer fact that you’re in Paris but there’s little doubt its collection of booksellers along the river bank also add to its bohemian charm. Now a campaign has begun to preserve this unique slice of Parisian life.

The booksellers have been a quintessential part of Parisian life for centuries. Photo by Matt Munro/Lonely Planet

The booksellers have begun a campaign to become a Unesco World Heritage piece of ‘intangible cultural heritage’, a status awarded to unique elements of traditional culture that are not necessarily restricted to monuments or geographic places.

The 250 booksellers – or bouquinistes – line large sections of the river banks, boasting a collection of mainly used and antiquarian books and the Seine was once described as “the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves”. Sellers pay €100 a year in rent but are obliged to open at least four days a week. They operate under strict guidelines that each are allowed four boxes of merchandise; three must be filled with books and one can be other assorted items.

Books are being pushed out in favour of cheap souvenirs. Photo by Elena Dijour/Shutterstock

However, many are starting to notice that some sellers are reducing the amount of books they sell, replacing them instead with cheap souvenirs that turn more of a profit. In response, Jérôme Callais, head of the Cultural Association of Paris Bouquinistes, has started the campaign in the hope it will uphold the ancient tradition of bookselling instead of hawking trinkets.

Jérôme has been selling French literature on the river banks for 27 years and, while he admits sales have definitely decreased, he believes it is a part of Parisian culture worth preserving. He hopes a Unesco status would mean better facilities for the booksellers and their customers, including public toilets and better lighting.

The campaign has sparked renewed interest in the book stalls. Photo by Ming Tang-Evans/Lonely Planet

His proposal was enthusiastically backed by Paris City Council but the next French application to Unesco could take up to two years. While the banks of the Seine is itself classified as a World Heritage Site, there is no specific protection for the bouquinistes.

In the meantime, Jérôme has noted that his campaign has already sparked a flurry of renewed interest in the booksellers, something he hopes will translate into better sales and a more secure future for the stall owners.