Jérôme Callais has been selling used books from his green kiosk near the Pont Neuf bridge for nearly three decades. These days, he says, passersby would rather fiddle with their smartphones than browse his wares.
Books have been sold from wooden cases perched along the banks of the River Seine for centuries, in perhaps the most celebrated display of France’s bibliophile tradition. But now even France is falling out of love with the printed book. The internet is forcing the closure of bricks-and-mortar bookstores across the country, and Paris’s open-air booksellers, icons of the city and its reading culture, also are struggling to adjust.
Mr. Callais and the city’s other 200-some riverfront bookmongers, or bouquinistes, find themselves at a crossroads. Some have donned the mantle of free-market realists, pushing aside some of their books to make room for more profitable tourist knickknacks like Mona Lisa magnets, baguette-shaped bottle openers and Eiffel Tower keychains.
For his part, Mr. Callais hopes to arrest the march of the market with a classically French approach: an appeal for conservation. He wants his profession recognized by Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as an “intangible cultural heritage,” like Belgian beer, Mongolian calligraphy and Brazilian samba. Such recognition, he says, would encourage stricter application of rules limiting what the bouquinistes can sell.
‘If we don’t protect our profession, there will only be souvenir stands on the riverfront.’
The first big test for Mr. Callais’s initiative comes on Oct. 1, when a committee at France’s culture ministry is set to consider new applications for France’s national intangible-heritage list, including Mr. Callais’s 24-page submission.
“We are integral to the soul of the city,” said Mr. Callais, a former classical double-bassist who has been buying used books since he was a child. “If we don’t protect our profession, there will only be souvenir stands on the riverfront. We will be replaced by miniature Eiffel Towers.”
The profession traces its existence back to at least the 17th century. By 1723, France’s dictionary of commerce described “poor booksellers” displaying their wares along Pont Neuf.
The practice spread, and in the late 19th century, Paris authorities began letting sellers leave book crates on the riverside parapet overnight for a small fee. Today, the city licenses the bouquinistes’ 28-foot plots for free, provided the booksellers agree, among other things, to run their stalls personally at least three days a week.
The mere existence of an open-air book market in central Paris is a testament to the written word’s place at the heart of French culture. A century ago writers such as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway flocked to the city, where they found an early audience for their seminal works. French teachers still have their students recite texts from memory, and novelist Victor Hugo remains a national hero.
In 2017, the French bought nearly twice as many printed books per capita as Americans, according to a comparison of sales figures from market researcher GfK and book tracker NPD BookScan.
On the riverfront, the titles for sale range from the controversial Michel Houellebecq novel “Submission” to a 1951 edition of the children’s classic “Le Petit Prince.” Pascal Corseaux, a bouquiniste who recently displayed an 1859 book called “Probity Rewarded” with a gold-embossed cover, says clients—even ones who don’t read French—often make purchases to decorate their bookshelves.
But the ground is shifting. While retail sales of printed books have ticked upward in the U.S., sales in France have fallen 7.3% from their latest peak in 2012 to just under 300 million copies in 2017, according to GfK France. People increasingly purchase even their physical books online, accounting for 20% of the total in 2017, up from 10% in 2009, according to figures from the French culture ministry.
In Paris, the number of bookstores, while high by U.S. standards, has fallen by one-third since 2000 to 703 last year, according to the Paris Urbanism Agency.
With no rent to pay, bouquinistes are in some ways insulated from the fallout. Their ranks haven’t significantly thinned, but some stalls open less frequently, and the punishing economics are forcing others to change how they do business.
Declining sales caused Francis Robert, a 39-year veteran of the trade, to devote one of his four crates overlooking the Seine to selling magnets, keychains and Eiffel Tower statuettes. The trinkets generate 75% of his profits. Many bouquinistes have followed a similar path. “It’s more than a crisis. It’s reality,” Mr. Robert said as he sold a magnet to a passerby. “To save the books, we need to sell tourism.”
Mr. Callais has resisted hawking tourist souvenirs, but in his best months his revenue is about equivalent to France’s minimum wage, just over €1,500 ($1,730). In a bad month, he says, he might bring in less than €500, from which he has to cover expenses like his merchandise and social-security taxes.
Mr. Callais became a bouquiniste instead of a musician, he says, because he didn’t want to have a boss anymore. He can get by because he and his wife, a sculptor, own their apartment across the river in the heart of Paris, he says, adding that she largely supports the couple.
“The biggest luxury is freedom,” said the wild-haired Mr. Callais, noting that he had recently opened late to take in an exhibit first at the Pompidou Center.
Unesco has recognized Paris’s riverfront as part of the world’s cultural heritage since 1991. But Mr. Callais says enshrining the status of bouquinistes would encourage city authorities to enfore more strictly the rules that limit the vendors’ display of non-printed material to one box out of four. He also wants the city to allow bigger stalls and provide better lighting to let bouquinistes stay open later in the evening.
Not everyone agrees with Mr. Callais’s call for purity. Mr. Robert argues that curtailing souvenir sales could drive many bouquinistes out of business. “We need to be hybrids,” he said. “Being on a list won’t keep us alive.”
Getting recognized by Unesco could take years. Since 2015, the body has limited countries to nominating only one candidate for the list every two years, leading to a backlog. It also isn’t clear how much help a Unesco designation would give bouquinistes: Intangible-heritage listings don’t create legal obligations for governments. But Mr. Callais, who insists he isn’t out to stop all sale of tourist goods, says a listing would help reinforce the literary roots of his profession.
Bouquinistes have a good shot eventually of at least making it onto France’s list. “Look at the number of films in which bouquinistes are in the backdrop. Look at the number of photographs, of paintings,” said Isabelle Chave, a chief heritage curator at the French culture ministry. “We have very tangible proof of their impact on Paris.”
Write to Sam Schechner at firstname.lastname@example.org