Along the Seine, booksellers are trying to hold back an unhappy end

PARIS – On a recent blustery day, Jérôme Callais wrapped a second-hand biography of Robespierre tightly in cellophane, covering the burgundy leather hardcover with an expert flick of the wrist and positioning it near a large tome on Talleyrand at inside its dark green shelf on a quay above the Seine.

The sky was a dazzling blue and the sun cast a pink glow on the faces of the gargoyles adorning the Pont Neuf, not far from where Mr. Callais has sold dusty classics to countless visitors for over 30 years.

Normally, Parisians and tourists from around the world browsed his wares, as well as those of some 230 other open-air booksellers known as “booksellersWhose rectangular metal shelves stretch nearly four miles along the left and right banks of the river.

But as lockdown restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic keep browsers at bay, booksellers’ livelihoods are quickly threatened. Many are bracing themselves for what they fear will be the final chapter in a centuries-old craft that’s as iconic in Paris as the Louvre and Notre-Dame.

“We are trying to prevent this ship from sinking,” said Mr. Callais, 60, who is also president of the Association des Bouquinistes, glancing worriedly at the rows of shuttered stalls lining the Quai de Conti, above the tip of the Ile de la Cité. “But Covid made most of our customers disappear.”

Even before France imposed a new national lockdown last month to fight a resurgence of the virus, tourists who are a staple of second-hand booksellers’ incomes had largely stopped coming. And the beloved Parisian pastime of strolling – aimlessly strolling around to enjoy life – has been almost stifled, smothered by curfews and quarantines that have deprived booksellers of die-hard customers.

Sales have fallen an average of 80% this year, Mr Callais said, throwing many sellers in a precarious position, especially those dealing with Eiffel Tower key chains, Mona Lisa coffee mugs and other kitsch memorabilia on books like cash cows when tourists blocked the docks. .

Days go by without any salesperson making a sale, and when they do, they have the chance to earn over $ 30, he said. More than four-fifths of the stalls that run on both sides of the river, from Notre Dame au Pont Royal, are more or less permanently closed.

“We barely do enough to eat,” said David Nosek, a former sound engineer who sold classical literature, modern paintings and antique lithographs near the Louvre for three decades.

Mr. Nosek is one of the few holdouts who have tried to stay open despite the drop in foot traffic. But on a Saturday in October before the new lockout, it closed at the unusually early hour of 6:30 p.m. after selling a single book for 10 euros. In the previous four days he had not sold anything at all.

Before the virus, he said, he could count on 2,500 euros per month. Now Mr. Nosek earns barely 400 euros a month.

All that keeps him and many of his colleagues afloat is a new wave of government support for struggling small businesses of up to 1,500 euros per month that began in October, after three months of aid to the government. spring.

But the booksellers want to work. They are keen to maintain a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, when merchants peddled “boucquain”, or small second-hand books, along the Pont Neuf bridge from wooden carts and large pockets sewn into their pockets. coats.

The profession has faced trials through the ages, including intermittent bans under a variety of French kings. In the 1800s, Napoleon finally authorized permanent bookshops on the parapets of the Seine, popularizing booksellers and making magnets for students, intellectuals and writers like Honoré de Balzac. A large outdoor library of around 300,000 books can now be found in stalls spanning 12 quays.

Many of today’s second-hand booksellers are pensioners living on pensions who are eccentric collectors of obscure literature and magazines, mostly bought from estates and from people. They come from eclectic backgrounds as former philosophy teachers, punk rock singers and pharmacists.

A growing number of people in their 30s and 40s have joined their ranks, drawn by the freedom to work outside an office in the rain or shine, and by the creativity of building a literary universe in a tiny space. .

Even before the pandemic, second-hand booksellers grappled with cultural changes that have affected the book trade everywhere – such as the fact that amid the distractions of technology, people don’t read as many physical books as they did before, and if they do, often look to Amazon to buy them.

Mr. Callais hopes to do his part to keep the printed word alive. A talkative man capable of joking for hours with strangers, he likes to think of himself as an analog relic from a simpler era, in front of busy people with their eyes riveted on an iPhone. There is a working beige landline phone perched atop his bookstore. Underneath, he had recorded a handwritten sign: “Reading causes great damage to stupidity.”

Volumes on Ivan the Terrible and Voltaire lined his stalls. Because people can’t live off history alone, he said, he’s mixed his selections with musical and natural themes, including books on Glenn Gould, feng shui, and the Pyrenees.

“I work the old fashioned way,” he declared, his voice muffled through two masks. “My clients are people I meet on the docks. My shelf is an oasis of resistance to the machines that replace everything, ”he added. “It’s a philosophy of life and how we want to live it.”

Mr. Callais has a cell phone, but he refuses to sell on the Internet. Some of his colleagues had “gone modern,” he said, and turned to online sales to fight declining incomes.

Elena Carrera, 30, who opened her booth last year, is part of the Instagram generation that now roams the docks.

Ms Carrera, whose booth features whimsical pins, Asterix comics, vintage Playboys, and Brigitte Bardot biographies, makes about half of her sales posting photos of her merchandise on his Instagram account. Many of the dozen or so younger salespeople who have recently started the business also do most of their sales online.

“We are part of the young generation who entered this field because of our love of books, and it is up to us to keep the profession alive,” said Ms. Carrera.

“But in order to do this, booksellers need to change over time,” she added. “We cannot be dinosaurs.”

Mr. Nosek, the former sound engineer, has his own website, and recently created, where his colleagues can upload photos of their books for sale around the world. But most of the older providers – over two-thirds are over 60 – lack the internet savvy to increase online visibility, let alone get to the top of search pages dominated by Amazon book ads.

Of 300 books downloaded from the second-hand bookseller’s site so far, only five have been sold, said Nosek, 67.

“We have to do more,” he admitted. Still, he hoped the craft would recover, as it had done time and time again over the centuries.

The booksellers’ website, he noted, was adorned with the Latin words “fluctuat nec mergitur”, the old Paris slogan, which translates to: “She is tossed about in the waves, but not sinking”.

“I never imagined it would come to this,” he said, glancing down to the empty sidewalk.

“However, booksellers have been there since the Middle Ages,” he says. “I would like to think that the coronavirus will not finish us off.”

Antonella Francini contributed reporting.

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