Paris bookstalls are told to relocate during next year's Olympics

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Paris bookstalls are told to relocate during next year's Olympics
A bookseller alone the Seine in Paris, July 17, 2014. The “bouquinistes” along the River Seine have objected after being told that most of them will have to move temporarily for security reasons during the 2024 Summer Olympics. (Chris Carmichael/The New York Times)

by Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle and Jenny Gross

PARIS.- The open-air bookstalls that line the River Seine are as symbolic of Paris as the Louvre or the Arc de Triomphe.

But most of the boxy, dark green stalls must be dismantled and temporarily removed before the 2024 Summer Olympics for what officials say are security reasons. The booksellers, known as “les bouquinistes,” have said they will not budge, calling the order issued by the Paris police chief last week an affront to the French capital’s history and soul.

“Paris without the bouquinistes is like Venice without the gondolas,” said Jean-Pierre Mathias, 76, who has had a stall along the Seine for about four decades. Mathias, a former philosophy teacher who sells works including an essay on Brigitte Bardot and a reprint of a 1781 book by a French barrister, said that he and other bouquinistes were signing petitions against the proposal. If that fails, he said, they will barricade themselves in front of their stalls to stop them from being dismantled.

Open every day from morning until dusk, the bouquinistes are both a fixture along the riverside and a symbol of Paris’ literary culture, attracting curious tourists and locals looking for rare books. The tradition dates to at least the 17th century, when peddlers sold secondhand books along the Pont Neuf from wooden carts and tables. By the 19th century, Napoleon authorized the bookstalls, popular with intellectuals and writers, and they became permanent.

Today, the roughly 230 open-air booksellers, stationed along the Seine for about 2 miles, make up the largest open-air book market in Europe. About 170 of the stalls will be required to close for at least two weeks during the Paris Games, according to a copy of a document that city officials showed bouquinistes at a meeting last month.

After the empty arenas of the Olympics in Tokyo, postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and in Beijing in 2022, organizers in Paris are aiming to bring back grandeur to the Games, which begin July 26. Beach volleyball will be played at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Equestrian events will be held in the gardens of the Château de Versailles. The opening ceremony will take place not in a stadium, but along the Seine, with thousands of Olympic athletes riding on a flotilla of 160 boats before hundreds of thousands of spectators on the river’s banks.

The ceremony’s unusual format poses logistical and security headaches, for both the International Olympic Committee and the Paris police, who said they had concerns that bombs could be hidden in the stalls.

In Paris, with its perfectly preserved mid-19th-century facades, there is more concern about preserving traditions and elements of the city during the Olympic Games than in other cities. Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics and an expert on local government and design, said he could not recall comparable instances of tension before the London 2012 Olympics, the last time a city in Europe hosted the Summer Games. That may have been because many Olympic events in London took place in a part of East London that had been full of abandoned warehouses, not in the heart of the city, he said.

In Paris, several booksellers, still recovering from lost income during the Yellow Vest protests and the pandemic, when tourism dropped, said that it would be devastating to lose several weeks of income during the peak summer tourist season. The city allows bouquinistes to sell rent-free, but some have had to resort to selling cheap souvenirs rather than books to earn a living.

The police in Paris have said that the bouquinistes can temporarily set up their stalls in the lively Bastille neighborhood. But chief among the booksellers’ concerns is that the stalls are old and delicate, and moving them could result in permanent damage.

Thierry Leneveu, a bouquiniste with a stall near the Louvre, said that he understood the need for security during the Olympics, but that asking booksellers to dismantle their stalls, with no compensation, went too far. “Our stalls are heavy and fragile,” he said, smoking a cigarette, as he sold posters of the Tour de France to an American couple. Getting repairs done after the Games would be impossible, because artisans will be on vacation, he and other booksellers said.

City officials have promised to repair about 40 of the most fragile stalls while they are disassembled during the Olympics.

The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, initially reassured the booksellers of their importance to the city and suggested an alternative plan that would keep the stalls in place once thepolice verified they were not a security threat. But that plan was no longer under consideration because the police deemed it necessary to remove the stalls for safety, a spokesperson for Hidalgo said Tuesday.

Najib Nahas, 57, a bookseller with a stall near the Musée d’Orsay, said it was a shame that tourists in town for the Olympics would miss the sights of the bouquinistes. But he had no doubt that the bouquinistes would pick up business as usual after the Olympics.

“We’re part of what makes Paris picture perfect,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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