On the Quais of the Seine

Bookstalls on the quai Montebello
Bouquiniste's bookstalls on the quai Montebello.

First a Bit of History; Then Some Chat

Paris:- Wednesday, 11. June 1997:- The most central thing of Paris is the river, the Seine. Without it, there would be no Paris; yet for many people it is merely a body of water to be crossed and in idle moments, looked at.

Many first-time visitors to the city, take a short tour of the Seine on one of the bateaux-mouches, but I have never done this - so I don't know what the on-board commentaries tell passengers.

Before coming to Paris, I lived in two deep-sea port cities and both of them had rivers. The people in these cities were generally aware of their rivers and ports. But I have always felt, that the essence of the Seine is largely unknown, if not ignored outright.

If you cannot hitch a ride on a transport barge, or cadge a ride from the river police, I do not think you can get close to being on the water. You can get close to the edge of it in many places, but these are civilized quais made of stone. In Paris, the Seine is under control. Like plumbing, it is there and it functions, but you don't get to really know it.

Yet the river's importance should not be underestimated. It is not just a picturesque ditch full of water.

In prehistoric times the Seine was as much as five kilometres wide and it was 40 metres deep. Around Paris, Montmartre, the Belleville hill and the heights of Sainte-Geneviève and Chaillot, were tropical islands.

Moving ahead in time, the water level descended and the topography of Paris emerged. Over more time, the river bed became deeper and the meandering less - except in times of flood. The Seine formed itself into Bouguiniste Mr Gizard two and the islands appeared. They were; Louviers, Saint-Louis, the Cité and the Cygnes.

Marcel Gizard shows posters featuring his wife's dance troupe instead of his usual postcards.

The Parisii inhabited the Ile-de-la-Cité around 250 BC. The island was at the crossroads of two great thoroughfares - the river itself, and a route from the Midi, which passed between the swamps of the Bièvre and Grenelle south of the river and went on the Pas-de-la-Chapelle between Montmartre and Belleville, north of the river. This was an elevated route that never flooded.

Two primitive bridges joined left bank to right, via the island and these were the vital link to the roads.

Roman occupation of Gaul after 53 BC led to the establishment of Lutèce-la-Haute on the left bank, because they found the Ile-de-la-Cité to be too small. They also had temples to Mercury and Mars on Montmartre, and with the island, the whole formed Lutèce - a name of unknown origin.

Although the Emperor Julian wrote in 358 that the water of the Seine was, "very pure and cheerful to see," he nevertheless had an aqueduct built to bring in spring water from Rungis, to supply the Roman community on the left bank.

After the Roman departure, Paris gradually became the centre of France. Historians do not know why, for there were other candidates: Orléans and Rouen, with Le Havre. From a geographic standpoint even Melun, Senlis or Reims could have taken the role. The effect of not being further west, closer to the sea, probably has a lot to do with the inward focus of France - but the why of it is unknown.

For all of its being so far inland, it was no hindrance to the Norsemen who arrived by river in 276 and plundered the town. The inhabitants, who may have numbered about 7,000, retreated to the Ile-de-la-Cité and raised the walls - eventually to today's height.

So the river was as great a thoroughfare as the road - perhaps greater, because it could support bulk freight - feed for animals and people, wines, cut wood and stone. In 1297, there were three ports in the city: Saint-Laundry, Grève and Saint-Gervais. By 1710 there were a string of ports, most of them specializing in certain goods such as wheat or hay or wine.

As the city grew, and depended more and more on these ports, times of flood or of the river freezing over, caused anxiety. At other times of stress, the river provided the means of salvation - and this is why Paris' coat of arms, its municipal badge, contains a ship. The boatmen who lived on the river and their ships which crisscrossed the city, were not only its providers but were often its life-savers.

This is a very big subject, which will not fit into this article. I have no facts and figures from the Paris Port Authority, and I wouldn't put them here if I had.

Although they spend most of their time beside the Seine, the bouquinistes have little to do with the river.

They make up for what the river has lost in liveliness. They also offer a distraction from some of the best views in the world - but if you take it another way, they also hide the terrific rush of traffic that runs from west to east along the right bank.

I start at métro Rivoli-Louvre, formerly plain Louvre, and walk past the Saint-Germain L'Auxerrois church, which is trying out its bells. The café at the corner of the quai du Louvre probably A quai with bookstalls gets more foreign visitors than most others, but is nearly a perfectly ordinary Paris café and I take on a 'double-express' in it.

Bouquiniste's stalls open to no-shows on a sunny day by the Seine.

After a heavy dose of culture at the nearby Louvre, a lot of people take the quai towards the Pont Neuf and I do this too. Bouquinistes, with their dark green vendor's boxes perched on the sidewalk parapets - the top of the quai's wall - are plentiful here, as they are on both sides of the Seine.

There is a lot of essential Paris wrapped up with the presence of these, mainly paper, vendors. Browsing means strolling and strolling means having the time for looking - either at the wares on offer, or at the view. It is like being in a cinema with two screens in one room showing different movies.

In 1989, when France was having its bi-centennial, I came along here to see what there was and found posters for the first centennial, for 40 francs, and none for the, then, current one.

Today, there is weather and a fair number of people coming from the west, but few of the green boxes are open and manned. Marcel Gizard is selling postcards from his stand.

For 40 years he sold books at his regular store in the avenue de Friedland, not far from the Etoile and the Champs-Elysées. Three years before retirement in 1985, he put his name on a list the city keeps for aspirants wishing to be bouquinistes - and he was allotted this spot, opposite number 28, quai du Louvre.

Now 78 years old, he doesn't mind the constant traffic and the noise of it. He says he can stand rain, but his stock can't. Only the hardy browse in the rain and they are few.

He owns the actual green-metal box in which the books and postcards are kept, but not the space on the quai; it is governed by the city's 'règlement des quais.' Other than being in the register du commerce as a bouquiniste, there is little administrative overhead.

"It's precarious," he said. The city can shut me down anytime for any reason; for example, to do streetwork. The underground tour bus park under the Caroussel next to the Louvre, has cut foot traffic along the quais considerably.

On days when rain doesn't look too likely, he opens up between 13:00 and 14:00, although he said some others open at 11:00. Many only open for the weekends.

After all the years spent in the comfort of a regular bookshop, I wondered if being on the quai wasn't a bit rough. "What," he said, "Sit at home in an apartment and stare at the walls? Non, merci!" Besides, he added, his wife does a lot of dancing semi-professionally - and he showed me posters advertising events where she performed; he was very proud to be married to a semi-star.

There are no fortunes to be made out of stalls on the quais; not out of postcard sales - which are a staple feature on the right bank. Mr. Gizard said he thought some bouquinistes on the left bank sold books to serious browsers and as a former bookshop owner, he would have preferred to be there; but you take the spot the city gives.

While he is telling me this we are interrupted by groups of buyers, which seem to be mostly American girls, coming from the direction of the Louvre. They look, they choose, and he helps them figure out how much to pay.

It is not much in money. But the purchase is a real postcard, bought from a real bouquiniste, on a real quai, in Paris - between the Louvre and the Ile-de-la-Cité, beside the river.

Franck Roulet has the boxes next to Mr. Gizard's. In his 20's, Franck and his operation are almost the opposite of his neighbor's. The first time I saw Franck he was wearing straight-line rollers, but today he is not.

"They're in the bag," he says. He lives in the Marais and they are his transport. Franck deals in movies - posters, photos, magazines and other articles. If it looks like a hint of rain, he won't leave the Marais.

He says there are about 90 on the waiting list for stall places; for about 10 free ones a year. He also waited three years to get his spot and he thinks it is good - mainly because he is a right-bank person. "I don't like Saint-Michel," he says.

But unlike Mr. Gizard, Franck does not like the noise and the traffic on the quai du Louvre. Tour buses often sit there idling while waiting for the lights at the Pont Neuf to change. He is thinking of giving his spot up in September, after Bouquiniste Franck Roulet operating it less than a year. It isn't the dream he thought it was going to be. He doesn't like working weekends either, and he sees little pleasure in chatting to hordes of nice-looking girls from all over the planet.

Franck Roulet holds up a movie poster, illustrated by a French comic-book artist.

From the pont des Arts on the right bank to Pont Sully, crossing over to the left bank, and coming back to the pont des Arts; the Michelin Green guide estimates the walking time at two hours and 30 minutes for a distance of 4.5 kilometres.

If you slowed down for a glance at every bouquiniste along the way, I reckon it could take a couple of days - but you'd get the unique sight of the heart of Paris and France thrown in for free.

Stopping and talking to the bouquinistes - some are chatty, some are not - well, I won't put a time estimate on it. Plane trees line both banks of the river along the quais, so even without looking or stopping and chatting, the walk is worth it - providing you are ready to see it all, most of it rated three-stars.


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