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This Paris book market has been here for 450 years. Now it’s being moved for ‘security reasons’

Millions of people are expected to visit Paris for the Olympics next year.
Telmo Pinto/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Millions of people are expected to visit Paris for the Olympics next year.

By Oliver Briscoe, CNN

Paris (CNN) — Booksellers have plied their trade along the banks of the River Seine for about 450 years, their time-battered green boxes a Paris institution as treasured as freshly baked baguettes.

But this piece of French history is now at the center of a political storm after the city’s police ordered that the vendors and their stalls be relocated for “security reasons” to make way for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in 2024.

Now the struggle over the future of the book stalls has become a David versus Goliath tale worthy of one of the second-hand romans à suspense thrillers on sale by the river.

In this case, “David” is Jerome Callais, the head of the Cultural Association of the Bouquinistes, as the 200 or so sellers he represents are known.

“Goliath” is the prefectural police authority, propped up by famously inflexible French bureaucracy.

Although the office of the city’s mayor has offered to relocate the book stalls and cover the cost of the move as well as renovating damaged stalls, Callais says the lack of consultation over a decision affecting a Paris landmark has left them fearful about the future.

“Go, you are dismissed,” says Callais, describing how he feels the decision was presented to his community of booksellers.

Callais says the police wrote to him in March promising to consult with the association, but he heard no more. Then, in July,  he says City Hall convened a meeting in which several unpopular options were laid out.

“They started by telling us, ‘You know it is very likely that you will have to close for the whole of the Games, even a week before.’”

He says one plan was for booksellers’ boxes to remain in place but, once they’d been inspected by police, sealed off for the duration of the Olympic event, which would attract millions of visitors to the city – including many who would potentially browse their stalls.

“That got teeth grinding,” Callais said. He added that although no compensation was offered for this proposed forced closure, vendors would at least know when they’d be allowed to open up again.

Uncertain future

Another plan, deemed even worse by Callais, was to move the boxes elsewhere. As he points out, many have been in place for 30 or 40 years. Most are rusted and their locks, folds, canopies and chains delicate.

Plus, there’s concern about what will happen when the Olympics are over.

“Are they even going to offer us the same spots again after the games?” asked bookseller Guillaume Castro, 35. He has been working by the river for seven years, his stall just by the Pont des Arts bridge.

“That’s really where the saddle rubs,” said Jean-François Medioni, 53, who has sold books for eight years and runs a stand on Quai Voltaire. He suspects the city will have better things to do over the course of the Games than take care of the boxes.

“I’m afraid that we get them back either in a year, or maybe never, or with someone else’s things in them,” he said. Castro and Medioni said it would be preferable to store the boxes themselves. They both complained about lack of information.

Callais argued that not only would moving the boxes be much more expensive for the capital, but a relocated book market wouldn’t work.

“Booksellers only make sense when they are on the banks of the Seine,” he said. The charm and culture of the boxes is their age-worn character, their poetic shades of green.

“If you uniformize the quays, if you make them all the same, they will look like armored trains. It would end up as something terribly sad,” he said.

Gaining support

The booksellers’ plight has gained some political support. The decision “is senseless, insulting and unfair,” Rachida Dati, center-right mayor of the 7th arrondissement, an area within central Paris’ Left Bank neighbourhood where the booksellers ply their trade, told CNN.

She, and Jean-Pierre Lecoq, the mayor of the nearby 6th arrondissement, which also includes bookseller terrain, are to take up the cause at the next Paris Council in October, arguing for limited closure and compensation.

Asked about plans for the boxes, Paris’ City Hall said it wanted to have a further meeting about it following summer recess.

“We would like to hold a meeting, alongside the Police Prefecture, at the start of term to follow up on this decision,” it said in a statement to CNN.

No one was available from the Paris mayor’s office for comment.

Meanwhile, the police reiterated the plan to remove the boxes for security reasons saying, “exchanges on the terms of the removal and replacement of the boxes will take place.”

Callais, however, hopes he and his colleagues will write the final chapter in this saga.

“Their position is far from being as legally solid as they would have us think,” he says. “We still have quite a few more arguments in our arsenal!”

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