The French word bouquin is an informal word for a book. The more common and more serious word is livre. So if you are reading a livre it sounds important and edifying, whereas reading a bouquin is just a way to pass the time or satisfy some strange obsession or obscure interest.
All along the banks of the Seine, on the upper walls, there are dark green boxes which just look rather uninteresting when they are closed, but when they are open they turn out to be book stalls where you can buy used books, mainly in French, of the sort that would easily qualify as bouquins. Most of them are very obscure paperback books from bygone decades, and they are often wrapped in cellophane to keep them from getting dusty.
The person who sells bouquins at one of these stands is called a bouquiniste. I don’t know if they can make a living doing this (perhaps it’s just a hobby), but some of them also sell guide books, post cards, posters and trashy souvenirs to bring in some extra money.
I’ve been browsing these book stalls off and on for fifty years now, and have occasionally bought a bouquin just so I would have something to read on the train, but I have rarely found one that I really wanted — until now, that is. On a recent morning before leaving my hotel I noted down the titles and authors of two books that I really wanted to find, thinking they would both be difficult to obtain.
On the Quai de Montebello, across from Notre Dame, I started browsing, and in the second bookstall I actually found one of the two books I was looking for. It was an old paperback edition of the novel L’Hôtel du Nord by Eugène Dabit (1898-1936), and the bouquiniste sold it to me for all of two Euros.
I kept on browsing up and down the Seine, but of course didn’t find the second book I was looking for — that would have been too much luck for one day.
But I did find it the next day at the big fnac store at Les Halles. (See my Brugge post The Dead City.)
I still haven’t read them, but many years ago I bought the second and third volumes of Charles de Gaulle’s “Memoires of War” for 5.30 each from a bouquiniste at one of these book stalls by the banks of the Seine in Paris. Of course that was 5.30 francs, which in today’s money would be all of 0.81 Euros. I suppose I couldn’t resist such a bargain, or I was looking for some lengthy reading material for my train ride back to Frankfurt, which in those days took nearly seven hours, as opposed to less than four hours today. Amazingly, I still have these books on my bookshelf and still have vague intentions of reading them, though the pages have turned quite brown over the years. Perhaps I will now feel more motivated after visiting de Gaulle’s old stomping grounds at Saint-Cyr-l’École.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Charles de Gaulle and the E.S.M.