Starting out from a Châtelet – one of Hector Guimard’s most outstanding Metro facades – I trecked down the Quai de la Mégisserie (named after the tanning industries that once populated it) – and across the Pont Neuf and the Ile de la Cité – through the medieval heart of Paris.
After waiting patiently for this Pernod sign below to stop blowing in the wind – of time – I got chatting with one of the bouquinistes – the antiquarian book (and poster) traders who’ve been a fixture along the Seine for centuries.
We tend to think of tourism en masse as a modern invention (or scourge) – but already in 1900, the time of the Universal Exposition in Paris, the bouquinistes were doing such a roaring trade they had to recruit heavily.
In 1910, during terrible flooding, many of the lovely old cases turned into rafts and floated off down river – the books in turn bolted along the Seine like schools of fish.
Today there are about 200 in business. The name is believed to come from the Flemish for a small book – boeckjîn which has circulated since the mid-15th century.
Bouquiner itself first popped up in a French dictionary in 1690. It presumably also explains the delightful French expression – unmatched in English – I’m off to bouquiner – to read, or rather drown myself in a book.
I on the other hand was off to flâner … Strolling the streets of Paris in August-September is divine. Can you believe you can have entire streets of the 6th arrondissement to yourself – or almost?
Well you can … You can sense the silence and solitude rising from these photos – as I slid through from the Quai du Conti past the Monnaie du Paris – the national mint – and up around the dogleg bend of the rue Mazarine.
OK … things were a little more animated in Rue de Buci – and how could one expect them not to be? Such a crossroads of 6 arr. chic – with all those cafe terraces spilling over as always – amid the whir of coffee machines, vespers and buzzy boutiques.
My walk actually ended up at the Place d’Italie – about 4 kilometres from Châtelet – but after many deviations through gardens and parks, squares and narrow streets, and a couple of cafe pit-stops, it was more like double that.
For the art of the flâneur is a bit like that of a bouquineur … he or she who goes off to bouquiner. It is to revel in getting lost, to go off on umpteenth deviations, imagining along the way, immersing oneself in the pages of Paris’s history … and it’s a never finished business.
Both the reader and stroller deal with stories … the latter searching the streets for hidden treasures instead of the shelves. Both travel across their chosen medium. As the French writer Pierre Mac Orlan said of the bouquiniste’s boxes left outside at night, they were “the symbol of an invitation to motionless travels”.