'It's wonderful,' say riverside booksellers as tourists return to Paris

PARIS, Aug 19 (Reuters) - At the very heart of Paris, former sailor Rachid Bouanou opens a large green wooden crate mounted on a wall overlooking the Seine, and carefully sets out the old second-hand books he keeps in there to sell to visitors strolling by.

Tourists are back in the French capital, and for the riverside booksellers - known as "bouquinistes" in France - it's the end of fears that the COVID-19 pandemic might spell the end of a business that dates back to the 16th century.

There are even 18 new riverside booksellers along the roughly 3-kilometre (1.8-mile) stretch of river embankment, and Bouanou, long a mechanic on a fishing boat, is one of them.

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"I used to be a sailor ... but I always loved books, beautiful books, and I thought why not share this passion and share the books and authors I love with other people," he said, smiling broadly. "We're helping people discover books, new authors."

Nearby, Jan and Maria-Aida Vandemoortele, from Bruges, Belgium, have happily been browsing through the old books and newspapers on sale from the bouquinistes.

"It's only in Paris you get these stalls with wonderful books," 68-year-old Jan said. "We just saw Time magazine from when we were born, so someone kept this for 60 years, my goodness, it's wonderful."

The coveted bookseller spots are allocated for five-year periods by the city council. The booksellers pay no rent but must open at least four days a week and, in normal times, bountiful summers make up for slower sales in the winter.

Bouanou and the 17 other new sellers were approved recently, bringing the total to around 230, the first new riverside booksellers appointed since 2019, before the pandemic kept local and foreign tourists away.

"Life is finally back (to normal)," said Jerome Callais, who heads the booksellers' association. "We have just had two years of pandemic with confinements which put our activity to a halt ... now tourists are returning and new booksellers are settling in."

And the riverside bookstalls are not just for the tourists.

"It's very encouraging (that new sellers have arrived), it's sign that it's not going to disappear," said 27-year old Parisian Kubilai Iksel. "It's one of the most wonderful things about Paris."

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Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alex Richardson

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