A Parisian Portrait : Alain, the bouquinist
I was secretly thrilled with myself for having resolved to lug my camera around with me all day, the day I met Alain. I was wandering along the Seine, happily snapping shots of everything that pleased me, not a care in the world could bother me that day. I had free time, I live in Paris, and Spring was peeking its head around the corner. Trees started sprouting vibrant green tufts of leaves and plush pale flower buds. The rain came and went as I happily popped my red umbrella out only to tuck back in my bag a few minutes later. The sky was a manic mess of gray clouds and blue patches. It was wonderful. I felt similar to myself a decade ago when I had a student’s luxurious schedule and could wander from café to book shop on a whim.
I was wandering past the famous bouquinist boxes along the river when I spied him, this wrinkled and weathered little Frenchman, pulling books out of the path of another impending rain shower. He did so methodically, without rush, handling each of the volumes with a delicate gesture that attested to his love for books, words and literature. A little rain did not scare him. I wondered how many years of stress and worry taught him how to react with such serenity. Or maybe he was born with serenity. I am sure in his style of life, stress is not a helpful factor.
He didn’t notice me taking pictures right away, so I sneaked a few more in before he did. I was going to slink away afterwards but I noticed two things that held me there at his little “bookshop” : one, he didn’t sell any trinkets, postcards or tourist crap, and two he had a lively twinkle in his eye! I said “bonjour” to him and he greeted me with questions about my taste in books. His selection was one of rare and valuable literature or old paperbacks from the 19th and 20th centuries that were in a poor enough state or common enough that he could sell them for a handful of euros. Bread-and-butter type of books for him most likely seeing that he didn’t depend on the tourist trinket seeker for his daily bread. I struck up a conversation with him about the hardness of life as a bouquinist, and he was surprisingly forthcoming with opinions and information about his life.
One of the stories he told me was of how he became a bouquinist. He told me he had met a woman and fallen in love many years ago, and this girl’s dream was to be a librarian. She loved books. He said that at the time he had never considered such a type of endeavor as a dream in life. But it was hers. The woman did not remain in his life (he did not tell me how it ended) but she had planted within Alain a desire to be with books. And in a sort of homage to their love story he decided to be a bouquinist. And there he is at his post, caressing the covers of so many beautiful volumes as of they were long lost loves that had come back to him.
I asked him if I could get some more pictures and he played along for my lens. He enjoyed seeing the images on the camera screen, and offered his opinion about which ones were best. He thought they would be great turned into non-touristy post cards. I left with two books, volumes 1 & 2 of Emile Zola’s “Le Ventre de Paris” a wonderful image packed work that illustrates the Les Halles area back when it was a giant food market in the 19th century. The images are beautiful and vivid in these pages full of words. It is my first experience reading Zola. Most French people moan at the mention of his name as they are forced to read his books in school, and they lack in action. But I am enthralled with the way he is able to paint the most detailed scene of a time and place that was for Paris such an interesting one. Balzac is also one of those authors, and I love his work too.
But back to Alain with his crinkled face, shaggy gray hair and sparkly eyes. I see him occasionally on my way home for work when the weather is descent enough for me to ride the vélib bike home. So I stop and say bonjour. He has a lovely smile, and a soft approach to a hard life that I imagine took years to perfect. You should say hi if you see him on your next stroll along the river Seine.