Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The image above is the cover of a gift catalog/magazine (that I’m certain was expensive to produce) from La Grande Épicerie de Paris in Le Bon Marché department store (38 rue de Sèvres, 7th arrondissement). I picked it up in December of 2009, and though you can’t tell from the image, you can actually turn the serrated wheel at the right so that the colors change in the cut-outs of the gift boxes. I think it’s such a beautiful publication that I can’t bear to get rid of it, and besides, looking through it reminds me that La Grande Épicerie is a fabulous one-stop shop for wonderful culinary gifts (for others, but also for yourself!).

It also reminds me how much I love Paris’s grands magasins (department stores), and how often I tell people not to overlook them. It’s not just about the shopping: Galeries Lafayette, for example, has a gorgeous, mosaic glass domed ceiling that is every bit worth seeing as any other Parisian landmark, and the façade of Au Printemps was registered as a historic monument in 1975. In addition to Galeries Lafayete, Au Printemps, and Bon Marché, the other grands magasins include Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville (BHV) and, formerly, La Samaritaine, now closed. In some ways I liked La Samaritaine best of all. The store was founded by Ernest Cognacq and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay (yes, the very same names associated with the wonderful Cognac-Jay Museum in the nearby 3rd arrondissement, housing one of the finest private collections of 18th century painting and objets d’art). Cognacq reportedly began selling ties on the Pont Neuf at a site previously known for a water pump located under an arch of the bridge. The pump provided water to the community from the early 1600s to the early 1800s, and it bore a bas-relief of the biblical Samaritan woman drawing water for Jesus at the well. I suppose Ernest and his wife had no trouble thinking of a name for their store when it opened in 1870. La Samaritaine was enormously successful until the 1970s, when it began operating at a loss, and it closed in 2005. I didn’t buy many things there but I loved the store for its rooftop café, Toupary (I love that pun!). I always heard the food was mediocre so I only ever had coffee and wine there, but what I came for was the view, which was spectacular and gratuit – everyone was welcome to come and look out at the Seine and the rooftops and beyond. Luxury goods company LVMH now owns La Samaritaine, and in 2010 it was announced that the Japanese firm Sanaa had been chosen to redesign the property. A 450 million euro project – apparently the largest privately funded construction project ever undertaken in Paris – will turn the former store into a luxury hotel and three adjacent properties will be dedicated to offices, shops, 95 apartments, and a nursery.

On nearby rue de Rivoli and founded in 1856 is BHV (that’s pronounced BAY-AHSH-VAY and it was abbreviated in 1982), which also has a rooftop terrace that practically nobody seems to know about. I discovered it quite by accident, and I couldn’t believe my luck – besides me, there were only three other people up on the roof and the view, while not as great as at Samaritaine, was still terrific. There is not a café here, which is probably why few people know to come up. The stationery department and the sous-sol (basement, which is devoted to hardware and kitchenware gadgets; you can buy cool stuff you can’t find in the States here, like drawer pulls and knobs that say “chaud” and “froid”) are the only areas I’ve ever bought anything.

Galeries Lafayette (founded in 1893) and Printemps (founded in 1865) are neighbors on the boulevard (Haussmann) so they’ve long been fierce rivals. I like just standing in the Lafayette Coupole building with its Belle Epoque architecture, but I also like the Home building (across the street) and, of course, Lafayette Gourmet (though in my opinion it is not nearly as appealing as the Épicerie at Bon Marché). Also, there are free fashion shows, which can be great fun, every Friday at 3:00 on the 7th floor in the Coupole building. A man named Jules Jaluzot was the creator of Au Printemps, which had an unfortunate start when a fire destroyed nearly all of the original building. But when the store reopened, in 1883, it was unique in two regards, according to the store’s website: it was the first to have electricity, and the first to have set prices for its merchandise (bargaining had been customary, but according to Catharine Reynolds in ‘Paris Journal: The Great Department Stores’ [Gourmet, October 1993], the practice of fixed prices was begun at Bon Marché). Believe it or not, a second fire occurred in the early 1920s, but since that time the store has been spared further destruction (and underwent a major restoration in 2006). My favorite place to be in Printemps is the Brasserie, which features a gorgeous, Art Deco cupola. And the 9th floor offers an unobstructed view from the Opéra to the Madeleine and from the Eiffel Tower to Montmartre.

But back to Au Bon Marché (as it was originally called, in 1852, by its founder, Aristide Boucicaut): I think it has the jewel in the department store crown with the Épicerie. I have spent a lot of euros (and former francs) here buying chocolate (the Valrhona selection is far more extensive than what is available in the States, plus there are always several brands that I’ve never heard of; and I also bought a chocolate watch for my daughter!); dragée chocolate almonds covered in gold, silver, and copper (typically only available around the December holidays); Kusmi tea (again, lots more varieties on offer); a box of marrons glacés; A.O.C. olive oil from Nyons (among my most favorite); exotic salts; smoked salmon; and even an accroche-sac, one of those gadgets that you slide over a table edge and hang a handbag on (mine is “decorated” with the Epicerie website,

If you’ve read this far and are wondering if I’m just rambling on about the grands magasins for seemingly no good reason, in fact I’m doing so because January is one month of les soldes (sales) in Paris and I know a number of people who plan trips around these big sales. Les Soldes are nationwide and state-regulated, and, according to the authors of one of the best books about France ever written – Sixty Million Frenchman Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow (Sourcebooks, 2003) – they predate the discovery of America by at least three hundred years. Nadeau and Barlow note that “the police set the dates and supervise the sales across the country: stores are only allowed to have sales from mid-January to mid-February and from mid-June to mid-July. To hold a sale outside that period, merchants have to obtain special approval from the police. The rest of the year, small shops and big retailers can’t so much as offer a rebate without facing the wrath of the law.” I have read, however, that due to the faltering economy, the government has recently been allowing stores to mark down merchandise outside of les soldes. The Winter 2012 sales begin next week on 11 January and run for six weeks, ending on the 14th of February.

As each week passes, prices are slashed further, so it’s possible to get an outstanding bargain, even on designer items. But as with sales anywhere in the world, it pays to be knowledgeable about pre-sales prices to determine how good (or not) a deal you’re getting. Savvy shoppers will visit the stores in advance of the sales, especially to try on clothes for sizing – it will be a madhouse once the sales begin, so if you already know what size to buy you will save valuable time. Waiting until the end of the sales is not necessarily advantageous for clothes shoppers as by that point there will be limited sizes available. If you’re not going to be in Paris but you’d like to take advantage of les soldes, the bigger stores – notably the grands magasins – ship outside of Europe (I’m not sure of the policy for smaller boutiques), and if you are comfortable with an all-French website, check out, which is excellent.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another of my favorite features of les grands magasins: their restaurants and cafes! Whether you are actually shopping or just walking by one of the stores and feel like taking a break, don’t overlook the dining and picnic possibilities these stores offer. For the most part, what you’ll find is far better than anything in North American department stores, even at the coffee bars, and you’ll have an array of choices. Author and writer Peter Hellman, whose piece “Why We Love French Wine” is in my Paris book, has thoroughly investigated Paris department store dining over the years. I used his piece for the travel section of The New York Times – “For Hungry Shoppers in Paris,” 28 January, 2001 – as a primer for several years, but his more recent piece – “How to be a Gourmet in the Paris Stores,” The Wall Street Journal Online, 29 July, 2010 – may be of more interest.

Lastly, I close with a sentence worth keeping in mind from a very useful book by Susan Swire Winkler and Caroline Lesieur, The Paris Shopping Companion: A Personal Guide to Shopping in Paris for Every Pocketbook (Cumberland House). “In a culture where style of life is a source of national pride and pleasure, shopping as the French do is an invaluable approach to understanding French culture.”

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