Au revoir, bohemia

Saint-Germain, haunt of Parisian philosophers and intellectuals, is dying - but not without a fight.
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Au revoir, bohemia

`The pages of books are like the pleats in clothes," says designer Sonia Rykiel, and, as if to prove it, the windows of her flagship store in Saint-Germain-des-Pres are always filled with a host of literary volumes as well as her trademark knitwear and black suits. "I originally came to Saint-Germain because I wanted to dress intellectuals rather than socialites," she says, and ever since, the "Queen of Knitwear" has been fighting to keep the area's wilting artistic life alive.

Rykiel may have set the fashion trend when she opened her first boutique in the area in 1968, but now she says that there are too many fashion stores and the cultural life of Saint-Germain is dying. Recently she met with the local mayor to design a strategy to counter the onslaught of designers bringing their boutiques to the area. Others are worried, too: the newspaper Le Monde has even gone as far as to declare that "Saint Germain is dead".

Once famous for the likes of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Juliette Greco, Saint-Germain is in the process of turning into a Parisian version of New Bond Street. Visit the small district on the Left Bank today and the names most likely to catch the eye are those of Louis Vuitton and Cartier. The former Drugstore, once the essential meeting place for bohemian nightowls, is being transformed into an Armani shop, despite furious cries of protest. And this weekend Saint-Germain will be dealt its biggest blow yet when its oldest bookshop, Le Divan, closes its doors for the last time. Established in 1921, Le Divan soon became a myth in its own right as the place for writers and philosophers to buy their books. It is likely to be replaced by a Christian Dior boutique.

The angst attached to to the area's demise is accentuated by the fact that no other part of Paris has replaced it as home to a vibrant cultural life. Philosophy has always been a subject close to French hearts and amateur philosophers still gather for discussions at Le Cafe des Phares on the Place de la Bastille on Sunday mornings. The days have long when French writers and philosophers could set most of the developed world alight, but that does diminish the fierce pride in its informal shrines, with which Saint-Germain was once littered.

The district was the cultural centre of the world in the late Forties. Juliette Greco could oust General de Gaulle from the front pages of newspapers the day after he had given an important speech. Sartre and de Beauvoir scribbled away in the area's cafes, principally the Flore, and Existentialism floated magically in the air.

"De Beauvoir and Sartre were at the Flore every day," remembers interior designer Andree Putman, who has lived at Saint-Germain-des-Pres all her life. "Very often Albert Camus would come by. There was always Antonin Artaud on his own and almost every day Giacometti and his wife Annette would pop in."

Putman believes the rot set in around the mid Sixties. Now Juliette Greco remains the only survivor from the golden era. Politicians and editors may still lunch at the legendary Brasserie Lipp a few doors down from the new Armani shop, but you are more likely to encounter tourists than theoreticians in the area's cafes. "Now there are people who make nice pullovers in the Flore rather than writers like Artaud or Samuel Beckett," laments Putman. Indeed, the only writer who now holds court there is the supermarket philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy - a sort of French thinking woman's crumpet, whose crisp white shirts are unbuttoned to his navel even in winter.

Several of thee large publishing houses which traditionally drew literati to the area have recently decamped, driven out by the ever-increasing rents. "Saint-Germain has now become an area for people with money rather than intellectuals," says Jean Noel Flammarion, director of the area's most famous bookstore La Hune. "It's dead. It's artificial. It's finished," says Dina Vierny who set up an art gallery there in 1947. "What have clothes shops got to do with art and philosophy?"

Rumours abound that Flammarion has sold La Hune to either Chanel or Hermes. The other remaining bookshop, L'Ecume des Pages, has also been bombarded by offers from fashion houses, but both claim they have no intention of selling out for the time being. "We want to stay here," says the manager of L'Ecume des Pages, Marie-Severine Micalleff, "and we will fight to stay." The cafe Les Deux Magots has also attracted the attention of clothing stores and even a florist, but its director, Jacques Mathivat, is also defiant: "We have no intention of leaving. Les Deux Magots is not for sale at the moment."

Few are enthusiastic about the future of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, but most try to face it with a certain amount of optimism. "The invasion of boutiques will greatly damage the idealism of the area," says Putman, "but big publishing houses like Gallimard are still here and are not going to move. They still have a very strong influence." Marie-Severine Micalleff agrees: "There will always be a place for culture. People will always meet in bookshops or cafes to talk about something other than the latest Cartier watch"

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