Bleak new year for Parisians' favourite corner shops

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

When the bright little shops that line the streets of every residential district in Paris reopened yesterday after the New Year holiday, there were some conspicuous and unaccustomed gaps. After more than 150 years of trading, the Felix Potin chain of groceries - company logo: "Quality since 1844" - has gone out of business.

With 400 shops in and around Paris, Felix Potin had been in financial difficulty for several years. It had been in receivership since July. But nobody quite believed it would actually close. Its final passing, as well as prompting lugubrious comments on the exigencies of social change and commercial reality, also aroused genuine sadness.

After its bankruptcy was announced on the Friday before Christmas, there was much commiseration from regular customers; others dropped in to say "goodbye" and "sorry". Outside one of the oldest stores, in the Marais district, a small crowd of people gathered for a spontaneous wake.

Until recently, Felix Potin was every Parisian's corner shop. It had the herbs you had forgotten to buy for that evening's soup; the salt you had just run out of, the smoked salmon and chilled champagne for an impromptu celebration, and the milk you needed for breakfast. If you wanted a bigger order, it could be delivered to your door. Madame and Monsieur - the shops were often long-standing family concerns - knew their regular customers, their children and their dogs; they were part of the community.

The snags were twofold. While many of the stores remained open until after 7 o'clock at night, that was not long enough for many people, who patronised rival businesses, often run by North Africans and Koreans. And they were expensive; not much more expensive than the immigrants' shops, perhaps, but significantly dearer than the bigger chain stores in Paris, like Monoprix or Prisunic, and incomparably dearer than the hypermarkets on the edge of town.

That was why in recent years, except for the often elderly and genteel Paris residents who continued to do their weekly shopping at Felix Potin, they had become shops for emergency purchases only. Much of their staple business had evaporated.

The original Felix Potin seems to have had a touch of Dick Whittington and a touch of the original J Sainsbury. In 1844, at the age of 24, he left the family farm for the capital with the warnings of his father about wicked Parisian ways ringing in his ears.

He established a grocery shop to the south of Montmartre which rapidly gained a reputation for price and quality. With four shops to his name, he set up factories and warehouses of his own. By the 1920s the firm employed more than 8,000 people.

Come the Seventies, the company was in new hands and flourishing again after a period of decline. There were now 1,500 shops; but the death of the owner, the proliferation of corner shops run by new immigrants and the growth of the hypermarkets marked the beginning of the end.

By 1994 Felix Potin was having difficulty paying its debts; a rescue plan devised by the receivers over the summer failed, and liquidation became inevitable.

The 1,057 Felix Potin employees are now out of a job. The legal position of those who lived in flats over the shops - or sublet them - is uncertain. For the moment they are having to sit tight, hoping without too much optimism for compensation.

The shops were allowed to trade up until 8pm on New Year's Eve. They offered their last Christmas chocolates and pates with big discounts characteristic of the bigger, brasher stores rather than their own more refined tradition.

Now, the blinds are down; the logo, "Quality since 1844", reads like an epitaph, and stickers from removal firms and liquidators plaster the windows. In another country, perhaps, Felix Potin would have graduated to become a Sainsbury's or a Tesco, with its big stores nationwide and its own brand labels. But Felix Potin stayed with the small corner groceries - and they became too expensive, even for extravagant Parisians.

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