Our Man in Paris: First floor for puppies, plates and perfume

Share

Once upon a time, if you lived in central Paris and you needed to buy a lawn-mower in a hurry - or a puppy, or a mink-coat, or a concrete-mixer - you knew where to go. Samaritaine, the most eclectic and least fashionable department store in Paris - a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from Are You Being Served? - would sell you anything (diamond tiaras, pneumatic-drills, piranha fish, ready-mixed plaster, racing bicycles...).

Once upon a time, if you lived in central Paris and you needed to buy a lawn-mower in a hurry - or a puppy, or a mink-coat, or a concrete-mixer - you knew where to go. Samaritaine, the most eclectic and least fashionable department store in Paris - a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from Are You Being Served? - would sell you anything (diamond tiaras, pneumatic-drills, piranha fish, ready-mixed plaster, racing bicycles...).

Not any more. Samaritaine re-opened some of its art deco doors last week as a shopping mall devoted to designer labels and wealthy, foreign tourists. Another of the surviving land-marks of the old, unselfconscious, non-tourist Paris has vanished.

The store, once five separate buildings, now down to three, occupies a prime site on the Rue de Rivoli, five minutes from the Louvre and Notre Dame. Its slogan used to be: "Le Tout Paris vient à La Samaritaine" ("All of Paris comes to Samaritaine"). Its new slogan could be: "Le Tout Yokohama comes to Samaritaine".

Entering the old Samaritaine was like playing snakes and ladders. Each floor had several different levels, negotiated by short slopes of crumbling linoleum or by steep steps. To get from curtains to electrical goods, nominally on the same floor, you climbed a few stairs into showers and bathrooms, turned right and then strolled down a gentle but uneven incline towards hardware. Samaritaine once employed 3,000 staff, including some of the oldest, rudest and least-helpful sales assistants in Paris (and therefore the world).

All of this, alas, is being swept away. One of the three remaining Samaritaine buildings was re-born last week, after 18 months of renovation (le relookage in French) as an emporium for designer brands of clothes and perfume. When you walk into the new store, you are greeted by beautiful young women, all dressed in black and lime green, who say "bonjour" and smile.

The same fate is to befall the rest of the Samaritaine complex in the next couple of years. Until a few years ago, Samaritaine was, amongst other things, one of the biggest book shops in Paris, a pet shop, a travel agent, a toy store, a hardware store, an auto-accessories trader, a made-to-measure curtain-maker and a garden centre. Much of this is already gone or going.

There is still a pet shop, but you can no longer buy pets. You can, however, buy gourmet cat food and a eau de toilette for canines, called Oh My Dog!.

Three years ago, Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the world's largest and most successful luxury-goods manufacturer, and owner of 45 opulent brands from Christian Dior to Givenchy, bought a controlling interest in Samaritaine. The company already owns the top dollar Le Bon Marché department store on Paris's Left Bank and two Japanese-thronged Louis Vuitton stores on or just off the Champs-Elysées.

The part of the Rue de Rivoli where Samaritaine stands is resolutely down-market but it is only a few hundred yards from the expensive tourist shops opposite the Louvre. LVMH is planning to shift tourist Paris a fraction to the east and convert Samaritaine into a power-house for its own, and other, luxury brands.

Samaritaine had been losing its customers - and loads of money - for years. Its traditional clientele has deserted to specialist shops or suburban shopping malls. (How, in any case, do you get a lawnmower, or a tank of piranha fish, home on the Metro?) In truth, most of Samaritaine's old customers - modest-income, DIY families and maiden aunts - have also migrated to the suburbs. Central Paris has become a land for the relatively rich, for young professionals and, of course, for tourists.

Samaritaine will survive in name, but it has already died in spirit - another step in the gradual conversion of the centre of the French capital into an upmarket theme-park.

Are public holidays a bridge too far?

In France, May is the most indolent month. Quite apart from the traditional epidemic of strikes, there are three public holidays: 1 May (Labour Day), 8 May (Victory over Germany day) and 29 May (Ascension Day). By a trick of history and the religious calendar, they always fall on the same day of the week - this year, on a Thursday.

By long tradition (established before the 35-hour week), if a public holiday falls on a Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people also take the Friday off. This is called a pont,or bridge, connecting the day off to the weekend. If the holiday falls on a Wednesday, some obstinate people take two days off to reach the weekend by way of un viaduc.

Next year, however, disaster looms. Since 2004 is a leap year (année bissextile), all three May holidays will fall on a Saturday. In France, when that happens, you lose the holiday. There is no day off "in loo" (or, as the French insist, en lieu).

There is worse to come. In 2005, all the May holidays will fall on a Sunday. In 2006, there will be no ponts because the holidays will fall on a Monday. Three years with no ponts and viaducs. How will the French survive? More strikes, presumably.

Keeping it real

Jean-Claude Trichet, the governor of the Bank of France and the possible next governor of the European Central Bank, is a fan of Ali G. He told a British visitor recently that he had discovered the satirist of street-cred on cable TV in Paris and thought that he was "magnifique" (English translation: "Respect, man. Dat is well wicked, aiii.") The visitor asked Trichet if he knew that Ali G was really a Jewish actor-comedian called Cohen. The governor's face dropped. "Non, ce n'est pas possible," he said, hugely disappointed.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

General election 2015: Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence