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Giddy up, my fellow shopping show ponies. Paris history bugs, too. That’s right. This week nobody gets left behind in the City of Light. Not when the “Soldes d’été” (the big summer sales) are just around the hairpin curve. Launching on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, let’s grab the saddles and throw caution to the sin, shall we?
I’m no diva, but I do like to shop-hop without a lot of hassle. Le Bon Marché, Printemps, and Galeries Lafayette are located along the Métro 12 line, while Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville (Le BHV Marais) holds court next to the Hôtel de Ville (naturally). Paris not only still has four of its original flagship department stores, but it’s also possible to visit the whole fancy lot of them in one day.
But it might be a shame to speed through them like that. Besides being packed with nearly every desirable object a shopper could possibly want, these fab four offer art exhibitions, window displays, fitness challenges, cooking classes, DIY workshops, and pop-up ateliers throughout the year. With planning, it is possible to have it all: That bauble you’ve eyeballed and a tale to tell.
Let’s mosey on over to Le Bon Marché for a whiff of old-school Parisian glamour. Based on my many years of browsing there, here are a few pointers to help spur on an unforgettable window-shopping spree or tag-popping jamboree.
Because as Gertrude Stein wrote in her “Bon Marché Weather” poem:
“There are a very great many things everybody is buying. There are a very great many things you are buying. There are a very great many things they are buying. There are a very great many things I am buying.”
She lived just a few blocks away, so I’m sure she was speaking from experience.
1. Getting there
24 Rue de Sèvres, 7th arrondissement (Métro station: Sèvres–Babylone)
2. Lay of the Land
There are two B.M. buildings on Rue de Sèvres: Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche (24) and its sister store, the Grande Épicerie de Paris (38). The latter, open since 1923, was once a time-out zone for ladies who lunch but is now one of the world’s largest international food markets with everything from rare gourmet delicacies to pantry staples like Lucky Charms cereal to satisfy every taste bud.
Tip: Wine tastings are often held on the basement level. Take heed though: a tiny glass of Brut Rosé Imperial recently wooed me. Did I buy one? No, I bought nearly the entire case, not thinking of the weight. It was a long Métro ride back home.
3. Make your entrance
At the corner of rue de Sèvres and rue Velpeau.
Watch your step when exiting the Métro, because the mere sight of the “Le Bon Marché” sign atop the shop has never failed to make my knees buckle. Also, there’s an underground car garage to the right of the station, so do look before you leap.
Like an oversized Lucite jewelry box, really. This 20th-century foxhound-toting fashion fanatic has always felt nostalgically at home here—even whilst just eye browsing.
5. First stop
Follow the crowd to the maze of beauty products in the center of the store, and then look up. Another department store Belle Époque showstopper, but this time with iron-clad, hair-raising checkmate appeal. Glowing, still. Created with the new-fangled (at the time) combination of glass and iron, the central skylights were designed by architects Louis-Charles, Louis-Auguste Bolieau, and Gustave Eiffel. Yes, that Eiffel.
Let there be light
The dream team also installed flying footbridges, a Baroque-inspired staircase, and a series of glass atriums on the entire upper level. During the 1980s, designer Andrée Putman (also credited with the redo of Guerlain’s flagship on the Champs) updated the store with sets of crisscrossing escalators. Surrounded by slender columns, the moving stairs’ geometric patterns smartly echo the skylight’s square glass panes.
The revel is always in the details, I say.
5. Winding it back
Never a thumping bore since the nifty fifties. The 1850s, that is. Dig the bi-annual sales? We have marketing gurus Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut to thank. According to my 1889 Bon Marché guidebook, the philanthropists also gave their staff higher wages, a reduction in work hours, language classes, music and fencing lessons, a library, dining halls, lounges, transportation vouchers, and housing.
“The cathedral of modern commerce!” is how Émile Zola described Le Bon Marché in his novel Le Bonheur des Dames. The store was the first to launch fixed pricing, welcome stations staffed with English-speaking personal shoppers, and self-service. Completely rebooting the shopping experience, restroom lounges, reading rooms, and art galleries were also added to the opulent mix.
Though now taken for granted, at the time its open-door retail concept meant that even prostitutes could shop here with ease. Both seductive and alluring, Le Bon Marché’s open aisles of enticing wares were often blamed for bankrupting families and inciting spontaneous shoplifting.
We’ve all been there. Have you seen the Longchamp’s witty new Roseau Galop bag? #Ohmygoodness
6. Keeping it real
Though no longer considered quite the “palace of good deals” it was back in the day, Le Bon Marché is still the place to window-gawk and trend-spot. Here you’ll find mod confections by fashion houses like Koché, Self Portrait, Kenzo, Esteban Cortazar, Courreges, Dries Van Noten, Each X Other, and Off White—just to name a few.
Finding bargains at Le Bon Marché can be a challenge but it’s possible. With patience of a cat and a can of organic soda from the Rose Bakery, I’m often able to snag affordable garb. In fact, not so long ago, I scored beaucoup socks by Princesse Tam-Tam. It was buy two and get three for free, so I could hardly contain my cents or my good sense.
After all, here’s where Ernest Hemingway shopped for his fashion dupes. My excuse.
Plus, this is where is the 1920 Olympic flag was made. Who knew? In the justification department, I could go on and on . . .
9. Free art exhibitions
Le Bon Marché still sponsors art expositions. And that’s really why you’ll find me here (or so I say). With roses in my cheeks, I may come running for the sock sale, but then stay for the art installations. Recently I got to rendezvous with “Simone,” a 100-foot-long bejeweled creature. Created by artist Joana Vasconcelos, the handmade sculpture pays homage to French activists Simone du Beauvoir and Simone Weil.
Missed Simone? Fret not. There will be more to come.
10. What’s new?
Le Bon Marché also coordinates thematic celebrations with pop-up ateliers. During their recent nod to all things Italian, not only was the store transformed into a Tuscan village, but I also got to customize a tote bag with a personal crest, printed on the spot. Then off I trotted, new bag in hand. The available emblems included a pizza, quill pen, book, or camera, or a racecar, handbag, bicycle, beach chair, violin, the Roman Colosseum, or Bon Marché’s own escalator, designed by Andrée Putman.
I’m not going to lie to you. It was difficult not to pick the pizza.
11. Feeling peckish?
Rocking a New York coffee shop or Baltimore diner vibe, I recommend the Rose Bakery, where organic baked goods and soda pops abound. Often there is a long wait for a table, but that said, the carrot cake is always a sure shot winner.
Who else takes shopping breaks here at the posh bakery? A former Spice Girl, that’s who. Victoria Beckham was recently spotted at one of the coveted tables. Collaborating with the store on a capsule collection perchance? My inner-pop-girl squeals.
After checking out Rose’s menu, if you don’t see what you want, what you really, really want, or the need for fortification is immediate, head just across the street to the Grande Épicerie. Before making the scene, gaze up at the entrance. Created by Louis-Hippolyte Bolieau in 1923, the art deco marvel will definitely knock your socks off.
Tip: Boucicaut Square is just in front of the store, so stock up and prepare to nosh like there’s no tomorrow.
Happy Big Sales to you! And keep on window-shopping till you can’t no more.
Lead photo credit : Let’s take our scooters to the old Bon Marché and window-shop hop till we can’t no more (Photo by Theadora Brack)