"La Samar"As a conditional Francophile, I hate Paris. I go to the so-called City of Light for two reasons: to arrive and depart from CDG, and to arrive and depart from Gare de l’Est. Of course, I often must stay at least one night on every visit. The five-hour train trip to Strasbourg wears down the traveler who has already spent nine hours on an airplane. (I could fly through Stuttgart, but that would involve more flights, and I hate flying).
Monday was one of those stays. My wife stayed with me as long as she could – as long as a graduate student’s income allows – and our two bunnies were probably feeling a bit abandoned. My role was to convey her to the airport, and then return to finish my archival research (yes, I fit it in between bottles of Riesling). We stayed in the Latin Quarter, in one of several haunts we like near the Sorbonne. Balzac described the area as “one of the poorest and dingiest back-streets in Paris.” For us the Latin Quarter has the appeal of interesting shops and lots of bookstores.
Monday afternoon was no different. We avoided most of Paris, staying within the arrondissement for the most part. Our only divergence was to walk down river to see my favorite building in Paris, La Samaritaine, the last great grand magasin, a relic from the revolution of commerce and fashion begun by Haussmann’s demolition of old neighborhoods. Between the imposing weight of the monumental architecture and the voluminous, sloped roofs of the apartment buildings, the art deco "La Samar" stands out as a breath of lightness at the Pont Neuf. The interior (apart from the bottom floor, which now looks like every department store) is gorgeous, with the grand staircase in the center, light railings, and art nouveau decorations on the roof, and the glassed dome on top. Perhaps La Samar owed its survival to the fact that, as architecture, it accomplished best the aesthetic of the grand magasin: steel, light, levity, space. We walked down the staircase, looking at the (seemingly outmoded) furniture and fashions, until we were forced out by the overpowering aromas from the fragrance section. At least I bought a cool pair of striped socks.
On Tuesday the store management announced the La Samar would close “to bring fire emergency measure up to standards”. It is feared, by both business analysts and labor leader, that the closure will be permanent.
Is it the end of an era? The grands magasins changed how people shopped, taking the wares from the stodgy shopkeepers who guarded them behind counters and put them in reach of the customers, who intoxicated by the abundance of textiles in their reach and the beautiful salesgirls, succumbed to new styles and passions. They gave Emile Zola and other writers new social groups to analyze: the patriarchal family that sits atop the company; the male managers who prey upon the poor salesgirls; the wealthy woman who, despite her money, is overcome by kleptomania; and finally the white-collar workers who, with their brains and modest incomes and not much else, could emulate the lifestyle of the entrepreneur. The grands magasins brought the joy of fast shopping to the masses; one could ask why fast food was not the next step.
The grands magasins stand out less in contemporary Paris. Almost every arrondissement has been transformed, first by Haussmann, but always remade as new immigrants and new inspirations settled in the city. Now they are tame. Tourists are glad to hike up Montmartre or walk along the Rue Pigalle, the former haunts of prostitutes, drunken artists, and soldiers on leave. Even the Latin Quarter is accessible, as well as attractive, to yours truly. Perhaps the process set forward by Haussmann, which made the grands magasins possible, also led to their decline.
Sadly I took no pictures of La Samaritaine. I only have the socks that I bought. And they’re dirty, so you won’t get to see them.
(Cross-posted to Cliopatria.)
History : France