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It’s summertime and the shopping will be easy in Paris when the city-wide “Soldes d’été” (the big summer sales) kick off on Wednesday, June 30, 2010. So let’s whet the appetite with a little preparatory window-shopping at Le Bon Marché!
Le Bon Marché was not only the very first department store in Paris (in fact, one of the world’s first) but it also changed up the rules of retail, set waves of shopping frenzies in motion, and acted as muse to artists and writers of the avant-garde set.
So Cheapos, a tribute we will pay!
Le Bon Marché
38, rue de Sèvres
Métro: Sèvres-Babylone (lines 12 or 10)
Tip: I recommend staying on track by taking the number 12 Métro, because this line snakes through other popular shopping meccas like Abbesses, Saint-Germain (Métro Rue du Bac), Boulevard Haussmann (Métro Saint-Lazare) and Rue de Rennes.
But watch your step when exiting at Sèvres-Babylone because the mere sight of the “Le Bon Marché” sign atop the old building has never failed to make this Cheapo’s knees begin to buckle.
Back in the day
“The cathedral of modern commerce!” is how Émile Zola neatly described Le Bon Marché (“the good deal”) 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. Soon faire du lèche-vitrine (“window licking”) became all the rage.
Though now taken for granted, at the time, its newfangled open-door retail concept meant that even prostitutes could shop here with ease. Both seductive and alluring, Bon Marché’s open aisles of enticing wares were often blamed for bankrupting families and inciting spontaneous shoplifting.
Initially designed by Gustave Eiffel and Paul Sédille (who beautified Printemps, too), Bon Marché has maintained her radiant glow by getting a little work done now and then. It’s no secret that Andrée Putman (also credited with the extreme makeover of Guerlain’s flagship on the Champs-Élysées and the swanky interiors of Air France’s late, great Concord jet) recently updated the store’s look with sets of crisscrossing escalators. Surrounded by slender columns, the moving stairs’ geometric patterns smartly echo the skylight’s square glass panes.
Oh, the brands you’ll see
Though no longer considered quite the palace of “good deals” it was back in the time of Picasso and Hemingway (who bought his knock-off suits here), Le Bon Marché is still the place to window-gawk and trend-spot. You’ll find classics like Balenciaga, Lanvin, and Sonia Rykiel, along with funky designs by Comme des Garcons, Paul & Joe and Sandro.
On the ground level, be wooed by “Le Théatre de la Beauté,” which specializes in just-launched, innovative, and difficult-to-find beauty products. So prior to your visit, do a little research and pack a wish list! Make your friends at home green with envy.
Then, fortify yourself
After your high browsing, you do have a few Cheapo options!
In a separate part of Bon Marché, La Grande Epicerie de Paris (the world’s largest international food labyrinth) seems to have everything to satisfy every taste bud, both domestic and foreign. Wine and fromage tastings are often held on Fridays and Saturdays, while the Babylon Garden is just in front of the store, so stock up and prepare to nosh like there’s no tomorrow!
After your picnic, get your bargain garb on at Zara, situated kitty-corner from Bon Marché. Find the trends you’ve just spotted at a fraction of the cost. Your pocketbook and conscience will both thank you.
But if your conscience is still troubled, just behind Bon Marché you’ll find the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal. Here’s a chance to balance out your mortal sins (like lust, gluttony, envy, to name a few) with a visit to Saint Catherine Labouré’s shrine.
The lady Herself is on full view in a glass case at the front of the sanctuary. Among other things, she’s credited with designing one of the most popular of saints’ medals, which are available on-site. The shop also carries a collection of cards.
Snipping from “Bon Marché Weather,” a poem by Gertrude “Lady Dada” Stein:
“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.
Smooth sailing, Cheapos!