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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

Woman with Hat, Paris by Barbara Redmond fine art paintings of Paris

Woman with Hat, Paris by Barbara Redmond

July is quite a month in Paris. In addition to the festivities of le quatorze juillet, there are the haute couture fashion shows, which took place July 5 to 8, and, all month long, the much-anticipated soldes (sales). The French government regulates these reduced-price sales, which take place twice a year, in January and July, for about six weeks at a stretch.

This year, the government has eased up a bit and allowed some small sales at other times to help retailers through the recession, but January and July are the traditional bonanza months, when shops clear out their shelves to make room for new stuff.

You can find advice in guidebooks and on other websites on how to survive the soldes. They make it sound a bit like an expedition into hostile terrain – comfy shoes are a must, bring a water bottle, strategize in advance, don’t overtire yourself, set a budget, etc.

Chic. Chèque? Choc!

We’ve also heard about a dangerous syndrome associated with Paris shopping, known as “Chic Chèque Choc” – you fall in love with something chic, pay by cheque or credit card, and go into shock (choc) when you realize what you’ve just done.

Some people are elated at the prospect of sales; others want to leave town. As we see it, there are two types of shoppers when it comes to sales. There are those who relish the idea of hand-to-hand combat among the sales bins and don’t mind waiting in long queues in order to score name-brand luxury goods at a lower-than-usual prices. And then there are those who would rather enter a jungle filled with tigers, armed only with a penknife.

French novel: La Bonheur des Dames, by Emile Zola

Remarkably, today’s shopping types were profiled more than 100 years ago, in the novel Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola. His characters portray the whole range of shoppers – from the uncontrolled shopaholics who buy things they don’t need to the thrifty types who check out the big stores and brand names, and then buy similar goods elsewhere for less. One woman buys things in the store, uses them briefly, and then returns them for a refund. There are even shoplifters, including a wealthy woman who is going through marriage troubles and a professional pair who use a pregnant woman as a decoy.

Zola describes a huge sale in his imaginary department store Au Bonheur des Dames, and it sounds just like a modern sale today. It’s noisy, confusing, exhausting, crowded, hot, and exhilarating, both for the shoppers and the sales staff. What the 19th century store offered that most modern stores don’t, however, was a reading room where shoppers could retreat to regain their composure. We like the sound of that.

Zola portrays another very modern phenomenon – that of a large store that sells a huge range of goods displacing smaller, specialized family-run stores. Sound familiar? Although he doesn’t use the vocabulary we would today, the elements are all there – price wars, bulk buying, loss leaders, heavy pressure on suppliers to keep goods inexpensive, and so on.

This business model forms the backdrop to the tale of a penniless girl who at first fails miserably as a sales attendant in the huge store, but eventually finds her feet and rises through the ranks of the sales staff. She finally becomes a buyer and department head, while holding at bay the notoriously womanizing store owner. Of course, this is a French novel, so she is not trying to preserve her virtue, but stalling because she realizes (correctly) that succumbing to his amorous advances outside marriage would lead to an unhappy affair with no future.

She receives a marriage proposal in the end, but we aren’t sure it would have been happy ever after. Her husband-to-be, Octave Mouret, the store owner, views women as fodder for his empire. At one point, he says chillingly, “Doesn’t Paris belong to women, and don’t the women belong to us?” Later, a friend taunts him for exploiting women “like a coal mine.” And then there are those unsettling rumours about what happened to his first wife… He may be rich and handsome, but we found it hard to warm to Octave Mouret.

The novel was written in 1883, but set during the Second Empire of the 1860s, when Paris was being reshaped by Haussmann and the Grands Boulevards were being created by piercing through old neighbourhoods. Zola precisely located his department store in the 2nd arrondissement, not far from the Opera, and described the creation of a new street, which he called the Rue du Dix Décembre, which is actually the Rue du Quatre Septembre. In those days, small, family-run establishments in the area were under threat not only from new business practices, but from this violent reshaping of the city, which favoured the consolidation of large blocks of land.

The imaginary store Au Bonheur des Dames is based on Le Bon Marché, a shop founded in Paris in 1838 that expanded to become a department store in the 1850s. It was among the first of this type of store, which introduced innovations such as fixed prices and the option to return or exchange merchandise. It’s still there, still huge, still glittering. Although tourists flock to the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps on the Right Bank, Le Bon Marché on the Left Bank is where many Parisiennes prefer to shop.

What these department stores all have in common (including Au Bonheur des Dames) is an open atrium in the middle, crowned with skylights or stained glass, allowing the visitor to view many departments at once. The view may be delightful or overwhelming, depending on your frame of mind, and at this time of year, it may be obscured by vast crowds (presumably wearing sensible shoes and equipped with water bottles).

So shop till you drop, or head for the hills. There are only two choices in Paris in July, it seems.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Bon marché: Good price or a good deal.
Carrefour: (Crossroads) Wal-mart-like big box store in Paris’s suburbs.
La Bonheur des Dames: Variously translated as “The Ladies’ Delight” or “The Ladies Paradise” a French novel by Emile Zola in 1883 set during the Second Empire of the 1860s.
La Samaritaine: Paris department store named after a nearby fountain that featured a sculpture of the woman of Samaria from the Bible story.
La Redoute: (The stronghold.) Mail-order catalogue.
Leclerc: Wal-mart-like big-box store in Paris’s suburbs.
Les Trois Suisses: (The three Swiss.) Mail-order catalogue.
Printemps: Springtime.
Tati: Chain of clothes stores.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
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