PARIS – There is a common nostalgia for buying hats in a hat shop, gloves in the glove shop and bread in a bakery. Only the last one has really survived the onslaught of modernity with it’s super-and hyper-markets. The local bakery even has little chance of being toppled by any new concept, as people love their local boulangerie, which not only makes good bagettes and patisserie, but on top of that the owner tends to be nice to you. And that is where you see the rest of the local commerce go down the drain. Nobody in Paris wants to live in a strictly residential area but keeping those awkward local shops alive is becoming a communal pain. These shops have little to offer, are populated by a rude staff and worst of all, generally do not have a stock of what ever it is they claim to sell. We have reached a stage where we seem to buy there out of charity!
In my neighbourhood, we have a great curiosity called the La Quincaillerie, which sells doorknobs and handles on boulevard St Germain, with atrocious opening hours to discourage any potential customer. As it so happens, I was in the market for them and had walked in. They have a surprisingly limited selection -given the concept of the shop- but amongst their designer wares, I found some beautiful painted porcelain doorknobs. On the day I would need them, I walked over to the shop to pick them up. Of course it does not work that way with a local shop, and I was told that I would have to wait FIVE weeks for them to arrive! That was of course out of the question. If you would have to wait for weeks for EVERY item you need as you are renovating your apartment, you will never finish! Walking home, I was left wondering what the concept of that store was as I could do better myself – why not just order them directly from China, they will get them here faster than that. (On the internet, myfab.com is a fun consumer experiment.) Or just go to one of the big chains, which actually have something to sell.
Everybody can conjure up a story of their own such as the one above, but the thing is, these local shops are almost all outdated. A painfully limited choice should be shameful. Not having a stock should lead to not having any sales. Rude staff should lead to snubbing. People are too nice to these little shops, keeping them afloat on a customer unfriendly concept. I was at the IKEA today, arriving too early and with goods to be returned. We were welcomed at the door to let us know they were still closed, they held on to our goods while we were offered a free coffee in their restaurant. All that with free parking, smiling staff and dirt cheap interior design which was all in stock! A similar experience the week before at the DIY chain Leroy Merlin. These places are, of course, in the suburbs and require a car to get there with time to burn a traffic jam.
People are not only nostalgic for old school shops, which have long stopped being an emblem of craftsmanship and style, but also the services industry has taken on the transformation. Many people say they miss the little cinemas. Today they only subsist on the left bank, with most of them in the Latin Quarter. The rest of the city has multiplex cinemas. Do not pity them. Although an evening spent wandering through the old crooked streets of the left bank, with a little red plush cinema showing a black-and-white Marcello Mastroianni movie sounds divine, the reality is not quite up to it. My local cinema, the Cinéma du Panthéon, has been around since 1907, still looks great and has a tea room co-designed by nobody other than Catherine Deneuve(!). But the lounge is only open till six (!?) and the cinema, although they try, seems to have films lingering on for months on end, and the staff…. Is it really that great to go the old, little screens?
When you think of the MK2 multiplex cinemas, which offer super screens and sound, chairs for two (so you can lay one against the other), or one which features a little boat from one to the other (Quai de Seine) and a stunning lights-in-the-water terrace view, and one which features a design restaurant and an immaculately stocked bookshop (MK2 Bibliothèque), what is more attractive? They offer a wide choice of films, which, let us not forget, is the whole point of going to a cinema. It is hardly surprising that they are doing so well. If the small cinemas want to survive, they should be fighting as the big ones do to find their added value. The embarrassing truth is, that as with the shops, audiences are often just people who wish them well, rather than those that just want to be there. People are too nice.
At some point or other, we are going to have to accept that consumer business should survive or fail based on the applicability of the services they offer. A shop which has nothing to sell, or a cinema which has nothing to show does not need nostalgia aid, but a change of management. The little shops and cinemas should be thankful for the kindness of their audiences, but that will not continue forever. We all know you are subpar. You presumably know that you are subpar. And someday our generosity will falter. Perhaps in times of financial crisis… Learn to be nice from the boulangerie, learn to sell something from the successful. We might forgive you for the pain you put us through. We might.