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Posts from the ‘Les Grands Magasins’ Category


La Samaritaine – Work in Progress

ON 15th JUNE 2005, La Samaritaine, one of the Parisian Grands Magasins closed its doors for the last time.  For the last eight years it has stood empty looking increasingly down at heel and rather sad. Even though work to redevelop the building has just begun the Parisian icon that was La Samaritaine is set to disappear forever.


In 1856, an aspiring young entrepeneur, Ernest Cognacq, opened a small shop called Au petit Bénéfice in the rue de Turbigo in Paris. The venture was a failure and the shop soon closed. Undaunted, Cognacq took to the streets as a hawker selling fabrics of various kinds. He eventually set up a pitch on the Pont Neuf, on the site of the former Pompe de la Samaritaine, a large hydraulic water pump named after the Samaritan women at the well in St John’s Gospel.


Pompe de la Samaritaine – The original pump was built in the early 1600’s. This revised version was built between 1712 and 1719. It was demolished in 1813.

Cognacq’s enterprise prospered and by 1869 he was able to rent a small room across the street from the Pont Neuf in the rue de la Monnaie, which he turned into a shop and called La Samaritaine.

Cognacq’s success was assured when, in 1872, he married Marie-Louise Jaÿ. Not only was she a very active and intelligent woman, she had been the première vendeuse au rayon confection, head sales woman of the clothing department in Aristide Boucicaut’s Au Bon Marché – she came with a tidy sum of twenty thousand Francs.


Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ proved to be a formidable team. Inspired by the success of Aristide Boucicaut’s retail revolution at Au Bon Marché and with the help of Marie-Louise’s twenty thousand Francs combined with Ernest’s more modest savings, they set about expanding the enterprise and building the foundations of what was to become the Grands Magasins de La Samaritaine.

Cognacq’s plan was to establish the ideal, and ideally managed, department store. He arranged La Samaritaine as a collection of individually owned outlets, each managed by petits patrons who operated in concert yet autonomously, a model still found in today’s Grands Magasins.


The growth of the business was rapid. To increase the sales space Cognacq bought up neighbouring buildings – 19, rue de la Monnaie in 1886; 3, rue Baillet in 1889; 17, rue de la Monnaie in 1891; 20 rue de l’Arbre Sec in1893; the buildings located at the corner of rue Baillet and rue de l’Arbre Sec (5-7, rue Baillet, 22, rue de l’Arbre Sec) and at the corner of rue Baillet (1, rue Baillet, 21 rue de la Monnaie) in 1898 and the buildings between the impasse de Provence and rue des Prêtres-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in 1903.

All the buildings were made into four separate stores each specialising in different product ranges and rather unimaginatively but very practically named Magasin 1, 2, 3 and 4. The impact on sales of the additional floor space was astonishing. By 1875, sales had topped eight hundred thousand Francs, by 1882 they had reached six million, by 1898 fifty million and by 1925 sales were over one billion Francs.


This dramatic expansion included major architectural changes that gave La Samaritaine its characteristic look. Between 1903 and 1907 the French architect, Frantz Jourdain, applied an Art Nouveau aesthetic to the buildings and by 1933 another French architect, Henri Sauvage, had reworked the architecture to reflect the aesthetic principles of Art Déco.


Towards the end of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s La Samaritaine began to lose its competitive edge and its prosperity began to decline. In 2001, the luxury goods group, LVMH, bought La Samaritaine and it soon became clear that the end was in sight. Magasin 1 and Magasin 3 were leased to other retailers and then in 2005, for safety reasons we were told, LVMH announced that La Samaritaine would be closed and the buildings redeveloped. And it was closed and it remains closed and it is likely to do so until some time in 2016.


La Samaritaine on rue de la Monnaie, 1923. Image: Ministère de la Culture (France)

So what is to become of La Samaritaine?

Well, it will become a mixed-use development designed by the Japanese architects SANAA. The plans include a luxury hotel, the Cheval Blanc, owned by LVMH, two midsize stores – DFS, a duty-free emporium and Louis Vuitton – both owned by LVMH as well as one department store, as of yet unidentified. In addition, there will be 20,000 square metres of office space, 7,000 square metres of social housing along the rue de l’Arbre Sec side of the building, a day care centre and a crèche to accommodate 60 children.

It’s pretty clear that the new development is aimed at attracting big-spending tourists and especially Chinese tourists. To that end, I understand that it is planned make the entrance to the DFS duty-free store large enough to accommodate tour buses.


I went to have a look at La Samaritaine the other day and found a demolition crew at work removing the metal beams that formed part of the covered walkway between Magasin 2 and Magasin 4.

La Samaritaine – Work in Progress:


The site was dominated by the hissing sound of the oxy-acetylene cutting gear cutting through one the beams. Once cut, it was lowered and then cut again into smaller, more manageable pieces and loaded onto a truck.


In the rue de la Monnaie, where once La Samaritaine stood proud and inviting, it was very much work in progress. I was able to circumvent a rather threatening security guard and peek inside the former Magasin 2 to find that it was a completely empty shell shrouded in dust.


Some will argue that this renovation project is part of a bold and innovative vision for the future of the city – and they may be right. LVMH clearly think that the vast amount of money they are investing here will give them a competitive edge and reward them with pots of money – and they may be right too.

But glitzy, fashionable, overpriced hotels, offices and department stores with entrances designed to accommodate Chinese tour buses do nothing for me at all. Call me old fashioned, but I mourn the loss of the La Samaritaine that I was so familiar with.

But before I get completely carried away with my romantic vision of the past, perhaps it’s worth remembering that Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ also had a bold and innovative vision of the future – and they too made pots of money!


Printemps at Christmas

FOLLOWING ON THE HEELS of Aristide Boucicault’s hugely successful Au Bon Marché, which opened in 1852, Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos, opened their department store, Printemps, at the corner of Rue du Havre and Boulevard Haussmann in 1865. The store was designed by Jules and Paul Sédille.


The building was expanded in 1874, and elevators (then a great novelty) from the 1867 Universal Exposition were installed. Rebuilt after a fire in 1881, the store became the first to use electric lighting and it was one of the first department stores with direct access to the Métro to which it was connected in 1904.


Like all the big departments stores in Paris, Printemps decorates its windows at Christmas and large crowds gather to try to get a glimpse of the displays. This year, the fashion house, Dior, has taken over the Printemps windows.


Seventy-four hand-made poupettes dressed in Dior haute couture crafted in the Dior atelier in the Avenue Montaigne are to be seen  – if you can get close enough!


The cacophony of sound outside the Printemps windows:


By 1900, Printemps was in trouble. Gustave Laguionie replaced Jules Jaluzot as owner  after the business came close to collapse. In the early 20th century, the building was extended along the Boulevard Haussmann by architect René Binet in an art nouveau style.


In 2010, the Canadian architectural firm, Yabu Pushelberg, completed a redesign of the interior of Printemps.  The award-winning designers, George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg say that, “The Printemps’ retail space is conceived as a series of ‘rooms’, like a large mansion, each with its own unique and identifiable character, to create an exclusive residential ambience in order to avoid commercial stereotypes and promote a relaxing atmosphere.”


Yabu and Pushelberg have done a good job. Their design is trés chic as befits a flagship store – but sound design is clearly not their strong point! I can’t help wondering why they went to so much trouble to perfect the interior design and then infested the entire ambience with mind numbing ‘musac’, not quite loud enough to be annoying but certainly loud enough to be irritating. It seems to add nothing except to raise the ambient sound level for no obvious reason.


Sounds inside Printemps:

Across the street from Printemps I found the Armée du Salut, the Salvation Army, in festive mood.


Armée du Salut:

Not perhaps the best Salvation Army band I’ve heard, but full marks for effort and enthusiasm on a cold winter’s day.


Looking back at Printemps from across the street I was reminded that on 16th December 2008, the store was evacuated following a bomb threat from the FRA (Afghan Revolutionary Front). The bomb disposal services found five sticks of dynamite in a toilet in the store. The FRA claimed responsibility and demanded the withdrawal of 3,000 French soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

I remember this incident very well and perhaps it’s a reminder that there are more important things in the world than glitz, glamour and bad sound design!



Au Bonheur des Dames

AU BONHEUR DES DAMES is a novel by Emile Zola set in the world of the department store in nineteenth-century Paris. It covers the period approximately from 1864 to 1869 and it’s the eleventh novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macqart series.

From Zola’s original manuscript for Au Bonheur des Dames

When Zola was writing Au Bonheur des Dames, department stores were not only a new concept, their approach to retail sales was nothing short of revolutionary, which I suppose is what sparked Zola’s interest. Today of course we take department stores and other mega retail outlets for granted.

Following on from a blog piece I published recently about l’Assommoir, a Zola novel set around the quartier de la Goutte d’Or , I thought it would be interesting to capture today’s soundscape of Zola’s setting for Au Bonheur des Dames.

The department store at the centre of Zola’s novel is called Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies’ Delight or Ladies’ Paradise) and Zola modelled it on Aristide Boucicaut’s hugely successful, Au Bon Marché, which, by 1852, had become one of the largest stores in Paris and one of the first department stores in the world.

Aristide Boucicaut

Boucicaut had revolutionary ideas about retailing. Under the Ancien Régime the typical retail outlet was the boutique specialising in one variety of product with no fixed pricing – bargaining was the rule. Boucicaut changed all that.

The change that he brought to retailing included everything we take for granted today. He was the first to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, he introduced the selling of more than one variety of product under the same roof, fixed pricing, the price ticketing of individual items, free entry encouraging customers to browse at will, the clearance sale, and for his employees – commission on sales and participation in profits.

These revolutionary changes of course came at a price.

Au Bon Marché in 1910

In the novel we see Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, aiming to overwhelm the senses of his female customers, forcing them to spend by bombarding them with an array of choices and by juxtaposing goods in enticing and intoxicating ways. Massive advertising, huge sales, home delivery, a system of refunds and novelties such as a reading room and a snack bar, further induce his female clientele to patronize his store in growing numbers. In the process, he drives smaller, speciality shops out of business.

At the start of the book, Au Bonheur des Dames occupies almost a whole city block but Mouret is not beyond using all his political wiles to expand even further and threaten the existence of all the neighbourhood shops.

Au Bon Marché – Gravure

Today, Au Bon Marché is owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, and it occupies more than one city block with the department store sitting cheek by jowl with the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, across the street.

Inside Au Bon Marché

Sounds inside the department store:

Just like Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, Au Bon Marché aims to overwhelm the senses of its customers with an astonishing array of luxury brands juxtaposed in enticing and intoxicating ways.

Inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris

Sounds inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris:

Personally, I find the department store with its luxury brand boutiques and obscenely expensive prices not to my taste. But the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, is an absolute delight. With over 5,000 products from around the world they cater for every imaginable taste. If you can’t find it anywhere else, you’ll most likely find it here.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Le Bon Marché.

In Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her brothers and begins working at the store as a saleswoman. We follow her progress amidst the many conflicts that spring from the struggles for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff. But the novel is also about the symbols of capitalism, the rise of the modern city, class relations and, above all, the changes in consumer culture at the end of the nineteenth-century.

It’s fascinating to think that Emile Zola, with his characteristic eye for detail, must have walked through the vast expanse of Au Bon Marché collecting material for his novel just as I did collecting the sounds for this post. I wonder what he would make of the sights and sounds of Au Bon Marché today?

Reading Zola’s novel certainly adds an extra dimension to a visit to today’s Au Bon Marché. I thoroughly recommend it.




Selling a Vision

EASTER SET ME THINKING about who invented the Easter egg. Whoever it was, their idea was a shrewd marketing ploy which has proved to be a resounding success.

Novel ways of marketing chocolate are not new of course.

Sulpice Debauve was doing it at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. A former pharmacist to Louis XVI, Debauve opened the first chocolate shop in Paris in the Faubourg Saint-Germain-des-Près. He combined his talents as a pharmacist and chocolate maker with a flair for marketing what he called “healthy” chocolate.

He marketed his chocolate, laced with exotic and novel ingredients, as being efficacious for people with weak constitutions, nervous stomachs and chronic ailments amongst other things. It was the start of a huge success.

By 1818, Debauve had moved to 30 Rue-des-Saints-Pères. His shop, designed by Percier & Fontaine, architects to Napoleon I, still stands and is now an official historic monument. Today, the chocolates of Debauve & Gallais are sold around the world.

Someone else who knew a thing or two about marketing was Aristide Boucicaut, a former pedlar and founder of what was probably the world’s first department store – Au Bon Marché.

Boucicaut’s idea was revolutionary. Under the Ancien Régime the typical retail outlet was the boutique specialising in one variety of product with no fixed pricing – bargaining was the rule. Boucicaut changed all that.

The change that he brought to retailing included everything we take for granted today. He was the first to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, he introduced the selling of more than one variety of product under the same roof, fixed pricing, the price ticketing of individual items, free entry encouraging customers to browse at will, the clearance sale, and for his employees – commission on sales and participation in profits.

The sound inside Au Bon Marché:

I think we can safely say that Boucicaut’s idea caught on – and now it seems everybody is doing it.

The chocolaterie Debauve & Gallais still sells “healthy” chocolate and it has retained its distinctive boutique look. Au Bon Marché is still a department store and it has retained its Boileau architecture on the outside although little of it remains on the inside. Both are distinctive parts of the Parisian landscape.

And … I still don’t know who invented the Easter egg – but I do know that it had to be someone with the determination to sell a vision – someone like Sulpice Debauve or Aristide Boucicaut.


Galeries Lafayette

I AM NOT A FAN of shopping but even I have to admit that a trip to the Galeries Lafayette is an experience – especially at Christmas.

Located in the Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement, close to the Opéra Garnier, the Galaries Lafayette welcomes around 100,000 visitors a day – more than Harrod’s in London or Bloomingdales in New York.

The sound of a walk through the Galeries Lafayette

Compared to its status today as a 70,000M2 ‘Temple of Shopping’ and Paris icon, the Galeries Lafayette had humble beginnings. In 1895, Albert Kahn rented a shop in Paris at the corner of Chaussée-d’Antin and rue Lafayette to sell gloves, ribbons, veils, and other goods. The shop was small, but sales were good. It was eventually enlarged, and in 1898 Kahn was joined by his cousin, 34-year-old Théophile Bader. The partnership flourished and they soon purchased the entire building along with adjacent buildings on the Chaussée-d’Antin. The Galeries Lafayette was born.

The magnificent glass dome and wrought iron balconies dominate one end of the store  – a vivid reminder of 19th century Paris – contrasting starkly with the clean-cut, up-market, brand-named, cosmetics counters that lie beneath.

The Galeries Lafayette is famed for its stylish window displays – no more so than at Christmas when crowds of people gather to see the show.

Today, the Galeries Lafayette is a magnet for tourists with the Chinese leading the way followed by Americans and then Japanese. A walk through the store reveals a cosmopolitan mix of people some of whom come just to look and others who come to spend, spend, spend!

It may have begun life as a modest corner shop, but the Galeries Lafayette, along with the other new-fangled 19th century department stores, Printemps, Bon Marché and La Samaritaine, started a revolution in retail shopping which continues today.

The sound of a walk outside past the window displays.