I don’t know if this is true all over Paris but in 14ème arrondissement Le Petit Commerce is thriving. By that I mean small businesses – bars, restaurants, shops and markets. The High Street in my home town in Fife, as in most Scottish towns, is a continuation of empty shops carrying For Let signs interspersed with a sprinkling of pound shops and charity shops. I have seen no evidence of this type of dereliction in Paris – in fact I have found very few charity shops. In our neighborhood there is a healthy mix of businesses. I can’t be sure of all the reasons for this but I can guess a few.
The biggest factor I see is the absence of large supermarkets. There may be some out of town but within the Périphérique (ring road) boundary there are only small shops. Parisians live in small tenements, often six or seven stories high, without a lift; most don’t own a car. It would be very difficult to go to Asda or Tesco, do a large shop, lug it up six flights of stairs and then find a place in your tiny galley kitchen to store the food. Parisians seem to enjoy the art of shopping. Why shop in one pace when you can still buy cheese from a fromagerie, preserved meat from a charcuterie and fish from a poissonnerie. Local loyalty and specialization still rule.
And then there is the French love of fresh bread. On any street at anytime of the day, you will see people carrying home their batons, often tearing the top off to eat on the way because they cant resist that delicious fresh baked warmth. We have three boulangeries in our area. They all display a mouthwatering palate of cakes and pastries and as if by some prior arrangement, they all take a different day’s closing. Sundays are a particular favorite with the Parisian cake buyers. Gift wrapped cake boxes are carried home with care, as if the bearer were carrying a new born baby. We have succumbed to this tradition by treating ourselves to a modest tranche of Flan Nature, a cake so delicious it has become my guilty pleasure.
Next is the availability of good quality open air fresh food markets. On any day of the week there is a fresh food market within five minutes walk of my house. We go each Sunday to the nearest and happily queue for meat, fish, cheese and vegetables and of course like every good Parisian we finish our shop at the fresh flower stall. Although my french is pitiful the stall holders remain cheery and patient and between us we manage to complete the transaction with little variation between what I ask for and what I actually get.
Groceries can be bought in little franchise supermarkets called Simply, Franprix and Monoprix – the equivalent of UK’s Spar shops. The selection is usually varied and there are enough stores around to pick and choose. And as with the markets, the origin of the food is clearly marked and the majority is locally produced. In my first month in Paris I had an overwhelming desire for Scottish Oatcakes. I searched high and low and eventually emailed Nairns who gave me the addresses of three stockist in the centre of Paris but then last week I found the Franprix round the corner now stocks them – result!
Small cafes and bars seem to survive in this hard economic climate. The habit of locals dropping in for a coffee at any time of day must help and the owners’ willingness to open at all hours of the day and night must be a contributing factor. Most serve ‘formule’ meals at reasonable prices and there is often two hour long happy hours on offer. Many have arrangements with huitres (oyster) sellers allowing stalls to set up in front of their bars for one or two days a week when in season. They also double as Tabacs, selling stamps, tobacco and transport tickets.
On the whole the petit shopping experience is very enjoyable but as with everything there is a down side. Many (not all) of the small franchise shops appear to give no customer service training to their staff. The staff look and act miserable all the time, not just with étrangers like me, but with everyone. They appear to hate every minute of their job. In comparison to the cheery stall holders and family run bars I can’t help wondering if their conditions of work are very poor and there is a resentment towards the predominantly middle class in the area. Unfortunately it is unlikely I will ever find out. It is a shame because like all the contributors to Le Petit Commerce these stores are providing what their customers want – minus the smile.