Let us be honest, there are some long-time residents of Paris who complain that parts of Paris, including the Left Bank, have become a Disneyland-style theme park for adults, slightly over-curated and gentrified, to the point where the soul has been lost. I cannot say I agree with them, but if we were to see the world through their eyes for just a moment, it is clear what the official shop of that theme park would be: Le Bon Marché. The world’s first ever department store first opened in 1838 as a haberdashery, but was quickly transformed by Aristide Boucicault who became a partner in 1852. For the next 25 years and up until his death in 1877, Boucicault transformed the Bon Marché into a powerhouse of Parisian commerce, increasing its footprint from 300 square meters to 50,000 and exponentially multiplying sales 140-fold. Boucicault was a marketing genius, and introduced novel attractions to keep the entire family entertained, including exhibitions, circus acts for children, reading rooms for shopaphobic husbands, as well as tea-rooms and restaurants. He pioneered the concept of heavy promotion through advertising and the wide distribution of shopping catalogs. With input from Gustave Eiffel engineers, the architecture, too, was impressive as early sketch drawings testify. Subsequent additions, like the art deco interiors in the 1920s, only increased its appeal. If you look up at the exterior of the building today, you will notice a top floor of small windows, and the vast store was also home for a legion of unmarried shop assistants. Today the institution somewhat belies its original name, which translates as “a good bargain”, and the focus is very much tilted towards the luxury end of the scale. The store was acquired by a Bernard Arnault-controlled company in 1984 and today is run as part of the LVMH group, which also controls an ever-expanding stable of global fashion and luxury brands including Luis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo, Fendi, Céline, Bulgari, Marc Jacobs, Thomas Pink, Sephora, Guerlain, as well as Moët & Chandon, Hennessey, Glenmorangie, Veuve Cliquot, Château d’Yquem and Krug. The successive investments and renovations by the group over the past few years have turned the Bon Marché into a temple of sensual hedonism for almost every material need that can be expressed. From the core fashion, cosmetic and perfumery counters that greet you as you enter, to the home furnishings, décor and linens section, the store is like a contemporary museum where everything is for sale, and where budgets are preferably unlimited. Increasingly, the ground floor areas are given over to temporary exhibitions that run along ever-changing themes that bring together the best products available in the world for very specific topics, such as personalising your own clothes and shoes, or the role of technology in what we wear, or the influence of pop-culture and music on fashion. The basement now has a permanent department featuring the latest and greatest in smart technology, with drones, electric-powered scooters and motorbikes, virtual reality sets, and whatever else you may feel is missing from our gadget-saturated lives. The Bon Marché caters to our every need — they have a great selection of socks it must be said — and gives us a glimpse at the same time into how the other half lives. It is ultra-accessible and yet somehow always out of reach. The children’s cuddly toy store is a carefully selected array of delight for children and adults of all ages. The bookstore and stationery sections and pen collections are an overwhelming display of both amusement and erudition on a grand scale. The leather goods range from the affordable to the outrageously stratospheric and in so doing reflect the polarisation and wealth gaps of our times as laid out by another famous Frenchman, Thomas Piketty. But entrance to the Bon Marché is free and one could easily spend a day here roaming the corridors of bright and sparkling objects of desire that seem to have no beginning and certainly no end. The staff, overall, are receptive and friendly and from talking with them they are well-treated by their employers, which is always a good sign. The restaurants in the department store appear to be externally run, and are somewhat hit and miss in quality, but they are inviting in their layout and nearly always busy. The store has taken advantage of the new Sunday opening rules brought in by the government a couple of years ago, and so the Bon Marché is now open seven days a week. This has been a boon for those who become addicted to the Bon Marché, and there are quite a few. If you want a real taste of the store’s appeal, show up at around 4 or 5PM on a Saturday evening, at any time of the year, and behold the scene: there is something going on here akin to a cathedral at high noon on a feast day in the middle ages (Émile Zola remarked as much over 100 years ago in the depiction of the Bon Marché in his novel Au Bonheur des Dames). And sales figures, as they say, do not lie, with annual turnover today close to €450 million. The Bon Marché is the apex of material desire transformed into necessity: we meet here the very soul that cynics claim we have lost. It is not lost, it has just been transformed into something new and different, no better no worse, but this time with a nice bow on top.
Le Bon Marché, 24 Rue de Sèvres, 75007, Tel: 01 44 39 80 00.