The grands magasins of Paris have been enticing customers for more than a century and are cultural landmarks in their own right. Alison Weeks picks up her shopping bag and takes a tour
France is renowned for its range of independent retailers, from the obligatory boulangerie to the plethora of boutiques in every town centre. The country remains a bastion of small business, but it is also home to some of the biggest and best department stores in the world.
Up to the middle of the 19th century, shopping had been a laborious affair as customers sought out different shops for each item on their list and then haggled with traders over prices. The emergence of the department store ushered in an era of fixed prices and lower costs, enabling more people to experience the pleasure of shopping for a variety of goods under one roof. Nowhere is this concept more apparent than in the grands magasins of Paris.
From the striking Printemps and Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann to Le Bon Marché on the Left Bank, it is clear that the stores were built to impress. These great retail cathedrals still offer modern-day customers the chance to surround themselves with beauty while gliding on escalators through level upon level of finery. But if you take a moment to look beyond the designer clothes and expensive handbags, you will also find some of the capital’s hidden architectural and cultural gems.
Le Bon Marché
The first department store in Paris was the brainchild of Aristide Boucicaut, an ambitious salesman from Normandy who, along with his wife Marguerite, transformed a goods stall into a modern marvel. Founded in 1852, Au Bon Marché (as it was known in the store’s early days) soon won over Parisians with its many retail innovations, including set prices, home delivery, exchanges and catalogues. As the business thrived, Boucicaut had larger premises built to meet the demand. Architects and engineers who worked on the project included the firm of a certain Gustave Eiffel.
Found on the Left Bank in the 7th arrondissement, Le Bon Marché has always had an elitist appeal. In 1984, the store was bought by LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate, which further raised its status. Today the store is known for its fashionable merchandise and big-name brands, but what really sets it apart from other Paris department stores is the Grande Épicerie on the ground floor. The sprawling food hall sells around 30,000 products from around the world, from truffle-infused olive oil to American marshmallow fluff. It also has a wide selection of ready-prepared dishes, ideal for a romantic picnic by the River Seine or a simple supper after a hard day’s shopping.
BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville)
Another of the city’s venerable department stores can be found across the River Seine in the Marais district. The Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, or BHV as it is more commonly known, was founded in 1856 by Xavier Ruel, an ironmonger from Lyon who had brought his family to Paris hoping to make their fortune. Legend has it that his big break occurred when the carriage of Empress Eugénie, wife of Emperor Napoléon III, passed in front of his small shop one day in 1855. When her horses were suddenly frightened and bolted, Ruel ran out and stopped them from running loose. He was rewarded for his bravery and the money enabled him to enlarge the business.
BHV is a Paris institution known for its incredible range of products, from the standard department store selections of clothing and make-up to more unusual stock – the lower level is given over to high-end DIY goods, including painting supplies and gardening tools. BHV has several offshoots nearby, specialising in everything from tiles to sports goods. A little less grandiose than some other department stores, BHV is hugely popular with Parisians.
Situated on the corner of Boulevard Haussmann and Rue du Havre in the 9th arrondissement, Printemps is one of the city’s most iconic grands magasins. Since opening in 1865, the store has been a point of reference for shopping in Paris. Created by the entrepreneur Jules Jaluzot, Printemps promised to be the newest, brightest and best in everything, as its name, which means springtime, would indicate. Jaluzot was a pioneer in the retail world, introducing ‘les soldes’, offering discounted items to clear stock.
Although the original premises were destroyed by fire in 1881, reconstruction work gave Jaluzot the chance to create a building as great as his store. He used state-of-the-art techniques and designs, and was the first department store owner in France to install electric lights. He also commissioned artist Henri Chapu to creat sculptures depicting the four seasons for the side of the building looking on to Rue du Havre. This art nouveau façade and the restored cupola above the restaurant are registered historic monuments. Although the interior, which was ravaged by fire again in the 1920s, has a modern look, there is no escaping the sense of history all around you.
Printemps now has outlets all over France, but the flagship store still offers a distinctive experience, with 25 floors over three buildings and around 44,000 square metres of shopping space.
No survey of Parisian department stores would be complete without La Samaritaine, although it shut in 2005 due to concerns about the building’s safety. It is perhaps the most iconic of all the capital’s grands magasins and its towering façade on the banks of the River Seine has a special place in the hearts of locals.
The store was founded in 1869 by Ernest Cognacq and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay, a former saleswoman at Le Bon Marché, one of its rivals. Over the years the business grew from a small boutique into a huge department store as it absorbed several neighbouring buildings. Although the enlarged building was designed in the art nouveau style, additions made in the 1930s gave it an art deco look.
The current owner, LVMH, which also has Le Bon Marché in its stable, is working to transform the building into offices, apartments and a luxury hotel. The €450 million project got under way in 2013 and is expected to be finished in 2016.
When La Samaritaine closed its doors, Paris also lost one of the capital’s best vantage points. The rooftop café was renowned for its excellent views and featured in the 2002 thriller The Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon.
Founded in 1893 by two cousins from Alsace, Théophile Bader and Alphonse Kahn, Galeries Lafayette was a later addition to the Paris shopping scene. What began as a small novelty shop on the corner of Rue la Fayette and Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin eventually expanded into several imposing buildings on Boulevard Haussmann.
The store was an instant success with both the middle and upper classes, thanks to its prime position near the bustling Gare Saint-Lazare. In 1906, the owners commissioned the architect Georges Chedanne and his student Ferdinand Chanut to re-design the new building, which was unveiled in 1912 to wide acclaim. With its magnificent neo-Byzantine stained-glass dome, balconies and beautiful staircases, the store was an art nouveau masterpiece.
Although the brand has now spread across France and around the world, the flagship store on Boulevard Haussmann remains much unchanged. The lavish interior is arguably one of the most beautiful in Paris and is particularly stunning around Christmas and the New Year. The store is famous for its festive lights and decorations, which include a 60ft-high Christmas tree in the first-floor beauty hall. It also makes a good place to stop for refreshments, at the café beneath the cupola, the Angelina tearoom or the rooftop café, with its views of the capital.
Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche
24 Rue de Sèvres, 75007 Paris
52 Rue de Rivoli, 75004 Paris
64 Boulevard Haussmann, 75009 Paris
40 Boulevard Haussmann, 75009 Paris