I am enchanted by Le Bon Marché. An odd confession, coming from a shopper like me, a shopper who swoons for anything vintage or artisanal. Even odder when you learn that it is owned by the luxury ogre Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (a.k.a. LVMH) and mostly features goods that can be found in almost any city in the world. But there is that word, “mostly.” Which means they have something else. Something more.
First, they have the history. In 1852 Aristide Boucicaut introduced a completely new idea to the world: the department store. For the first time, women could do one-stop shopping for their household needs. Prices were clearly marked and goods were attractively displayed. It got people talking, not just in Paris, but throughout France and, eventually, the world.
As I walk by the store today, I look up toward the round oeil-de-boeuf windows that dot the upper floor and slip into a reverie, imagining the lives of the shopgirls living in the dormitories 100 years ago: their hopes and dreams, their friendships and rivalries, their true loves and their broken hearts. These women exist for me, thanks to Émile Zola’s classic novel The Ladies’ Paradise.
Boucicaut understood women, realizing that vibrant displays would lure them into his store. The tradition continues today, and the windows along the rue de Sèvres are some of the most artistically inventive in the city. On a recent visit I was drawn by the vivid blues of panoramic photos featuring a California skyline, accompanied by music. There was no merchandise—just a celebration of beauty and art. It’s like having Macy’s Christmas windows year-round.
And because art has long enjoyed a partnership with fashion and design, the show continues inside with a number of interesting art exhibitions throughout the year. Currently there is a retrospective on the films of Guy Bourdin, a display of vintage Balenciaga haute couture (pictured above) and a show for multimedia artist Liz Goldwyn (who was responsible for the California panoramas). The exhibits are always free and are a great way to enjoy the splendor of this shopping mecca, without the shopping.
Understanding women remains key to Le Bon Marché’s success, which is further enhanced by the grocery store on the ground floor, La Grande Épicerie de Paris. I use the term “grocery store” in the broadest sense of the word. “Food emporium” is more appropriate. Along with the basics, you’ll find the finest delicacies the country has to offer in this bright postindustrial shop: foie gras, freshly laid eggs, lucques olives, hand-churned butter, caviar, manually harvested salt, champagne and prepared meals. The smallest budgets can find the perfect culinary souvenir in the jam aisles, among the salt racks or at the cookie shelf. And if you happen to be there on a Friday night or a Saturday morning, there are free tastings. Kind of like Costco. Only better.