Until 2005, La Samaritaine was the most popular and least fashionable department store in Paris, a Gallic version of Grace Brothers from “Are You Being Served”.
The store’s jumble of five linked buildings between the Rue de Rivoli and the river Seine was one of the few remaining islands of unselfconscious, authentic, non-tourist grittiness in central Paris. You could find everything in La Samaritaine from underpants to diamond tiaras; from puppies to concrete-mixers; from ready-made curtains to piranha fish.
Entering La Samaritaine was like playing a game of three dimensional snakes and ladders. Each floor had six or seven different levels, joined by slopes of worn linoleum or by short flights of steps. To get from curtains to electrical goods, supposedly on the same floor, you climbed a few stairs into showers and bathrooms, turned right and went down again.
After 16 years of dereliction and legal wrangles, La Samaritaine re-opened again this week – as a supermarket for luxury brands, a five-star hotel and a gourmet roof restaurant with an unrivalled view onto the river and the Île de Cité. It will have private viewing rooms for the super-rich. It will have cafés, where you can eat top of the range burgers and caviar-on-baguette.
The staff of the old Samaritaine were the least helpful in Paris and consequently the world. The new staff will wear chinos and sneakers – and a smile.
The slogan of the old store was “The whole of Paris comes to La Samaritaine.”. The new store is aimed at the richer citizens of Yokohama or Shanghai.
The destruction of the old Samaritaine was romantically, historically and socially a calamity. It was also, I suppose, inevitable.
The modern world, and modern retailing methods, passed La Samaritaine by on the other side. People no longer wanted to go to a shop in central Paris to buy a concrete mixer or lawn-mower or even a pet piranha fish. Samaritaine still had 12 models of lawn-mowers when it was closed overnight, allegedly for safety reason, in 2005.
The world’s biggest luxury goods conglomerate, Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy (LVMH) – has spent €700 million on re-building and re-imagining La Samaritaine, ripping out the sloping floors and worn lino but preserving its 1907 art nouveau metal stair-cases and galleries.
A spectacular, pale-yellow fresco of peacocks which surrounds the main atrium was all but lost in the old clutter. It has been wonderfully restored.
No doubt the new Samaritaine will be a great success – once the foreign tourists come in great numbers to France again. The new hotel, Le Cheval Blanc, will be the only “palais”, or five-star hotel, in Paris to have rooms and suites with views onto the river Seine.
All the same, the transformation is cruelly emblematic of what has happened to central Paris in the last two or three decades. There is a campaign going on at present against the alleged saccage (destruction) of the French capital by bicycle-lanes, ugly street furniture and graffiti and poorly maintained gardens. I have sympathy with some, but not all, of the complaints.
What I regret far more – without knowing how it could have been prevented – is the fact that the inner arrondissements of Paris have lost so much of their quirkiness and eccentricity in recent decades.
The international travel boom (pre-Covid) has turned central Paris into a self-conscious, though still beautiful, “Parisland”, a tourist theme-park to match Disneyland 40 kilometres to the east. Even relatively well-off families are being pushed out by high rents and property prices.
The re-opening of La Samaritaine, delayed for a year by the Covid pandemic, is one of a flurry of restorations and recreations of land-mark buildings in central Paris this summer.
The Musée Carnavalet, which traces the history of the city, has been cleverly re-thought and re-designed. The Bourse du Commerce, a spectacular circular building near Les Halles which was moribund for decades, has been resurrected as an art museum and exhibition space by the billionaire art-collector and entrepreneur (Gucci and FNAC) François Pinault.
The Hotel de la Marine, one half of the imposing 18th century terrace which stands on the north side of the Place de la Concorde, has been beautifully restored as a series of restaurants and exhibition spaces.
All of these buildings are within 15 minutes walk of one another – and all are a short stroll from the Louvre and the Palais Royal and Notre Dame. They are, in their revived form, great and welcome adornments to the capital which will be appreciated by Parisians and visitors alike.
Except for La Samaritaine.
I cannot see the new version of this once great institution as anything but a theft – a loss, a diminution of what once made central Paris not just beautiful but idiosyncratic and unmistakably itself.
And, in any case, where in earth does one now go in Paris if you suddenly need to buy a pneumatic drill?