Just Above Sunset
June 12, 2005 - Taps for Samaritaine

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Our Man in Paris is Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis. His weekly columns appear here and often in a slightly different version the next day on his site from Paris, with photographs.

PARIS - Saturday, June 11, 2005


LAST THURSDAY Paris was stunned to hear that an inspection committee had declared that the Samaritaine department store is a firetrap.  "In case of fire the building won't last 15 minutes," a source claimed.  This landmark - located on the Right Bank at the north foot of the Pont Neuf, actually Paris' oldest bridge opened in 1607 - was built in 1905 and is classified as a historic monument.


This is a city disappearing before our eyes.  Few days pass without a favorite shop or boutique rolling down its metal shutters for good, then if lucky to continue as a memory of the 'good old days' in a museum, or disappear right off the face of the planet.


Butcher, baker, bookseller, in place in the neighborhood for forty years and then gone, with nobody willing to keep going.  The goods or services provided, and the way an old shop looked has no value, so a portable phone boutique moves in after reducing a half-century of texture to extruded aluminum and glass and plastic.


The department store, which was four buildings, was taken over by the Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy group in 2001.  Sales fell by 40% and no profits had been seen for a long time, but a turnaround seemed to be in the air this year.  The LVMH group also owns the sole department store on the Left Bank, the Bon Marché, and the operators publicly insisted that they have no intention to sell or abandon either.


According to union leaders a serious risk of fire has been known since 2001.  Fire inspections since then have reconfirmed the risk but nothing has been done.  Inspections were carried out under the authority of the Préfecture, which remained unavailable for comment.


However, Christophe Girard, the city's deputy mayor for culture, underlined that, 'it is reassuring that no one is equivocating about security by deciding for the unavoidable temporary closure.'  While not on the payroll of LVMH, Mr. Girard provides fashion advice to LVMH's CEO, Bernard Arnault.  There is a rumor that Mr. Girard would like to see a fancy food shop on the Right Bank, like the Bon Marché's Grande Epicerie.


The department store's 750 employees, who have been assured of continuing employment and pay by Philippe de Beauvoir, Samaritaine's CEO, have considerable doubt about it.  Before the latest security decision the management suggested two scenarios - doing the necessary renovations in stages while remaining partially open, or closing the whole building to do it all at once, which could take four years or longer.


Employees were also able to see a model of the four buildings of the Samaritaine at the LVMH headquarters a few months ago.  They thought one of the buildings represented a hotel and 'not at all a department store.'


This fear may be unfounded although the rumor has been circulating for a couple of years.  In early July the Olympic organizers will announce the name of the city that will host the summer games in 2012.  Without the games Paris can probably survive without another grand hotel.


But other signs hint at change for Samaritaine.  The LVMH group may not be happy with the faint results achieved only with considerable effort for their department stores, when they are more used to double-digit profits from their other luxury goods sectors.


Only a few days ago the talk was of closing the store 'for 15 days, for emergency repairs.'  Now a decision is scheduled to be made on Wednesday, 15 June.  Beyond this the annual summer sales are set to begin on Friday, 24 June throughout most of France.


In the store on Friday afternoon there were no signs of any 'fire' sales.  Security agents, dressed somewhat like firemen, were much in evidence, but I did not pass early enough to see any store employees holding their crises meeting on the sidewalks around the store.


It was business as usual on the 10th floor café terrace, with its light snacks and refreshments, under the white awnings well-populated with carefree loungers probably unconcious of an approaching deadline.  The sky was blue and the sun was shining over a Paris laid out like a cubist carpet, spread around all over the horizon with the Seine below glittering under the Pont des Arts and a spidery exclamation of an Eiffel Tower off to the west.




Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

... the Samaritaine department store

the Samaritaine department store ...

the Samaritaine department store ...

the Samaritaine department store ...

the Samaritaine department store ...

the Samaritaine department store ...

Taps on the Pont des Arts?

the Samaritaine department store ...

the Samaritaine department store ...

Photos Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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