Vuitton, Chanel, Baccarat—the names of famous French luxury brands roll around the tongue like rich chocolate. But while it’s fun to window-shop at Cartier, few of us can actually afford to buy anything there. Guess what? Neither can most Parisians. And yet many manage to look terrifically put together. What’s their secret? We’ll attempt to shed some light on this puzzling mystery; the shops below will give you a point of departure for your Parisian shopping adventure.
Paris has always been the capital of luxe. As early as the 16th century, the city was known as the place to go for luxury goods, and over the centuries an entire industry grew up around the whims and whimsies of the French aristocracy. To keep up appearances, nobles spent outrageous amounts of money on sumptuous clothing, opulent homes, and lavish dinner parties for dozens of similarly well-heeled aristocrats. By the 18th century, thousands of merchants and artisans were working full-time to fill the voluminous orders of some 150 grand families, not to mention Louis XIV and his court in Versailles. It’s no wonder that even today, the high and mighty, or just plain rich, come here to deck themselves out in the best of the best.
Yet there is so much more shopping to explore than those big-box luxury stores on the Champs-Élysées. You’ll discover small boutiques by up-and-coming designers, lesser-known but fab chocolate stores, and hip yet inexpensive French chain stores where you can throw together a look in minutes. Paris is shopaholic heaven, if you know where to go to find your bonheur (happiness).
For shoppers, Paris is most definitely not a 24-hour city. In general, shops are open from 9 or 10am to 7pm. Many larger stores and most department stores stay open late (that is, 9pm) one night during the week (called a nocturne), and most supermarkets are open until at least 8pm, often 9pm. Many shops close on Monday, and most close on Sunday, which is still considered a day of rest in this country. This is great for family get-togethers, but hard on working shoppers, who have only Saturday to get to the stores. Don’t shop on Saturday if you can avoid it; the crowds are annoying, to say the least. If you do want to shop on a Sunday, head to the Marais, one of the only areas where boutiques stay open, or the Carrousel du Louvre, a chic shopping mall below the Louvre museum.
The French tradition of closing for lunch is quickly vanishing in Paris (although it is still very common elsewhere in France). However, smaller, family-run operations still sometimes close between 1pm and 3pm.
Final note: Many shops close down completely for 2 or 3 weeks during July or August, when a mass vacation exodus empties out major portions of the city.
Taxes, Detaxe & Refunds
Most items purchased in stores (aside from certain categories like food and tickets to performances) are subject to a 20 percent Value Added Tax (VAT), which is included in the price you pay (and not tacked on at the end like in the U.S.). The good news is that non–E.U. residents who are over 15 and stay in France less than 6 months can get a refund of VAT (TVA in French) if they spend over 175€ in a single shop on the same day. Ask the retailer for a bordereau de vente à l’exportation (export sales invoice), which will have a bar code. Both you and the shopkeeper sign the slip, and you then choose how you will be reimbursed (credit on card, bank transfer, or cash). Once you get to the airport, scan the code in one of the new “Pablo” terminals (if your airport doesn’t have one, just go to the “detaxe” counter). If you chose to be reimbursed by credit to your bank account or credit card, that will happen automatically once you scan the slip. If you chose cash, you’ll need to go to the “detaxe” counter, where you’ll be refunded on the spot. If Customs decides to check that you meet the refund conditions, make sure you can present your passport, travel ticket, and the purchases you want to be refunded for. For more info, visit the Paris Tourist Office website (www.parisinfo.com), and under “shopping,” search for “‘Détaxe’ tax refund and duty-free” for a complete rundown.
Les Soldes: Sale Mania
In the name of fair competition, the French government has traditionally put controls on sales. Two times a year, around the second week in January and the second week in July (official dates are posted a couple of weeks in advance on advertisements and store websites), retailers are allowed to go hog wild and slash prices as far as they want. Recently, free-market forces have loosened the laws, and smaller sales with less drastic reductions can happen year-round. Moreover, there are now lots of Internet ventes privés, or pre-sales, for customers with store fidelity cards. The result is that while many still breathlessly await the two big seasonal sales, opening day is both mobbed and anticlimactic. Not only is a lot of the good stuff already gone, but the initial reductions are minimal. If you must go, the best time is the second or third week, when the crowds have thinned and the stores start really cutting their prices (sales go on for at least 5 weeks). Unless you’re a dedicated masochist, don’t try to shop on a weekend during sale season; you’ll be trampled on and risk asphyxiation in crowded, stuffy stores.
Sylvia Beach: Mother of the Lost Generation
Born in Baltimore in 1887, Sylvia Beach fell in love with Paris early in life and moved there for good at the end of World War I. A few years later, with the encouragement of her companion, bookshop owner Adrienne Monier, Beach opened Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore and lending library specializing in English and American books. For the next 20 years, the shop at 8 rue Dupuytren served as an unofficial welcome center for American and English visitors, particularly literary ones, and specifically those who would later come to be known as members of “The Lost Generation”: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. But the one who made the biggest impression, literally, was James Joyce. After his novel “Ulysses” was banned in both the U.S. and England and no publisher would touch the manuscript, Beach courageously published it herself. In February 1922, after endless proofs and corrections by the author, the 1,000 copies arrived in the store, all of which were snapped up instantaneously. Later, the book became a modern classic, making a mint for its publisher, Random House. Beach never saw a penny but claimed that she didn’t mind because she’d have done anything for Joyce and his art. In 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, the contents of the entire bookstore “vanished” overnight (hidden in a vacant apartment in the same building) to avoid confiscation by the Germans. The books were saved, but Beach spent 6 months in an internment camp. After the war, she returned to Paris, but the bookshop’s doors never reopened. The store’s memory lives on, however, in its more recent incarnation at 37 rue de la Bûcherie (see Shakespeare and Company).