In Praise of the Provincial Department Store

I am in-between trains in the eastern French city of Reims – the champagne capital. A couple of hours to kill with a wander round the shops, and I come across something I haven’t seen for years – a provincial branch of one of the big Paris department stores. – A few words in praise of an institution on the verge of extinction

« Oh, thank the lord for medium-sized provincial department stores. Reassuring emporiums of mediocrity with pretentions of grandeur.  In this world of out-of-town superstore shopping in the Edgelands or one click on-line convenience, I thought that the provincial department store was dead

Long live these pale provincial imitations of those Parisian Palaces. So dull and so dreary, selling all those hardwearing and sensible articles that you never want, but you sometimes need.

These occasional institutions that stocked those things you thought people just didn’t buy anymore, ladies’ hats, silk cravates, pipes, shoe horns, handwarmers, …  – the stuff of birthday gifts for elderly. No one under the age of 70 would venture into such a place, yet, when all else failed, it was, as a last resort that you head to the department store and hey presto, you would find just what you were looking for.

I love these places – as kids we might be taken to the department store on a Friday after school.  Our local « emporium » was « Bentalls » in Kingston. We might get tea in the restaurant and then, if we were Lucky, we might get let loose in the toy department while mum and Gran might get a shampoo and set at the « Salon. Every September we’d get taken to the store to be kitted out for school – a new pair of itchy trousers, a new V-neck pullover, multiple pairs of grey socks, a tie in the school colours, and when were starting school, a brand new blazer where the sleeves came well past the arms and right down to the fingertips.

« You’ll grow into it » the sales assistant would say.

The medium sized provincial department store – I still love the fragrant perfume department – always as you go in on the ground floor. Staffed by late-middle aged, so posh, well spoken, machine tanned and blonde coiffed lady sales assistants, with their high heels and so much make up they must be applying it with a shovel.

Department store memories. Who goes to such places now though? We have scattered into the Edgelands and now we only shop in product driven tribes in those mono-merchandise dedicated superstores.  Warehouses, filled to overflowing with tempting consumer durables. Each warehouse placed a million miles apart. We can’t all shop at the sale time because we are forced to take the car from one emporium to another. Mum wants a dress, we all have to follow. Kids need a computer, we all go together, tribe like, and with the matriarch trying on her new plumage whilst everyone waits bored beside the car.

Oh lord, let us praise eco friendly department stores with a floor for each family. No need to take the car. Dad is in down in DIY the basement getting a new hammer and a bag of nails, sold by ounces as mum flounces round in a new dress in the fashion department and the kids are testing the toys on the third floor, meanwhile grandpa is buying a new pipe and gran is getting a new hat (you can tell I was born in the sixties) – But hey, there is no need to circumnavigate the Edgelands and afterwards we can all meet for High Tea at the restaurant.

So, this was a shopping prose experiment. Further thoughts soon.