An arcade that was built by a bank as an investment venture is now home to a number of innovative entrepreneurs. Jeffrey T Iverson discovers the longest covered passage in Paris…
Enthusiasts of French history are always on the lookout for landmark Parisian locales that remain strongly evocative of bygone eras. Those hoping to catch a whiff of the city’s heady Belle-Époque years will often look to its atmospheric passages couverts, the covered shopping arcades that proliferated on the Right Bank in the 19th century. Some still boast their original frescos and décors of gold and marble; others have preserved the traditions of craftsmanship in the boutiques of jewellery makers, designers and cabinet makers – which is why people have butterflies of expectation as they ascend the stairs out of métro Quatre-Septembre in the 2nd district and swing around to gaze down a short length of street for their first glimpse of the grand, pilastered entrance to Passage Choiseul, a 190-metre long covered shopping arcade that first opened in 1827.
Yet, as one walks toward the arcade, the shops on either side of the street, rue de Choiseul, don’t particularly nourish hopes of a transporting stroll through history. There’s a banal chain wine store, a photocopy shop, some fast food counters… Then, suddenly, a shop window at No. 3 catches our eye. Painted with the word mercerie (haberdashery), the sign above reads Ultramod, and walking inside you realise this is no common sewing shop, but the oldest mercerie in Paris. The shop is softly lit, with century-old work tables, wooden mannequins displaying elegant ladies’ hats, and walls and shelves overflowing with satin ribbons, gilded buttons and lace.
“When you step through this door, you slip out of time,” smiles the manager, Anne-Christine Morin. “Suddenly we’re in the era of Zola, in the pages of Au Bonheur des Dames.”
In fact, some of the items on display date back nearly that far. Ultramod is a treasure trove of sewing, hat-making and furniture decorating supplies, many from manufacturers that ceased operating ages ago. But while Ultramod resembles a museum, the treasures are for sale. “I’m not interested in just showing old ribbons under glass,” says Morin. “What I love is when after all this time that old ribbon finally becomes part of something new – a dress, a handbag, a hat – to be worn again for years to come. That’s the beauty of this place: not just that we have a timeless décor, but that we’ve been able to preserve things so they may live again.”
Stepping now into Passage Choiseul, it soon becomes clear that Morin’s words could also describe the beauty of this 191-year-old arcade. With its towering glass roof, its wall clock and pillared balconies overlooking the gallery at either end, its multi-level boutiques with their tall, arched windows facing each other from across the narrow passageway, Passage Choiseul exudes both majesty and intimacy. Like rue de Choiseul, though, the arcade is not only occupied by 19th-century institutions but has also seen the arrival of more run-of-the-mill businesses catering to modern needs, notably a multitude of small lunch-hour restaurants. However, thanks to the passionate owners of a handful of boutiques and galleries, the Passage Choiseul is also maintaining the tradition of arts and letters that forged its fame, proving that even in a Belle-Époque landmark, it’s possible to respect the past while embracing the present.
Passage Choiseul was born as an investment venture by the bank Mallet et Cie, and built from 1825 to 1827 over the ruins of hôtels particuliers between 40 rue des Petits-Champs and 23 rue Saint-Augustin. It was one of 20 erected in Paris between 1821 to 1830, when the shopping arcade became a symbol of a new era of prosperity, industry and greater freedoms in France following Napoleon’s fall. After its inauguration, one chronicler described Passage Choiseul as “quite well decorated” and housing, among other things, “a café at both ends, a good restaurant on the rue de Choiseul side, two fashion boutiques, three reading rooms, and the lovely children’s theatre of M. Comte”.
The Mallet project included two theatres. The first was opened in 1827 between 65 Passage Choiseul and 4 rue Monsigny by the magician and ventriloquist Louis Comte, and transformed in 1855 by the impresario Jacques Offenbach into today’s Théâtre des Bouffes- Parisiens. The other, today known as the Salle Ventadour and occupied by the Banque de France, was built from 1826 to 1829 along the passageway’s western side for the Opéra-Comique. Both theatres enjoyed immediate success, as did the passageway, in which the ladies flaunted their beaux habits after shows. “Passage Choiseul,” wrote Charles de Forster in his 1832-1848 memoir Quinze Ans à Paris, “draws numerous flâneurs who come here just to watch the jolies filles passing by.”
In his ode to his friend François Coppée, the poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) recalled the aromas of perfumed dames and the exotic fruits they ate in the theatres: “Les Passages Choiseul aux odeurs de jadis, Oranges, parchemins rares, – et les gantières!” (The Choiseul passageways with their aromas of long ago, oranges, rare parchments – and the glove-makers!). Verlaine was one of many famous writers to frequent the arcade after the editor Alphonse Lemerre (1838-1912), publisher of Charles Baudelaire and the Parnassian poets, established his library here in the 1860s at No.23.
By the time Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), author of Journey to the End of the Night, was growing up above his parents’ curiosities shop here, Passage Choiseul had unfortunately fallen – as Céline was later to put it – into a state of “croupissure” (decay). Only in the 1970s did Parisians begin to return to the arcade, after the fashion designer Kenzo opened a boutique there. In 1974, Passage Choiseul was classified a historical monument, and finally, in 2012, the gallery and its canopy received a full restoration.
The passageway has since been flooded by new businesses, all hoping to attract the hurried and hungry workforce of central Paris: soup, sandwich and sushi shops, pasta
parlours, cupcake and brownie shops – there’s even a Bar à Sieste (No.29) where for €12 one can grab a 15-minute nap after lunch. The founders of the café Joyeux, at Passage Choiseul’s north entrance, whose employees are all men and women with learning difficulties, consciously chose this frenetic neighbourhood to open their new establishment.
“People here are so hurried and stressed, and often don’t enjoy simple, friendly human interactions in their lives,” says manager Jean-Baptiste Dziurda. “It’s the kind of neighbourhood where our employees, who bring a sensitive and human touch to their work, can give so much to people. You see the effect on our clientele: they always leave here feeling better.”
Indeed, one cannot live on food alone, and fortunately there are still places that feed the spirit in Passage Choiseul. Step into Lavrut at No.52, which has been nourishing the imaginations of artists and creative types since 1922, and amiable and expert shopkeepers will guide you through a rainbow of paints, pastels, pencils and paper to suit every need. Down the hall at No.82 is the engraver and printing shop Boisnard, founded in 1920, where elegant wooden shelves display leather notebooks, hand-printed greeting cards with embossed envelopes, and fountain pens so luxurious you’ll want to abandon email for good.
Today, both Lavrut and Boisnard are owned by the group Elli, which has acquired several historic graveurs, papeteries, and librairies in Paris. “My passion is working with these old Parisian institutions,” says Elli’s president, Jérôme Elmalek. “People love visiting Lavrut or Boisnard, because they’re shops with a soul. Our goal is to preserve that, while dusting off their image, developing new products and modern websites for them, to keep them in sync with the times. Today, like it or not, we’re in a digital age. Even so, more and more people are mixing the digital and the real in their daily lives. These shops have a magic to them because they sell products you can touch, products with meaning.”
Sylvie La Rocca also knows the power of an object with a story. In 2012, she founded L’Effet Bulles at No.11, out of a desire to collaborate with glass-blowers, jewellery makers and dressmakers around the theme of ‘upcycling’. When Sylvie finds some vintage gold couture buttons that seem too gaudy and impracticable for a modern dress, she transforms them into a pair of earrings. Thus, her lovely boutique offers myriad one-of-a-kind gifts and decorative items.
“L’Effet Bulles evokes the idea of a circular economy: it’s about recycling and mixing antiques with contemporary items; of using arts and crafts to give an old object new life,” says La Rocca. “But it’s also a way to describe the effect my boutique can have on people, when they step inside and feel as if they’ve entered a cocoon, surrounded by objects that stir up happy memories.”
Across the hallway, at No.44, one could say Céline Boulot has created a cocoon of her own. Boulot used to work in the high-paced world of fine arts brokerage, but her discovery of Passage Choiseul sparked a desire to enjoy more authentic human interactions in her work. So, in 2005, she founded the workshop gallery Boucle d’Art. “I’d seen the kind of high-quality art prints that could be made on canvas or wood, and I realised that with the way graphic arts and digital printing have advanced today, we could offer the same type of service to the wider public, allowing them to bring their own photos, images, and ideas, and together create their own personal works of art.” Today she works with families, individuals and businesses, helping them create art – and she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. “I adore this passage. We’re not in the street; we’re in another world, and that really has an effect on you. Here in my atelier, I feel so tranquil; it’s as if time moves at a different pace here.”
And so it is too for Anna Stein. Born in Hungary, Stein’s relationship with time seems to have been altered from the moment she decided to become an artist at 14, after reading a phrase in Latin at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest: Ars longa, vita brevis – “Art is long, life is short”. Her boldly contemporary paintings, sculptures and art jewellery, exhibited around the world, frequently make reference to classical forms, mythological and biblical themes. She once told the Hong Kong Standard, “I think there are no boundaries of time with art. To me Michelangelo is a contemporary artist, he was just ahead of his time.”
Fifteen years ago, she moved her workshop from the 17th district to 23 Passage Choiseul, attracted by the luminous space and the life of the passageway. To her delight, she later learned that her new workshop had once been the library of Alphonse Lemerre, Verlaine’s editor. “How extraordinary that I would find myself here, where Lemerre and all those poets once worked!” she says. “That touched me so much. It’s just good to know that, in the end, oeuvres d’esprit – works of creativity – have continued to be made here.”
Ultramod, 3-4 rue de Choiseul, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 96 98 30
Simply put, Ultramod’s two face-to-face boutiques together constitute the oldest haberdashery in Paris, offering supplies for sewing, hat-making and furniture decoration since at least the 1830s. More than vendors, however, they’re guardians of French heritage, with stocks of exceptional antique silk ribbons, lace and rabbit-hair felt from long-defunct Lyon, Calais and Loire manufacturers.
Boisnard, 82 Passage Choiseul, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 96 94 30
Since 1920, this engraver and printer has created bespoke business cards, gilded wedding invitations and embossed letterhead writing paper for an exacting French and international clientele. Today, they also offer contemporary greetings cards and luxury stationery with the same savoir-faire, and a collection of some of the finest pens ever made, by Dupont, Faber-Castell and Jacques Herbin.
Lavrut, 52 Passage Choiseul, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 96 95 54
Lavrut is the quintessential French papeterie, a stationery shop offering a quality selection of office supplies and a kaleidoscope of materials for graphic and fine arts, from oil and acrylic paints and easels to pencils, pastels and paper. You’ll also find original, reasonably-priced gifts, from designer stationery brands and leather goods to back-to-school supplies and children’s books.
Boucle d’Art, 44 Passage Choiseul, Tel. +33 (0)1 42 96 25 89
For those wishing to hang something distinctive on their walls, parents who’d like an original canvas of their children, or aspiring artists with big ideas but little technique, there’s the workshop-gallery Boucle d’Art. From transforming a personal photo into a pop-art portrait to blowing up a vintage postcard into a wall-sized artwork, Boucle d’Art helps you make your own art.
Anna Stein, 23 Passage Choiseul, Tel. +33 (0)6 03 69 71 17
A visit to Anna Stein’s gallery is a chance to discover the paintings, sculpture and jewellery of a prodigious talent. For the past six decades, this Hungarian-born artist has carved her own artistic path in Paris while exhibiting all over the world. Her works are dreamlike, complex and captivating, reflecting her years of study, inner voyages and abiding need to share the beauty she sees everywhere.
L’Effet Bulles, 11 Passage Choiseul, Tel. +33 (0)6 68 22 74 99
This enchanting boutique offers a meticulously curated selection of decorative objects and unique gift items from antique markets across France. It also offers a mélange of compelling and beautiful vintage objects alongside contemporary items by well-known designers, as well as a range of upcycled antiques tastefully and imaginatively repurposed by artisan partners.
From France Today magazine