The department store with the oxymoronic name is something for followers of fashion à aimer. Founded in 1838 by the brothers Videau, “the good deal” used to live up to its name, back when it was a modest boutique where one could find stuff for cheap. The little échoppe — and the significance of its name — changed completely in 1869, when Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut transformed it into the world’s first grand magasin with the aid of architect Louis-Charles Boileau and engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose fabulous glass roof is still intact today.
Located on the eastern edge of the seventh arrondissement, two steps from lovely, tree-shaded Square Boucicaut and a block from the magnificent-looking Hôtel Lutetia, Le Bon Marché is, just as Émile Zola suggested in his novel Au bonheur des dames, capable of lifting moods and emptying pocketbooks.
That said, one of the best things about the place is that marvelous things can be found there for less than 50 euros. Scarves, for instance. The ground-floor scarf department is beautifully stocked year-round with affordable versions of the accessory most beloved by Parisians. Just behind les écharpes et foulards is the “beauty theater,” with its famed collection of hard-to-find perfumes and colognes that Chandler Burr, author of The Emperor of Scent, wrote about for The New York Times. Some of the fragrances are très cher, while others are not at all. Also on the ground floor (but across the street in a sister building) is La Grande Épicerie, the only grocery store in Paris that can make this writer want to go home and cook something. Chocolate bars, freshly made croissants, artisanal yogurts and cheeses, delicious wines from small vineyards — each of these wonderful things can be bought for less than the price of a day-old croque monsieur at one of those tourist trap cafés near the Louvre.
Mais oui, you say, but for me money is no object. Really? Then indulge, by all means, indulge. For men, this can be done with Zegna, Dries Van Noten and Paul Smith in the Balthazar men’s section. For women, it can be accomplished with Chloé, Jean Paul Gaultier and Sonia Rykiel. Me, I’ll be in the corner, stroking the Lanvin. Which leads me to another draw of Le Bon Marché — the service is no different than at any other French department store. Which means that people like me — people who love high fashion but can’t afford it — can peruse, inspect and generally molest the luxury goods before anyone on the sales staff will take notice, let alone bother themselves to come over and inquire if any help is needed (they already know the answer). The indifference of the hired help is also a boon to dog owners, who can take their Shih Tzus and French bulldogs for walks around the racks without raising objections or even an eyebrow.
Once the desire to acquire has been sated, I recommend a stop at le Délicabar, a rooftop café that is expertly hidden in the young designers section, past the Marc Jacobs and down a curving white-painted corridor with no signage. It’s an airy, mod space with a glass roof and a secluded outdoor terrace that is heaven on sunny afternoons. There is no view, but as you are relaxing under a parasol amidst the potted greenery, sipping your café noisette and nibbling on the chocolate truffle that accompanies it, you won’t much care.