Epiceries. The Corner Groceries of Paris. Going. Going. Almost Gone.

It has been said that in business the only thing that is inevitable is change.  And indeed, the pace of change is accelerating all around us.  Cities like Paris, New York and San Francisco pride themselves on their unique character and independent nature.  Yet all around us pieces of our past are being chiseled away forever at faster and faster speeds.  This has completely changed the way we shop for food.

The past has long fascinated me.  I am unabashedly attracted to things old.  To pieces of our world that are disappearing before us no matter what aspect of culture, whether profound, artistic or not that they may represent.  They are little time warps, cosmic pinholes that let us view something that is going, going and soon to be gone.

My career has long focused on artisan and gourmet food companies.  In working with them I came to learn more about grocery stores than I ever wanted to.  This too is a rapidly changing industry, undergoing technological advances in distribution that allow for easier access to more goods at better prices but sacrifice individual entrepreneurial enterprises as the price of admission.  While there is some backlash to the Walmart/Carfour/Tesco/Auchan world of 60,000 square foot plus mega-stores and hypermarches in the form of farmer’s markets and new upscale gourmet stores, their impact is small in terms of their ability to reach the mass of consumers.

When the world chain stores had sucked the life out of the small town downtowns by building their massive shopping centers, they came back to the city centers to mop up the rest with their new clean mini market chains like Franprix and Simply.  With tight control over the channels of distribution they made sure that no euro was left unturned.

Times were certainly once very different when it came to food shopping.  While not everyone shopped at a butcher for meat, a bakery for bread and a small store for the rest, it certainly was the case that most shopping was done at the corner store.  These stores were the definition of local shopping.  They served a neighborhood that consisted of blocks, not square miles.  They were on your corner.  You walked to them.  Knew the shopkeeper and he might have extended credit to you.

I still remember the first time I saw a corner grocery in Paris.  It really wasn’t that different from those in San Francisco except that many of them had much better looking displays of fruit and flowers.  They ran the gamut, from those that were actually quite beautiful:

To those that were a mess.

These stores were also the entry point for minority cultures who were emigrating.  Palestinians in San Francisco, Koreans in Los Angeles and New York and a wide variety of Arab shopkeepers in Paris.  They often employed their cousins and families and kids routinely played in the aisle.

I am not saying by any means that these changes are horrible.  Many of these shops were ridiculously expensive and in classic Parisian style, indifferent to a customer or just plain rude.  Many were filthy. The new mini stores are clean efficient and better priced.  The point here is to remember a look, a feel, a way of life that is going away for good.

So enjoy these photos.  And when you are on vacation in Paris and you want a carton of milk or a beer from that corner marche late at night look around before you leave.  It may not be there on your next visit.

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