As a kid, I had a habit of pleading with my parents to take me to one of two places nearly every weekend: toy stores like F.A.O. Schwartz (RIP) or Zany Brainy (with a more cerebral selection than Toys R Us but no less fun) and the bookstore. Any bookstore. Provided I finished my homework for the week and didn’t pester my older sister, they usually agreed. These visits would sometimes last hours. The end goal wasn’t necessarily to go home with bags overflowing with new games or books – my parents taught me to value and make the most of what I already had at home and be more discerning about new acquisitions – but to explore. Being surrounded by rows upon rows of books and games was an experience in itself, a place to lose myself to my imagination, and that’s all that mattered to me.
That quest for experience, which any marketer will tell you is what defines the average consumers’ most abiding needs today, stayed with me, even as a suburban gal. I couldn’t find a veritable sense of place-experience in malls so I sought it out in the (infrequent) moments I’d find myself in downtown Philadelphia or in New York City, where hulking department stores enchanted as much for their elaborate decorations, heady scents of perfume and immaculate displays as their ability to elevate the ordinary into something special. In his book Living it Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury, author James B. Twitchell remarks that department stores momentarily allow us to transcend the here and now. Which makes sense given how freely time slips by (or maybe it halts altogether?) when we are inside them.
That fascination with the department store experience and the feeling of being blissfully disconnected from the outside world, continued through adolescence and came into sharp focus when I came to France in high school with my French class (also my first time traveling outside of the United States). In a ten-day trip, we only had a couple of days to spend in Paris and looking back, I can honestly say I took note of very little apart from the wide boulevards, pneumatic two-tone police car or ambulance sirens, and its grand shopping emporiums like Galeries Lafayette, tucked just behind the 9th arrondissement’s Neo-Baroque beacon, Opéra Garnier. We popped inside and I caught one look of the exquisite atrium and knew there was something singular about the place.
Flash forward to my transatlantic move to Paris and the department store (or grand magasin) Galeries Lafayette – the second most visited tourist attraction after the Eiffel Tower – brought a sense of comfort at a time when I had everything to learn about the city. The store may have looked unlike anyplace I knew with its Art Nouveau style and carried a broader selection of brands and emerging designers than those I grew up with but the experience and its attendant magic — because with such golden light pouring in through the domed atrium, it’s hard to describe it in less high-minded terms — felt oddly familiar. Among the stores in Paris that encapsulate Twitchell’s notion of time suspended in luxury stores, Galeries Lafayette certainly ranks high.
Today, the store is fresh-faced with a new visual identity, an improved merchandising strategy, quality food stands and thematic pop up events, in an ongoing attempt to tackle the popularity of malls (centres commerciaux) and online shopping head-on. Come 2017, London architect Amanda Levete will re-imagine the interior to give it a fresh and perhaps slightly edgier look. And it’s not the only heritage shop in a position to rethink its role in the shopping landscape. Department stores worldwide understand that it’s no longer enough to have a singular selection or limited edition items. To stay alive, they need to rejuvenate the experiences and sense of wonderment they offer visitors.
For Galeries Lafayette, that has involved completely overhauling their Gourmet outpost (directly across the street from the main building) to feature a more robust selection of gourmet food stands and update the grocery level, giving pride of place in the process to many of today’s leaders in pastry right when guests walk through the door; and creating its own art and cultural gallery called Galerie des Galeries which plays host to four exhibits per year with a focus on design, fashion, fine art and how they intersect (and if you receive my monthly newsletter, you already know about the current exhibit!). Add those to a list of features like stellar rooftop views and an urban garden where organic strawberries, raspberries and aromatic plants are cultivated and used by some of the city’s leading chefs, as part of City Hall’s “Végétalisation Innovante” sustainability initiative, and you have a space that goes beyond the function of shopping destination.
As they’ve added more up-and-coming designers, niche brands and international homewares in the last year, I find myself drawn back inside to explore. In doing so, I’ve reconnected with the precious magic of letting myself get lost in fantasy, whether I bring something home with me or not. The moment may be fleeting but necessary, especially in today’s grim world, to preserve a sense of childlike wonder.
Galeries Lafayette Haussmann
40 Boulevard Haussmann, 75009
Never been to Galeries Lafayette? I’ve partnered with them to offer readers a chance to win a shopping experience (500 euros!) inside the Haussman flagship shop on their next trip to Paris. To enter, please see my contest post HERE. Winners will be announced by Galeries Lafayette on June 11!