Apr 11 2009

But Keep the Old

I was sure it was on the rue du Perche. Or else it was rue Pastourelle. I didn’t even know its name, just an idea of the location. I’d been to this silversmith many years ago, before I learned not to put my good knives in the dishwasher. A man in a blue apron with dirty fingers flipped the silver blades back and forth in his hands and took them into his custody. A week later, when he handed back my knives, they looked like new.

Carrying a ring I inherited from my grandmother, I went searching for this silver repair shop (in French, an orfèvre) following the vague map in my memory. Everything looked different than I remembered. The rusty-gated storefronts and messy, eclectic repair shops have been replaced with a row of minimalist art galleries. I wandered up and down any of the streets that might have been where this dusty silver atelier was once (I think) located. I cursed my memory. I cursed the changing times. I cursed the gentrification of Paris. I couldn’t find it.

I asked at the nearby café and a corner grocer – both establishments have been there a long time – but the barman has only worked there for 6 months, the grocer simply shook his head no. My orfèvre had gone missing.
lacoste
This is too common an occurrence these days; the neighborhood’s services are one by one disappearing. My favorite dry cleaner had to close last summer because her rent was bumped up too high. “I’m too expensive already,” she told me, “my customers can’t pay any more. I have no choice but to retire.” Same story with the little old couple who ran the fresh produce stand, the little corner convenience store, Mr. René’s (the greatest dive bar in Paris), and the sweet little bakery, Tout Au Beurre. Regular people can’t afford to do business in my neighborhood anymore. Their storefronts are being replaced with chic, trendy clothing stores, like LaCoste and Adidas. This makes me sad.

The most recent shock was the copy shop. I hadn’t been in a while – I used to go every week, in the days before my ink-jet printer was also a photocopier. When my clients required workbooks or training materials, Armand with his cobalt-blue eyes would take on the order with meticulous care. He’d adjust his reading glasses and carefully review my documents, treating them as canvasses to be framed. I once brought in a sample handbook I’d bound at some other copy shop when he was closed for August (or something preposterously French like that) and he reviewed the work with disdain. The paper was too cheap. The cover didn’t have enough weight. The plastic binding has been clamped on backwards. It was shoddy work. He scolded me, but with affection.

He had a sidekick who was as light-hearted and joke-cracking as Armand was serious. Like the guy who spins plates at the circus, he’d make copies for one client while fixing a paper-jam in the self-service machine for another, all the while sailing around the shop effortlessly, as if he were on roller-blades.

They did good work. They knew me. They knew my girls. When Short-pants was in the hospital and I’d come into make photocopies for the insurance claims, they’d refuse my coins.

But the other day the gate in front of the closed door was locked tight, the windows painted with whitewash. The sign wasn’t apparent at first, but when I found it and realized they were closed for good, I felt as if someone the neighborhood had died. And I had not had the chance to say goodbye.

At least when the dry cleaner closed I’d had notice. I brought her a good bottle of Bordeaux and had a chance to thank her for all her years of lifting out my stains. But the copy shop was a done deal. Then I remembered that once I saw Armand and his assistant eating lunch on the terrace of the café next door. I presented my case to a waiter, about my need for closure. The owner was summoned, and after my passionate explanation he gave me Armand’s cell phone number. A patron standing at the café bar shook his head in approval. “But yes,” he said, “the chance to say a proper goodbye is not just a privilege, you have the right.”

Armand said the raised rent presented him with a predicament much like my dry cleaner and so he opted to sell all his equipment and start again somewhere else. He promised to call me when he set up his new shop.

Listen to me: I’m lamenting change. It’s not easy, but change is the necessary engine of our lives. To resist it is to resist the creative process itself. But those familiar faces and places, they anchor and comfort us, weaving us into the fabric of our surroundings. The longer I’m here, the harder it is to watch them disappear. Maybe I’ve lived in this neighborhood too many years (thirteen). Maybe I haven’t been restless enough to move beyond what’s become so comfortable. Maybe I’ve forgotten to appreciate that the disappearance of one favorite place often means the opportunity to find another.