The Great Bourgeois Bargain

The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920

by Michael B. Miller
Princeton University Press, 266 pp., $13.50

One should not be put off this fascinating book on the Bon Marché department store in Paris by the litanic style of the introduction, which hammers home again and again the distinction between gemeinschaftlich and gesellschaftlich (I have not the faintest idea what these cumbersome teutonic adjectives mean, nor do I know what possible bearing they can have on good M. and Mme. Boucicaut, the founders of the store, the one a Norman, the other a Burgundian). Nor should one be put off by the author’s obsession with the word “culture” (which makes twelve appearances on page 3 and thirty in the introduction: an awful lot of “culture” in fact, though not the brand that made Goering reach for his revolver). Moreover, throughout the book, the author refers to the “bourgeoisie” as if it were a physical being, endowed with an overriding sense of purpose and a great deal of guile. Professor Miller’s “bourgeoisie” is a busy sort of bee, always up to something or another, or merely “pulling itself into the nineteenth century.”

The reader should plough on through these insistent litanies, discarding the code as he goes; and then he will discover, behind these cardboard frontages, that there coyly lurks a very good book that does full justice to its title and that, only here and there, in occasional genuflections and furtive gropings at the beads of a sociological rosary, brings the author back to his votive subtitle. It is business history with a difference: social history has been added in. Professor Miller is an imaginative and compassionate social historian who writes about people—most of them faceless and nameless, most of them infinitely weary, with fallen arches, bad feet, bunions, and disintegrating socks—with sympathy and sly humor.

The Bon Marché is certainly the most famous of the Paris grands magasins. It was also the limb out of which grew the Louvre, the Printemps, and the Galeries Lafayette. The Samaritaine, the Belle Jardinière, and the Bazar de L’Hôtel de Ville do not really belong in the same family tree, since they deliberately catered to a humbler, lower-middle-class or even working-class clientele. The Bon Marché was not the oldest Paris emporium: the Ville de Paris, the Pauvre Diable, the Coin de Rue, and les Enfants de la Chapelle (which the author fails to mention) were all older. But the Bon Marché was the biggest of the lot, came out first with all the most original ideas, put on the most stupendous sales, and represented the summit of the sad, stuffy, weary, endlessly deferential profession of shop assistant.

To get into the Bon Marché was to fulfill one sort of timid ambition. To stay in the Bon Marché until one was expendable at fifty was an even more fantastic one. Few made it that long; 40 percent at least were out after five years, perhaps with a reference, certainly with bad feet. Such was the grind that there does not seem to have been time for a pause to assess…

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