The Death of Local Commerce?

I walk my neighborhood at least six days a week.  Easiest way I know to stay fit, and probably the most pleasant.  Porchefontaine is lovely and there is always something to see and people to talk with.  A great antidote both for what ails me and for the social isolation that comes from being chronically ill and best friends with my couch.

Once upon a time this area was farms and wasn’t part of Versailles at all.  The developers came many years ago and since then it’s been a slum and later a modest working-class area with small houses like mine, but usually with two stories and not just one. Small footprints, big gardens.  City services like the sewer system didn’t arrive until 1928.  More recently, the city is finally getting around to burying the overhead power lines that you used to see on every street.

Gentrification has certainly has been a part of the life of the neighborhood in more recent years.  But it is happening slowly, I think because while the house are nice, they are not that nice.  Walk toward the castle and you will start to see some beautiful homes with named architects in what are, frankly, better neighborhoods.

Picking three words to describe this quartier I would pick “charming,” “modest,” and “practical.”  The last because of the best features of this area is a kind of village center – a couple of streets with small businesses.  I think this is what the British call a “high street.” I rarely go into the center of Versailles because so much of what I need is just a short walk away.

There are signs, however, that all is not well in the little world of Porchefontaine commerce.  The only presse (newspapers, magazines, office supplies) which has been around for many years closed  a few months ago.  The last butcher and florist are gone, gone, gone.  Newer businesses like the nail shop, a fast food restaurant, and the fancy cookie store also closed.  Yesterday, I talked to the local esthéticienne and she is retiring early next year.

That is a lot to lose in a very short period of time and residents are concerned about it.  As for the business owners, feels like mild panic to me.  They are organizing.

Do an internet search and you’ll easily find communities all over the world watching the slow death of local commerce.  Some blame the Internet which is surely part of it.  The other day during my morning walk I watched a truck pull up on a small street.  The driver got out and I saw him haul out a big pile of Amazon packages which he then distributed to different houses.  Yes, people here have Prime.

But the Internet can’t be all of the story.  Yes, we can wring our hands and moan about larger forces but the local and particular matter, too.  There are goods and services for which the rise of e-business is irrelevant. Let’s look past what was lost and consider what remains and is working just fine.  We have three bakeries, three food stores (one bio), three hair dressers, three bar/tabacs, two dry cleaners, two pharmacies, several restaurants, doctors’ and nurses’ offices here and there, and miscellaneous things like a home security business that sells alarms and shutters.  There is a farmer’s market twice a week.

What do they all have in common?  For one, with a couple of exceptions, they offer services or special products.  Amazon can’t cut my hair, dry clean my clothes or serve me a coffee.  If I buy a baguette from my favorite bakery in the morning, it’s fresh and still warm from the oven and goes perfectly with a couple of fresh eggs provided by my chickens. I don’t see how any e-entrepreneur can top that for quality, convenience, or price.  Furthermore, I don’t buy the cheapest baguette but what I do buy costs only 1.35 euros (USD 1.50). And when I am cooking for one, the bakers are happy to sell me half:  a demi-baguette.  Good bread for less than a dollar a day.

Service or what you can call the “customer experience” matters now more than ever.  Now, I know that France doesn’t have the best reputation in this regard. But it has always been the strength of the local and that’s just as true in France as it is elsewhere.  I certainly have no cause for complaint in my little corner of the Hexagon.

All the businesses I frequent have owners who know my face, and most know my name.  The owner of the bio store knows that I like a particular kind of little apple, and he took the time the other day to pick out the nicest, freshest ones for me.  I only bought three of them.  But he knows I will be back.  We always chat and it’s not just him.  In the local stores that receive my custom there are pleasant conversations and a sense that I am recognized as a human being and not just another random stranger with a debit card.

Lastly, what I think the successful businesses here have in common is what you could call “curb appeal.”  The windows are always washed, the entry and floors are clean, and there are attractive displays in the windows that change with the seasons. When possible some businesses spill over into the sidewalk with a nice presentation of fruits and vegetables for example.  You are rewarded for going inside with the smell of fresh bread, spices, fruit…  These are the businesses that make the entire street sparkle and shine.  This is why my morning walk almost always includes a stroll down the main street.

My take on it is that some of the businesses that closed were lacking in one or more of the above.  The services and services they offered just didn’t appeal to the folks here or there wasn’t enough business to support, say, three (instead of two) places that do nails. There was one place which I will not name where I picked up things from time to time but I hated going in there.  It was dirty, smelled bad, and it was so disorganized that it was painful to peruse the shelves.  Not worth it and, yep, everything they stocked could be had much cheaper on Amazon.

My perspective is that of a customer and a local resident.  Surely, there is more to it that I don’t see and I hope those of you who are business owners will forgive my ignorance.  I have no idea what the average rent for commercial spaces in the area is. I also have no idea what they pay in local and national taxes or the regulations they operate under.  I do appreciate that it’s hard to start a business here, hard to keep it going, and so easy to fail.   My greatest fear is not that local businesses are closing.  I worry more that people will give up and stop opening them.  Empty commercial spaces with fewer shoppers because “il n’y a plus rien.”  That would be the true death of the local.

I don’t want that to happen and I am assuming that the other residents of the neighborhood feel the same way.  That may not be true.  One person at church I spoke to claimed that part of the problem was the Catholic familles nombreuses who, for reasons of economy and in spite of having at least one parent at home, buy primarily in bulk on-line or at one of the major hypermarket chains. A quick look at the population stats for Versailles reveals that most people here work and many commute into Paris every day.  For them, Porchefontaine is a “bedroom community” like any other suburb. Five days out of seven, they are somewhere else and most only return late in the evening when the stores are closed.

So it feels like there is some combination of social, economic, demographic, technology forces behind all this.  A suivre and if you feel inspired I’d be very interested in hearing about the state of local commerce in your neighborhood and what, if anything, is being done if it is suffering.

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Born in Seattle, USA. Generation Xer. Lived on 3 continents (North America, Asia and Europe). Country agnostic. Mother of two Frenchlings. MA in International Migration

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