Paris Under Glass

Exploring the city’s historic, and seductive, shopping arcades

The rack outside La Boîte à Joujoux in the Passage Jouffroy offers personalized note cards with names fiercely Francophile: Thibault and Sandrine, Yannick and Séverine. In an increasingly homogenized Paris, where Ralph Lauren is camped across from La Madeleine and Tommy Hilfiger colonizes the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the businesses in Paris’s historic passages—or arcades—still exude an orienting sense of place.

The passages, a series of covered arcades built mainly between the 1820s and ’40s (there were 150 by the mid- 1800s; today there are 24 standing and 19 open for business), might first appear rather old-fashioned, low-key, sometimes even slightly grubby. But look more closely: these corridors, the most interesting of which are located on the Right Bank in a disconnected web that can be traversed in a leisurely hour or two, offer a fascinating peek at Paris’s mercantile past. Not just compelling as historical artifacts—the arcades are the world’s first mini-malls—the passages are a still-vibrant testament to the endurance of the retail spirit, of the pure fun of shopping, as enticing now as it was 200 years ago. The arcades allow you to partake in the same activities as visitors on the Grand Tour did centuries ago—like them, you are meant to admire the chandeliers and the boiserie, stop for a snack, and even, despite these perilous economic times, maybe purchase a little something.

Much of what enraptured tourists in the past is still gloriously intact: the vaulted glass ceilings; the checkerboard floors; the odd little shops with names like Le Bonheur des Dames, the unironic moniker of a needlepoint shop in the Passage Verdeau. (A rule of thumb for arcade charm: the more a passage has been restored, the more exquisite its pilasters and gleaming its glass ceiling, the less gripping its fragile appeal. For example, the Galerie Vivienne, despite a lovely mosaic floor and the presence of a vast Jean-Paul Gaultier boutique anchoring one entrance, more closely resembles a high-end shopping district in Dallas or Palm Beach than a neoclassical edifice.)

Go when it’s raining. The arcades were hailed as revolutionary when they first opened; they allowed Parisians to go shopping, apparently always one of the town’s favorite activities, without getting their feet wet. And Mesdames and Messieurs could truly see what was in those tantalizing vitrines—the arcades were early converts to gaslight.

You might start your tour at the Hôtel Chopin, nestled deep in Passage Jouffroy, where you could theoretically begin your investigation by tumbling out of bed (from 76 euros). The surrealists loved this passage (“The father of Surrealism was Dada; its mother was an arcade,” commented the social philosopher Walter Benjamin, who adored the arcades so much he wrote a thousand-plus-page book about them), perhaps because it also hosts the creepy Musée Grévin, a Victorian holdover still welcoming people fascinated with the greasy gleam of wax museums.

Directly across the Boulevard Montmartre is the Passage des Panoramas, so named for the impressive murals-in-the-round that were once this arcade’s big draw. Those works are long gone, and now the place is seductively shabby, with much of the ghostly allure of the original architecture still unharmed.

Many of the shops in the arcades specialize in books, stationery, old postcards, and in the case of the Passage des Panoramas, stamps. In the Passage Jouffroy is the celebrated bookstore Cinédoc, with its Louise Brooks and Audrey Hepburn biographies, directly across from Paul Vulin, a librairie where the art monographs are displayed on wooden racks outside. Hang a right on the Galerie des Variétés to the Galerie Feydeau (the corridors have names, like streets) and you uncover shadowy, mysterious venues. One shop appears to consist of nothing but a table, a stack of black stamp albums, and a beautiful woman. Even establishments that went out of business years ago have a way of making their presence known—in front of a shop now selling jewelry in the Passage des Panoramas is a vast mosaic Art Deco mat spelling out Waterman Jif, from the days when the pen you used said something about you.

In the Passage Choiseul, a five-minute walk from the Panoramas, Lavrut, here since 1922, offers painters’ smocks in two styles—the Corot and the Manet. The main character in Radclyffe Hall’s Sapphic classic, The Well of Loneliness, visits Lavrut to purchase blotting paper and notebooks, though Hall herself was disinclined to the Passage Choiseul, describing it, in 1928, as “surely the most hideous place in all Paris, with its roof of stark wooden ribs and glass panes—the roof that looks like the vertebral column of some prehistoric monster.”

Not all the businesses in the arcades have such ancient provenances. For every Lavrut there is a place like 26 Passage, a literal jewel box in the Passage Verdeau that offers delicate charms on cords that on closer examination turn out to be marijuana-leaf bracelets. And in the stunning Passage Véro-Dodat, under a glass sign high on the wall touting Papeterie Imprimerie, a shop window features a stuffed ibex sporting a fringed purse slung around her neck, and hot-pink stilettos. But this high-stepping mammal is not in search of cartes des visites—she’s the talisman of the Christian Louboutin boutique, which is famous for cutting-edge scarlet-soled footwear and has taken up residence in this former stationery store, and she’s just waiting for a surrealist or two to stroll in and pick up a pair of pumps.