You might think that what with the Gap on the Champs-Elysées and Calvin Klein in Montparnasse and Burger King on the Boul Mich, the lure of things French would be dimming just a bit. But au contraire, the more Americanized the actual place gets, the more acute the longing is for a mythical gaul—a burg straight out of An American in Paris, where mustachioed, beret-sporting painters who sound like Pepe LePew sip Pernod and clomp around in espadrilles. In lieu of tracking down and importing one of these fellows, you can seek solace with a number of inanimate substitutes: bistro chairs, sailor shirts, chocolate bowls, tin signs that say poussez or tirez, miniature Tours Eiffels, and sundry other talismans of la belle France. If it’s not as easy as it once was to locate this ephemera in France itself, it’s become disarmingly simple to turn it up in downtown Manhattan, where a quartet of shops specialize in just these sorts of things. Each of these stores has its own conceit—one favors French workers’ clothes, another tableware, still others the kind of detritus that fills flea market tables from the Aix to Brittany.
At the recently opened Le Gamin, in the space where Pageant Books used to be (114 West Houston Street), Robert, the owner, shrugs Gallically when asked what he thinks the allure of this merchandise is. “I have no idea. I myself have a nostalgia, an affection for these things.” The things at Le Gamin include a porcelain strawberry strainer from Pillivuyt Porcelaine, in business since 1818 (“The holes in the bottom are good for the fruit” ) for $60, and a set of five charming if rusty pale green metal canisters for farine, chicoree, and other kitchen staples that is a walloping $380. “I look for stuff that is rare or traditional,” Robert says, pointing out rectangular canvas bags that look ready to transport a couple of baguettes and are the brainchild of the granddaughter of a woman who used to make clothes for workers from similar fabric. Candles in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, manufactured by a church candle supplier who has been around since 1743, are from Cahors in the south of France. “I saw an Eiffel Tower candle in their window but they told me they don’t make them anymore, it was just for display. I said I wanted them for my shop in New York. So the woman who knew how to make them came out of retirement.” In the front of the store, glass jars hold candies brought back by the bagful from French supermarkets. Americans don’t know what they are, but French expatriates who wander by the shop can’t believe their eyes. “They tell me, ‘I haven’t had one of those in 30 years.’ ”
Way uptown at 144 West 19th Street, La Maison Moderne has been selling French-themed merchandise for nine years. The owner, Kein Cross, started as a clothing designer and began stocking furniture and accessories as props; he liked the bibelots so much he dropped the clothes. When it’s pointed out that not everything in his shop is, strictly speaking, from France (there are, for instance, red-and-white-striped Italian toothbrushes and a turn-of-the-century phonograph from British-occupied India), Cross has an explanation. “You know how the French copy everything American and make it French? I believe, as the French believe, in taking things from other cultures and making them French!” Cross’s new furniture collection includes a recamier of brushed aluminum with calfskin cushions for $1800 that is manufactured in Canada (well, it’s a French company). If that’s too expensive, there are Eiffel Tower-shaped boxes, specially made for the shop, that are filled with black and white almond candies called dragées for $15.
“Want to smell heaven?” Cross asks, proffering a bar of French honey soap that smells like the best guest bathroom in the best house on the best stretch of beach—ocean side—on Fire Island. “I go to Paris 10 times a year and bring things back to the store. This French lily candle—the Diana lily—if I could only sell that one item I would be OK! It’s a 60-hour candle, but you only need to burn it one hour a day. The neighbors will be banging on your apartment door asking, ‘What is that delightful smell?’ It’s made on the Ile St. Louis.”
Several blocks south, on a cobblestoned stretch of Crosby Street that passes for charming in New York but whose allure would be laughable in Paris, a store called French General (35 Crosby Street) also offers signs, soaps, candles, and an ever shifting stock of flea market finds. Here the Tour Eiffel shows up on a faded postcard; the metal sign reads “toilette” and has blue edging; and there are packages of fancy paper napkins that say “bon soir” and “bon jour.” Instead of candy, the glass jars are bursting with old buttons: A dozen raspberry-colored fleurettes decorated with rhinestones cost $10; $6 buys what the shop calls a “capful” of tiny bronze stars. A strange wooden box containing 12 naked baby dolls—three with dark brown skin, three with light brown, and six Caucasian—by the Petitcollin company (depuis 1860) is $80. (Little French girls are probably pleading with Maman for Britney Spears dolls, but no matter.)
Frenchware (98 Thompson Street) has dolls too, but they are more of the Babar and Tintin variety. Though some of the usual suspects are present (a model of the Eiffel Tower; the ubiquitous metal toilette signs) this place turns its back on the thrift shop aesthetic in favor of hard-to-find items from a phantom French armoire. Blue-and-white-striped sailor shirts of traditional rough cotton (beware, they shrink), heretofore almost impossible to find in America, are $79; navy wool sweaters with buttons that close on the shoulder are $139; a traditional fisherman’s smock in faded blue cotton with capacious armholes (for swinging nets) is $89; and rope-soled espadrilles in red or blue are $21. Any combination of the above will make you look like Juliette Greco singing in a boîte or Gerald Murphy lunching with Hemingway or Jean Seberg selling the Herald Tribune or Jean Genet robbing a sucker or whoever else it is that animates your deepest, dearly cherished Francophile fantasy.