Tuesday, January 12, 2016

by Elaine Sciolino 

The rue des Martyrs is not listed in most of the Paris guidebooks. It is only half a mile long and very narrow. There are no landmarks. The street has the feel of a small village; hence its community is very tight-knit. What keeps the character strong and uncut are the old-world merchants and artisans. For this reason alone, the rue des Martyrs retains its authenticity and down-to-earth sense of closeness that is missing from other areas of Paris.
In 2002, author Elaine Sciolino came to Paris with her family to work as bureau chief for the New York Times thinking that they would only be there for a few years. They never left. Eight years later, Sciolino wanted to move out of their cosmopolitan neighborhood to the other side of the river Seine and she and husband were lucky enough to get an apartment right off the rue des Martyrs. By then they were no longer considered foreigners. As residents who took a keen interest in the history of their street, it didn't take long before they (especially Sciolino) were welcomed as part of their community.
The Only Street in Paris is one charming book that I totally enjoyed reading. Sciolino writes about the merchants' lives, what is sold (no big chain stores are allowed, whether it's clothing or food), the longevity of many of the stores: a butcher shop has been run by the same family since 1899, a bakery has been around since 1868, a pharmacy since 1848. One chapter is dedicated to why there is a street named after martyrs and who exactly they were; another about independent bookstores (they thrive in France due to government protection), one of which is called Librairie Vendredi, a tiny store crammed with ten-thousand titles where the owners don't use a computer to keep track of what they have. Instead, that information is stored in their heads. Other chapters include a woman who restores eighteenth-century mercury barometers; an eccentric showman who has been running a transvestite cabaret for almost sixty years; the demise of a long-standing fish store (a catastrophe!); a party for all of the residents organized by Sciolino so that everybody could come together to celebrate the street and they have to bring something to eat or drink where everyone shares in it (potluck in America and unheard of in France).
Having lived in France back in the late 1970s, this book brings back all my great, wonderful memories. Even if you have never been there, Sciolino writes with such warmth that she transports you right into the delectable ambiance that she calls home. Who wouldn't?
Highly recommended.