At the imposing gates of the Luxembourg Gardens a sign warns of gusting winds and the risk of air-borne branches. A sketch depicts a figure leaning into the wind, coat flapping and umbrella turned inside-out.
Duly warned, I cross the park and wander along the boulevard Saint Michel. A wrought iron sign marks a shop called Simon, flanked by opened miniature umbrellas, announcing that the shop too is OPEN. I cannot resist entering.
Monsieur Simon seems to understand my curiosity, smiles broadly, and is genuinely glad to talk about his passion. It's no wonder. He is the fourth generation to keep the shop. He shows me a new model, with lace-ups like on a pair of boots. His grandfather opened the shop in 1897 when those who didn't have a carriage walked, and there was an umbrella shop at practically every street corner. In Paris, that meant over 2,500 of them. The cobbled streets were rough on umbrellas and canes, so there were numerous repair shops too.
The Simon family outlasted many a competitor, and Monsieur Simon's mother Chantal Voisin was instrumental in 1958 in reinventing the business with repair service, recovering and creating her own styles. It became her cup of tea, he says.
Monsieur's pride is effusive: the rarity of this specialized business, the service, the quality and beauty of the product are known by word of mouth. Attention to detail confirms the French brand, he says. Besides, it's green to walk now, so everyone needs an umbrella. Prices range from 27 euros to over 200 euros, but of course - he continues - good quality is the best economy. Only six models of any one style are produced, ensuring its exclusivity.
A client enters, inquires about the weight of different models. The lightest weighs only 200g, and is also the most fragile, he warns. In a wind he suggests holding the umbrella at the top of the shaft close to the canopy, and with the other hand pulling down gently on the edge facing the wind. He demonstrates. But, he shrugs throwing up his hands, in a storm don't go out!
The client chooses a collapsible model, Monsieur Simon shows her how to open and close it properly, and invites her to give feedback - for next year's models.
Umbrellas first inspired a business in Paris in 1745. Monsieur and Madame Antoine created "Parapluies Publics," a rental kiosk. They rented umbrellas by the day or night to pedestrians who lingered among the shops on the bridges and squares. Their success led in 1770 to a shop Antoine established in the gardens of the Palais Royal, where elegant society circulated. With the renovations to central Paris created by Baron Haussmann in 1885, the Antoine family moved their store to the new location in the grand Avenue de l'Opera, and this is where I found it in 2009. Now the prosperous shop features canes, gloves and scarves along with umbrellas.
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