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Merci

The concept of giving back

It’s rather to its credit that Merci doesn’t boast of its kind heart or plead for customers, but relies on its ability to charm and entice in order to raise its funds.

A French wine-buyer once told me, rather smugly, that ‘all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac’. Like most aphorisms, the phrase was silkily silly, but something of its annoying chirpiness kept nudging into my mind as I grappled with finding the best way to define the Parisian concept store Merci. The phrase tramping round my head was; ‘Merci is a concept store, but not all concept stores are Merci’. Not that that helped, because what is a concept store anyway? Traditionally, if such a word can be used in the context of something so now, a concept store is supposed to be a place that sells the idea of a particular lifestyle to a distinct social group. The ‘concept’ that Merci glories in, however, is its mantra of ‘l’un et l’autre’. It translates, far less elegantly into English, as ‘the one and the other’, but isn’t a loss of elegance always the way with translations from French? The idea behind l’un et l’autre is to avoid choosing between ‘traditional or modern, local or international, simple or costly, mass-produced or individually made, but to bring them all together, and to present the best of each world.’ But wait, if that’s true, then couldn’t l’un et l’autre just as easily characterise my corner shop, which sells home-made cakes, a range of power tools, and some scary plastic rain bonnets circa 1957? The truth is that Merci resists definition, even as a concept store, and that is the nucleus of its atomic charm.

I have a routine when I visit Merci. I always start in the Used Book Café, a long, narrow, high-ceilinged space, and just my idea of what a café should be. On my last visit, when I ordered my customary cup of tea, like a gate-crashed party, so much more turned up than had been invited; a large carafe of water crammed with fresh mint leaves, a family sized tea pot just for me and, best of all, a square of lemon polenta cake. Even better than the unexpected cake were the books. The café’s ten thousand volumes exude a scent of Eau de Secondhand, offer the most eclectic range of possibilities, and every single one of them is for sale. I spotted a history of the French Resistance, Hilary Clinton’s My Story in French, essays on Freud, République Mon Amour by Robert Laffont, a vast book on naval strategy, and, perhaps oddest of all, Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire by John M. Bullitt, which, at only two euros, I felt compelled to buy due to its defeated air of long captivity.

After the book junket, I like to head to the basement. It’s not down to it being a metaphor for life’s long, slow trajectory, but rather more prosaically, because it houses the ironmongery, the kitchenalia, and the downright odd. There are lampshades made of cardboard, metre upon metre of cable, a device for moulding cooked rice into cubes, picnic cutlery, and stacks of enamelled pie dishes. On my last visit, everywhere, were sucker-tipped red and black darts stuck to things, as though the store doubled up, out of hours, as a training centre for a bottom of the league darts club. There were darts on the walls, and on the skirting boards. They clung to the shelves and trembled on the bonnet of the original red Fiat 500 that always sits in the courtyard outside. The reason for this became clear on the ground floor. The store, known for its themed installations, was paying tribute to an Indigenous American princess called Yepa. A life-sized model of her sat on horseback surrounded by cacti, quiver of arrows slung over her back. The darts were presumably a nod to Yepa’s skills with her bow, but, with their sucker tips, a safer option for her inner-city incarnation.

Amidst the Isabel Marant fashion, the crumpled linen pillowcases in colours that can only be achieved after several hundred washes, and, my favourite, a vast paper replica of a 19th century door in the style of Georges Haussmann, there is serious intent. Merci was created by Bernard and Marie-France Cohen with the idea that, once its running costs were covered, any profits from the store would pay for human development projects in south west Madagascar. Merci says that, along with donations from the Cohen family and other donors, more than 300,000 EUR has been raised so far. The money has been used to rebuild a school, and to create school canteens in different parts of the region. It’s rather to its credit that Merci doesn’t boast of its kind heart or plead for customers, but relies on its ability to charm and entice in order to raise its funds. So, as the French wine-buyer might have said, while Merci is a charity store, most charity stores are definitely not Merci.

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