Whilst Paris has largely managed to avoid the worldwide slide of cities towards an inter-changeable identikit identity, it remains a city, and necessarily shares some aspects of life that have evolved in these large communities. Cities are machines that function in mostly the same universal manner, housing certain trades that are entirely suited to the lives and needs of the inhabitants. Stop almost any person moving around a metropole and you’ll find they have two objects in common; a set of keys and a pair of shoes.
With this in mind, walk around almost any city and you may begin to notice two things. Firstly, shoe repairers are also specialists in key cutting, and secondly almost all of these shops seem to date back to at least the 1960s. Whilst most places in a city are involved in a constant struggle to adapt and keep up with fashions, the simple shoe repairer has quietly gone about his business. Why think about fashion when fashion does not exist in this trade?
A shoe or a key is a simple, universal object that has not changed to any great extent in centuries. Although we may now speak of biometric security, keys are still the keepers of the city door, and they still look much like they did in the middle ages. Our feet may be dressed today in more sporty models than in the past, but they are still functional items that have the same attributes as their ancestors - a heel, a sole, insoles and laces. When a lock changes or a heel breaks, we do not care about finding a modern, attractive store for our need, but someone who can offer us a quick service at a reasonable price.
Around Paris, I find shops that seemingly cornered the local market in the 50s and 60s and have kept their position in the community ever since. Where individuals may have retired, others have taken over the business and have seen no reason to renovate a fully-functional store. What would be the point when the machinery is still operating and a steady stream of people continues to use the service?
In many ways it is the ideal city business. Initial investment in tools and materials is low, and the shop can be set up in the smallest, low-rent units. It can be a one-person occupation with limited need for additional staff, and offers a steady stream of income with no need for continual occupational training. Storekeepers can keep stock for almost indefinite periods, and offer a service that people will never be able to reproduce in their own homes. For these reasons, it has often been a service provided by immigrants into a city, although with saturation levels reached many years ago in Paris, it is only through the purchase of existing units that the recent arrival can set up shop today.
What may be unique to Paris is the fact that no chain store franchising system is involved. These are individual businesses with a unique story attached to each shop, but what they share is their physical appearance. Whilst most of the street facades present a kind of faceless modernism, here are tiny throwbacks to what the city looked like 40 or 50 years ago. Typical shop logos and font types are constantly and imperceptibly altered, but these city survivors offer us a trip back through the history of post-war design as well as their more traditional, valuable service!