Shopping in France, outside the large cities, is an art apart. The unwritten motto of the small-town shopkeeper is, “I won’t sell it,” and of his customer, “I don’t want it.” On our first stay in a country town, years ago, John and I went at it all wrong. We needed stationery, and sure enough, on a shop window on the main street was printed in large letters:
Marchand de Papier
The sign, we soon learned, meant nothing. The fact that a man has set himself up as a paper merchant, acquired a supply of merchandise, and hung out a shingle to that effect, is no indication that this same man is interested in selling paper. On the contrary, he is simply a devoted paper fancier. He has founded his shop the way another man might found a bird sanctuary, as a kind of paper haven where large quantities of it are safe from the consumer.
An elderly man reading a newspaper behind the counter did not so much as glance up as we walked in. After an uncomfortable silence we ventured, “Bonjour, monsieur.”
He turned the page of his paper. The shop was dark and small and there was a great deal of paper stacked against the walls. None of it was covered, all of it was dusty, and some of it had begun to curl.
We stepped up to the counter. “Do you have any lightweight letter paper?” we asked.
That was our first mistake. The rest of the unspoken shopper’s rule is: if you want to make a specific purchase, don’t at all costs tell the shopkeeper what it is. The old man slowly turned his head and looked at us. He evidently didn’t care for what he saw, for he returned to his paper.
“Non,” he said.
We rephrased the question. “What do you have in the way of airmail stationery?”
He looked at us again. “Got no stationery.”
This was a barefaced contradiction of fact. His shelves were full of it. His attention was returning to his paper. Just in time, we stopped him. “Do you have any unlined paper?”
He stared at us again. “Mm,” he admitted at last.
“Will you show us what you’ve got?”
He sighed. He eased himself from his stool, laid down his paper, and led us to the rear of the store. “Voila.” He indicated a much-handled pile of pink letter- paper. It was certainly not air-weight and it was very soiled.
“Well,” we said hesitantly, “it’s not exactly what we…”
His relief was so evident that we looked at the pink paper again to see what treasure we had missed. He had turned and started back to his newspaper.
“But we’ll take it,” we added hastily.
His face fell. “Combien? How many sheets?” he asked, as if he hoped it would not be more than one, or two at the most.
“Twenty sheets,” we said.
He stared, unbelief written on his face. With the air of a man who performs a tragic duty, he counted out the sheets. We had intended to broach the subject of envelopes but in his heartbroken state over the loss of 20 pieces of paper, we could see that to part with as many envelopes would break him irretrievably.
“What do we owe you?” we asked.
He looked up, puzzled. It was clear that the question had never been put to him in just that way before. He examined us closely again, let his eyes run over the piles of paper stacked against the walls, gazed meditatively at the ceiling. “Ninety-four francs.”
Now John committed the crowning breach of etiquette by reaching at once for his wallet. A statement of price deserves the same thoughtful consideration by the customer as the shopkeeper devotes to it. The figure expresses both his judgment of you and his views of the world in general. The customer’s answering proposal does the same, and the final price agreed on is a monument to the democratic spirit.
But we, with our fixed-price bias, handed him a hundred-franc note without comment. He saw his loophole and seized it. “Pas de monnaie!” he said happily. “No change.”
We doubted this, but as we had no change either, it was clear that the shopkeeper considered the matter closed. He replaced the 20 sheets and pattered back to his stool like a man who has passed unscathed through a great danger. We, who really needed paper, pattered after him.
“Couldn’t we,” we asked (since the six francs in question amounted to something less than two cents) leave the hundred francs and the next time we come in…”
“Non,” he said.
He had won. We needed paper and had been unskillful enough to admit it. We retired, defeated but wiser.
* * * *
The next day we were back, armed with change in every denomination and determination in our hearts. Again, the man did not look up at our entrance. This time, however, we were not to be beguiled into speaking first. We gazed out the window, showing him that our being in his paper store in no way indicated an interest in paper.
Several minutes later a reluctant, “Well?” escaped from behind the counter. We chalked up one point for our side.
Well, we said, it looked like a good year for grapes.
Yes, he admitted, but the wheat crop was bad.
From the crops we moved to the weather, from the weather to the villainy of the government. In the midst of a heated discussion on how many members of the National Assembly should be lined up and shot, he asked us if we needed some paper.
Well, we said, now that he mentioned it, although we really didn’t want any, and would just throw it away when we got it, and had plenty already, and never used paper anyway – we might just look at some. In fact, now that we thought about it, the kind that interested us least of all was letter-paper, and as many as 20 sheets would be pure folly.
Thus agreed, we found ourselves back at the pile of soiled pink stationery. The sheets he’d counted out the day before were easily distinguishable as most of the dust had slipped off them. But he repeated the process of counting, then paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Seventy-three francs,” he said.
“Fifty,” we said.
“Sixty,” he said.
We were friends. We understood one another. We discussed the high price of gasoline and in less than half an hour more were bidding him farewell. Before we left, though, we made a few deprecatory remarks about envelopes just to lay the groundwork for our next purchase.