NEW YORK TIMES  Dining & Wine  Published: November 5, 2012

Letter From Paris
On a Historic Street, One That Got Away

FOR me, the Rue des Martyrs is the last real street in Paris.

It is here that I find artichokes so young they can be eaten raw, a Côtes du Rhône so smooth it could be a fine burgundy, and a cow cheese so creamy it’s best eaten with a spoon.

I take my cues from the late, great Julia Child. “The Parisian grocers insisted that I interact with them personally,” Julia wrote in her 2006 autobiography, “My Life in France.” “If I wasn’t willing to take the time to get to know them and their wares, then I would not go home with the freshest legumes or cuts of meat in my basket. They certainly made me work for my supper.”

So I interact. I work for my supper. Sometimes I even pretend to be Julia, with her American-accented French. I caress tomatoes, inspect lamb loins, sniff Camembert, sample wild boar charcuterie and go all wobbly over sugarcoated brioche. No one except my children makes fun of me.

I have been embraced as a member of the neighborhood “family,” as the merchants call the bas (lower) Rue des Martyrs. They know — and seem to like — one another. When I needed a stool small enough to fit into a shower after my older daughter injured her leg, the manager of the variety store borrowed one for me from the nearby jeweler. When Fahmi Hamrouni, a greengrocer at the Petit Jardin (No. 3), ran out of flat green beans one day, he grabbed handfuls for me from the greengrocer across the street.

The feeling of intimacy is enhanced on Sunday mornings, when several blocks of the street moving up from the Notre Dame de Lorette Church in the Ninth Arrondissement are closed off to traffic.

The “family” designation comes with privileges but also a code of conduct: smile and say “bonjour” to every merchant you pass, ideally stop in for a chat. It can take 30 minutes to walk a few hundred feet.

So the neighbors were thunderstruck Oct. 16 when the Poissonnerie Bleue, the street’s fish market (No. 5), with no advance warning, posted a dire message on its chalkboard: “The fish store will close for good on October 31, 2012. Thank you. The Management.”

Apparently there had been a longstanding dispute between Marc Briolay, the 53-year-old owner, and the landlord over who was responsible for repairs. The Briolays stopped paying rent; the landlord ordered them to leave.

The fish store had been in business for more than a half-century. Mr. Briolay started working there as a teenager in 1978 and built it into a family-run operation. Tomàs, his 22-year-old son, cleaned and filleted the fish. Justine, his 23-year-old daughter, who had worked there since she was 12, sold the merchandise. Marc and his wife, Évelyne, rented the apartment upstairs.

The shop employed other full-time and part-time workers, including Joël Vicogne, 50, who started working there when he was 16 and happened to be the son of the landlord (who once ran the shop with his uncle).

No matter how busy the shop was, how long the line stretched onto the sidewalk, there was time to talk about fish. I learned, for example, that an ugly-faced pink-orange, firm-fleshed fish called sebaste (a variety of ocean perch) is excellent when stuffed with shallots or fennel and baked whole, that cod works well with pesto, that red mullet is not too delicate to fillet and sauté.

Justine told me how to make linguine with shrimp, fish quenelles and beurre blanc with white wine and shallots. Marc, who manned the cash register, always threw a lemon and a bunch of parsley into my bag and shaved two or three euros off the bill.

Jacques Bravo, the mayor of the Ninth Arrondissement, struggled to prevent the inevitable. He turned up on the Rue des Martyrs in a pinstriped suit, gray cashmere scarf and Legion of Honor pin one Sunday morning after the announcement of the closing, shook a lot of hands and promised to help save the day.

To no avail. Mr. Briolay had closed his shop for the last time — three days early.

The burden of history intensified the suffering.

The street got its name from the martyrdom of St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, in the third century. Legend has it that St. Denis was decapitated on what is now the Rue Yvonne Le Tac at the top of the Rue des Martyrs for preaching the Christian Gospel. He picked up his head, washed it off and carried it five miles to the north before dying.

By the 18th century, the half-mile street had become the physical spine of the neighborhood; by the 19th, a center of commerce.


The bas (lower) part, which is older, was — and still is — considered the real street. Many of its shops are related to the bouche (mouth), meaning they’re food shops.

The bas Rue des Martyrs prides itself on its permanence. The Boucherie Billebault, a thriving butcher shop, at No. 3, has been operated by the same family since 1899. The brasserie at the corner of the Rue Lamartine (No. 2) dates back more than a century. A hardware store has been at No. 1 since 1842. A pharmacy at No. 4 was mentioned in city archives as early as 1848.

When Mr. Briolay announced his departure, the personnel at the bakery at No. 10 (a bakery has been there since 1868) drafted a handwritten petition demanding that only another fish store be allowed in the space; 200 signatures were collected and sent to City Hall.

“It’s a scandal,” said Valérie Levin, who runs the bakery with her husband. “We don’t need another cheese shop, or butcher or bakery on our end of the street. We need diversity to stay alive. Without a fish store, the street is dead.”

Ezzdine Ben Abdollah, a greengrocer nearby, said: “It’s hard work, but there’s money in fish. If I knew fish, I’d take the place myself.”

I made the point to various merchants that there’s another fish store several blocks up the street toward Montmartre. Kevin Losbar, the 26-year-old manager, runs a perfectly respectable, if much smaller fish store.

But that fish store is on the other side of the unofficial dividing line at the Rue Manuel, where the incline up the hill en route to Montmartre becomes steeper. This is the beginning of the haut (high) Rue des Martyrs, infested with real estate agencies, clothing stores and upscale boutiques eager to invade south.

An American-style cupcake and cookie shop recently moved in. So did a Subway sandwich shop and a cafe that features Sunday brunch and smoothies. The bas merchants consider the upper part an enclave of transients and arrivistes.

“It’s too far away,” said Yves Chataigner, who runs a cheese store with his wife, Annick, at No. 3 on the bas Rue des Martyrs. “It could be New York.”

Thus far, there have been no takers for the fish store, according to Mr. Bravo. It will not be Mr. Vicogne, who has no intention of taking over the lease. “Fish is too tough,” he said. “You have to be at the wholesale market at 2, 3 in the morning. You have to be on your feet in rubber boots eight hours a day. You don’t get enough vacation.”

Paradoxically, the drastic gentrification of the Rue des Martyrs and the surrounding streets (real estate agents call the neighborhood Village Martyrs) in the last two decades has hurt traditional merchants. Young, upwardly mobile two-income couples with little time to cook have moved in; many older residents have moved out.

So have some of the merchants. There had been a charcuterie at No. 6 rue des Martyrs since 1849; when it moved out last year, a store specializing in prepared rotisserie chickens and sides replaced it.

A year before that, a sliver of a newspaper kiosk was turned almost overnight into an A.T.M.

Mr. Bravo is determined. He has sent out an all-points bulletin to his fellow mayors in the 19 other arrondissements asking if they know of a motivated fishmonger. After all, France’s National Confederation of Fishmongers and Oyster Openers has started a training program in which 85 students are enrolled.

“It’s extremely difficult to find someone to take over a big space like this,” he said. “It’s much easier to sell fish at outdoor markets. But I’m an old marathon runner. I did New York eight times. I’m in this for the long run. We only need to find one.”

But folks on the street are skeptical that the city will enforce regulations that require artisanal shops in certain zones to be replaced by similar businesses and keep the fish store closed until another fishmonger can be found.

They point out the fate of the street’s independently owned florist shop last year. Even though the space was restricted for an “artisanal” business, Kiehl’s, the American beauty products chain, got around the restriction and moved in. It installed two barber’s chairs and called itself an artisan.


NEW YORK TIMES   Published: December 2, 2015

The only street in Paris, rue des Martyrs

Elaine Sciolino, a former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, has lived in that city long enough to know it’s not only the Gothic spires of Notre Dame or the opalescent gray light known as grisaille that makes the city unique. Paris is beautiful; the food is delicious, the shoe shopping world class. But it’s the people who make Paris Paris. And in her latest book, Sciolino celebrates this idea, bringing her favorite street to life through the stories and histories of its residents and merchants.

“The Rue des Martyrs does not belong to monumental Paris,” she writes in “The Only Street in Paris.” Indeed, this narrow, working-class street is a different kind of French landmark, one that was spared in Baron Haussmann’s sweeping renovation of the city when smaller, labyrinthine neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for broad boulevards. Anyone who loves Paris’s remaining quirky “villages” will revel in Sciolino’s meticulously reported accounts of the characters who work and live on the half-mile-long street.

As Sciolino sets out to recount their stories, heading north from the church of ­Notre-Dame-de-Lorette toward Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre, she meets a tweedy octogenarian, a self-proclaimed local guide and historian who cajoles her into giving a crowd of strangers access to her building, “one of the most beautiful bourgeois houses of the neighborhood.” As they marvel at the oval staircase with its rosewood banister, he recites a long list of famous former inhabitants, including the mid-19th-century portrait photographer Nadar and, possibly, Jules Verne. Another neighborly history buff informs her that the street was a swamp in the Middle Ages and that François Truffaut filmed “The 400 Blows” here (and lived nearby). The list of famous residents or habitués reads like a Who’s Who of French culture. Delacroix, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Géricault all paid regular visits to the neighborhood. Edith Piaf even makes an appearance as an unknown waif, singing to residents as they toss coins from their windows.

But the locals are the real stars of the Rue des Martyrs: political activists, former teachers, a flamboyant cabaret owner, an irreverent wood gilder with a penchant for antique barometers. We understand, from their memories and their stories, how Parisians easily live the past in the present and how they struggle to maintain their villages. Some, like Jacques Bravo, the mayor of the Ninth Arrondissement, win and manage to keep the big chain stores at bay. But others, like the sad fishmonger Marc Briolay, who knows each client’s name and preferences, can’t keep their businesses afloat.

Another local character, a 19th-­century medium who summoned from the dead everyone from Homer to Benjamin Franklin, inspires Sciolino to summon a few of her own ghosts, including that of her father, “Tony the food king,” a Sicilian-­American grocer who taught her that food was an easy way to connect with people.

Perhaps the bigger ghost haunting Scio­lino in this book is Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a street reporter from another century who spent his days recording people’s habits and customs for his “Tableau de Paris,” an ill-fated 12-volume collection published on the eve of the revolution. Sciolino confesses to a “complicated” relationship with Mercier, who was the subject of a doctoral dissertation she once hoped to complete. This volume could be considered her second attempt — decidedly shorter, but no less rigorous in its encyclopedic range.

As if to caution a fact-bound journalist, one bookseller tucked into a narrow shop at the top of the street rails against “too many anecdotes — it means the author lacks inspiration. . . . There is no poetry.” Sciolino doesn’t lack for inspiration; she has Paris at her feet. Her facts are intriguing and skillfully woven together, but perhaps in their tight weave the author misses a looser, sensory feeling of Paris, a city defined as much by its superficial smells and sounds and visual dichotomies as it is by its deep and often dark history.

At the end of this Parisian tableau, ­Sciolino assembles her cast of characters for a celebratory potluck party. They turn up bearing gifts of sparkling wine, terrines and salted caramels. In honor of Sciolino’s Sicilian heritage, the crowd sings Neapolitan love songs and a rousing rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” That’s when the author has her “aha!” moment: Here, in the heart of the working-class city, Parisian codes don’t matter; it’s authenticity that counts. That’s what makes Paris Paris.

Life on the Rue des Martyrs  By Elaine Sciolino   Illustrated. 294 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $25.95.