From the cafe at No. 8, Elaine Sciolino watches the Saturday morning show on the Rue des Martyrs.
“The actors perform on six mini-stages: my greengrocer and my preferred cheese shop and my butcher at No. 3, my second cheese shop and my fish store at No. 5, and the front of my supermarket, where an itinerant chair caner sets up at No. 9.”
Word pictures like this carry the reader through “The Only Street in Paris,” Sciolino’s chronicle of her adopted street and the people who supply its pulse.
A former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, Sciolino moves to this gentrifying neighborhood in the Ninth Arrondisement from the fancier Seventh. Here, with her “strongly American-accented French,” she tests the limits of a newcomer in Paris as she sets out to learn all about the Rue des Martyrs.
Famous names flow as she traces the street’s history from Place Saint-Georges up the hill toward the white turrets of Sacré-Coeur Basilica. Dégas painted circus performers here, Truffaut filmed scenes there, Thomas Jefferson brought plants down there to a friend later guillotined.
The journey is just half a mile, but Sciolino treads slowly, stopping at shops, talking her way past locked gates.
Paris’ past remains present in the woman who restores antique barometers and the retired Socialist Party adviser who carries the yellow star the Nazis forced him to wear.
But change is palpable. “Where once there were stores selling a surprising variety of useful objects, like fabrics and thread, now there are boutiques selling one frivolity at a time: choux pastries, madeleines, cookies, Spanish pata negra cured ham, and ice creams in New Age flavors like chocolate with espelette pepper.”
The transition is personal to Michou, the blue-clad icon of Montmartre who opened his transvestite cabaret nearly 60 years ago. His was once among many clubs catering to appetites that stirred “a volatile brew of seediness.” Most have been replaced now. “There are all these clothing boutiques,” Michou laments. “Who needs so many clothes?”
Such intimate conversations give the book its best moments. My favorite is the exchange of Hermès scarves between Sciolino and Guy the antiques dealer.
As earnestly as Sciolino digs into this dynamic neighborhood, she can only go so far. She asks to join the group that organizes book giveaways, only to be told, “We adore you, Elaine, but our numbers are limited.” She comes back from vacation to discover the greengrocer gone; nobody had bothered to tell her. On the Rue des Martyrs, merchants and residents are the inner circles. “Then came everyone else,” she writes. “As a newcomer and a foreigner, I was everyone else.”
Unable to go deep, Sciolino goes wide, showing how remarkable a place can become when it is fully appreciated.
“What makes this street special is not its glamour,” says Cerise, a young woman in a dive bar. “There isn’t any. But you meet really original people here, not dangerous but very strange. And you get attached to them.”
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.