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Independently minded - unique shops in Poitou-Charentes

Independently minded - unique shops in Poitou-Charentes

Faced with brutal competition from larger stores many small shops have gone out of business over the years, unable to attract enough
customers. But, as we report, some individual shopkeepers in the region are bucking the trend and continuing to thrive....

Sometimes it feels as if the world is dominated by chain stores. Large supermarkets to the right, discount stores to the left, and international brands all around us. The result may be lower prices, but at the same time some of the fun has gone out of shopping – not to mention attentive service and expert  knowledge. Yet among the endless big-name brands and large stores a few smaller specialist shops offering personal service, friendly staff and often years of knowledge and experience are managing to survive and even flourish. They are a living reminder of the France of yesteryear, when nearly all shopping was done locally,  from the local market to the local ironmongery, the shoe shop to the sweet store. Often they have been in the same family for generations. But they are more than just living museums, and are surviving because of the individual service they offer and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. In Angoulême, for example, the august Durand linen shop has transformed its fortunes by supplying towels and other items in club colours for football fans. Indeed, there are those who say that such individual shops are on the verge of a renaissance as consumers weary of the impersonality of large stores and seek out specialist stores. Here are the stories of some of the intrepid specialist shopkeepers who are still making a go of it in Poitou-Charentes.

The ironmonger

ironmonger9Michel Jeammet’s parents bought this ironmonger’s shop on rue de Saintes in Angoulême back in 1971. The quincaillerie had been there since 1932, but the original owner retired and put the shop up for sale.

Michel’s parents were bakers and so didn’t know a screw jack from a hex bolt but they wanted a life that didn’t entail having to work through the early hours of the morning and so took it over. Michel, at the time 20 years old and training to be an engineer and therefore was knowledgeable about all things mechanical, gave up his training to work with them. And he has been there ever since. ‘I am still learning everyday,’ he says. ‘That’s what makes it interesting.’ He pulls out a catalogue. ‘There are 25,000 items in this one book,’ he says. He flips through to the hammers. ‘There are so many varieties to know about, from metal to wood,’ he adds as he turns page after page.

What people buy has changed quite a lot since he started. Back in the seventies one of the biggest sellers was secateurs, vignerons buying 500 at a time for work in the vineyards. Now the shop barely sells any as mechanisation has meant harvesting is done with a machine rather than by hand.

Instead people come in for a wide range of smaller items, and to meet their needs Michel, now 58 years old, has 23,000 different items of stock in the shop. And every bit of space is crammed full. Floor-to-ceiling shelves, reached by a ladder, are filled with small boxes containing a myriad of items and from the ceiling hang all sorts of items, from shopping caddies to watering cans and huge aluminium pots for making confit de canard. In one corner are a couple of shelves of pretty locally-made pottery, taken in when a nearby gift store closed down.

The door to the shop jangles often with entering customers. Once there were five staff but now it’s just Michel and his partner of 27 years Marie-France Salle who is paid a salary. Their customers come from all over the region and even as far away as Dordogne. ‘People often say that they’ve been everywhere else and are coming to us as a last resort,’ says Marie-France. She laughs. ‘It doesn’t make you feel great when you’ve heard it a few times!’

Things became tough in the 1980s when big chain stores such as Mr Bricolage became dominant and were able to buy in bulk and sell more cheaply. ‘People come to us now because of the service we offer and the knowledge that we have,’ says Michel. ‘I listen to what my customers want.’ Still, it’s tough. ‘We survive,’ says Michel. ‘That’s all.’

But he is hopeful that things are looking up. ‘More and more people are asking for ironmongers so I think they will come back.’ As for who will take over his shop, this Michel does not know as he and Marie-France have no children. He gives a shrug. ‘Perhaps no one will, who knows...’

Quincaillerie Jeammet, 45 rue de Saintes, Angoulême; tel 05 45 95 18 57


The jewellery store

P1010918Joseph Landreau, now in his late seventies, is the at the head of the sparkling Bijouterie Landreau jewellery shops in Poitiers, Saintes and Chatellerault. But the jewellery and watchmaking trades are at the heart of the entire Landreau family, as Joseph’s wife has always worked alongside him and his daughter owns her own jewellery shop - Bijouterie Lassort - in Poitiers. Joseph’s son-in-law, meanwhile, is the overall manager of all the boutiques.

This impressive family company began back in Poitiers in 1958, but its history goes back even earlier, to the town of Lencloître when Joseph worked alone as a watchmaker. Originally from a family of farmers in the Deux-Sèvres, Joseph had a passion for precision and became an apprentice watchmaker. Later, his parents helped him set up his watchmaker’s shop.

He wasn’t alone for long, as marriage to Paulette in 1957 brought him a keen assistant to welcome clients to the shop. The following year the couple were able to buy an existing jewellery shop in rue Cordeliers. ‘We were the newbies in the street, and had to work hard on publicity to build up a clientele,’ says Paulette. ‘At the time we just sold and repaired watches and clocks. People didn’t buy new ones very often - they were given a watch for their communion and kept it all their lives.’

During the sixties and seventies, a new style of watch with automatic functions began to appear. These were more precise and led to a renewed demand for watches, allowing the Landreaus to buy larger premises further along the street in 1964. ‘But the jewellery side still developed more quickly than watches, so we both trained in gemstones and launched a range of jewellery,’ says Paulette.
Their clients back then were generally conservative in their choice of jewellery, buying single-stone engagement rings and ‘Louis d’Or’ pendants. ‘Fashions in jewellery don’t change as quickly as with clothes, but we have seen a gradual evolution over the years. People don’t buy Louis d’Or any more – they prefer a necklace with a precious stone or a pearl. About 15 years ago there was a fashion for cameos. They have also disappeared, but I’m sure it will come back again in the future.’ Pearls have changed too, with clients buying simple white pearls in the sixties, while nowadays they prefer a more creative piece combining precious stones with ceramics, gold and diamonds.

The arrival of the out-of-town hypermarkets in the 1980s brought the next challenge. ‘We didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of being convenient to supermarket clients, so we set up outlets in the shopping centres around Poitiers,’ says Paulette.
This is where, she says, people tend to buy their ‘everyday’ jewellery.  Clients who want to buy an expensive piece prefer the boutique in the town centre, where they are guaranteed the personal service that, according to Paulette, has been the key to their business surviving for so long. ‘Our clients have always shown a great deal of loyalty,’ she adds. ‘We often have the case where a couple buy an engagement ring, and then their children and grandchildren come back in later years.’

As for the Landreau children, one daughter fell for the glitter of the jewel trade, and after studying at Poitiers’ technological university trained in Lausanne, Switzerland, before buying her own jewellery shop in Poitiers.
The recent economic crisis hasn’t hit the Landreau business too hard. ‘Things are more difficult, but people still need to treat themselves,’ she says. ‘We have a workshop and a jeweller, and clients often come with an old piece of jewellery that they want to change, to update.’

From a one-man business in the 1950s to the multi-outlet jewellers employing more than 30 people that it is today, the Bijouterie Landreau has shown that personal service can lead to loyal clients and prosperity for generations.

 Bijouterie Landreau, 28 rue des Cordeliers, 86000 Poitiers. Tel 05 49 41 16 89; 


 The sweet shop

DSCF1193If you didn’t know it was a sweet shop, the bright pink exterior is a good clue to the sugary delights within. La Rosière at St Jean d’Angély in the Charente-Maritime is an institution, having been there for more than 100 years. Opening in 1898, it stayed within the same family until 1977 when it was sold to Monsieur and Madame Simon Guimbard. ‘It was a rather sad grey so we decided to paint it the colour of rose bon bons because we’d had a shop the same colour and liked it,’ says Madame Guimbard of their decision to go pink.

Step inside the door and it’s a feast for both the eyes and nose. The couple have kept many of the beautiful original glass jars which are filled with coloured sugared almonds. Also on display are nougats, pralines, salted caramels, fruit and cognac pastels, coffee and angelica galettes.  Then there’s the smell – hints of chocolate, sweets and coffee – that makes you want to breathe in deeply.

Most of the sweets are made by Simon Guimbard. The famous speciality of the shop is ‘Bois Cassé’, made from cooked sugar and worked by hand so it looks like broken wood. It can be a bit tricky. ‘It’s difficult to make on humid days as the sugar returns to its natural state,’ says Madame Guimbard. Their bestseller, though, is chocolate, usually in gift boxes.

La Rosière continues to do well, says Madame Guimbard, because whatever the crisis people always want something sweet. And, of course, her sweets and chocolates make the perfect gifts, the ribbon-wrapped boxes far more special than a box of Ferrero Rocher from the supermarket. ‘Usually people come in when they have family coming or if they are going to visit family or friends,’ she says. ‘But I also have customers who come in regularly for the same treat. I’m not saying I’m not affected by the recession but it could be a lot worse.’

The shop’s busiest time is, not surprisingly, the run-up to Christmas and during December it is open every day.As for her own favourite, Madame Guimbard cannot choose. ‘Everything in moderation!,’ she laughs.

La Rosière 16, Rue des Bancs, St Jean d’Angély; tel 05 46 32 00 89

First published in Living Poitou-Charentes in October 2011 © All Rights Reserved