Aladdin’s cave

For visitors to London a traditional, albeit quirky, tourist attraction is the food hall at Harrods. In Moscow the equivalent would be the vaulted galleries at GUM; in Paris, perhaps the magnificent glass and steel dome at Galleries Lafayette. At the other extreme and again in Paris, there is the basement of BHV, formally known as the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville. No touch of decadence here.

BHV itself is one of Paris’ great department stores and the ground floor looks and smells like any other with its acres of counters displaying make up, perfume and the usual fine frippery. But go downstairs and you will find another world, an Aladdin’s cave full of practicalities. Thousands of pieces of hardware, ironmongery, household goods and DIY widgets are set out on gangways and in kiosks. Together they take up the whole of the basement, one block in American terms. Looking at the goods there is no sense of fashion. Yes, there are all the latest types of light bulb or laser spirit level but there also are hinges or locks that have changed little in a hundred years. The place is truly functional and in some sections its range of stock gives it the feel of a museum.

For Parisians this basement is an institution, for me a quincaillerie to die for. What’s more, in this particular hardware store, the shop assistants know their business. Ask them the whereabouts of an item and they will know where it is and politely direct you there. When they serve you from their own particular kiosk – say one dedicated to washers – they are experts.

I have been there twice in the last few months. Both missions were successful and each a delight. Six months ago my wife bought a leather handbag in India but soon the magnetic clasp on the main flap failed, leaving the contents open to the elements – a security nightmare. We could find no solution in London, so when in Paris it was down to the basement at BHV and to the clasp and fixings kiosk. Different sizes, different styles, different materials all jostle with one anther from floor to ceiling. Then, there it was, the perfect match in every particular and with all the studs and backing needed for fixing. In the next week it was fitted by our local cobbler – job done.

The second visit was made in order to find a glue to stick silver to glass. This story started some years ago when a small French glass tray with a decorated silver frame slipped from my hands, fell to the floor and broke. It was old and treasured and finding a glass replacement became my responsibility. I got nowhere visiting shops in London and the internet was also unhelpful. The manufacturer still existed but neither his catalogue nor a visit to his shop helped. The solution was finally devised by David, the stained-glass man, who was doing some work in our house. In his workshop he had a piece of the very glass we needed and he would be happy to cut it to shape. It was a beautiful rich blue and he knew its provenance, an old verrerie at Saint-Just in the south of France. The piece fitted perfectly and it was left to me to glue the glass into the frame. As he departed David said, “‘it’s very important that you use the right glue,” but couldn’t recall which it was.

The search was on. In London there were two challenges: finding a shop that sold a selection of glues, and finding an assistant who knew his stock. It was hopeless so, next time in Paris, it was off to BHV.

“Yes sir, we have a glue counter, it is just behind the stairs over there,” said the helpful assistant, pointing to a distant corner of the store. In the kiosk there was a diminutive woman in her 60s. She asked detailed questions about the tray, went silent for a moment, then smiled. She had the very thing. Seconds later she offered me a glue with instructions on how to use it to stick glass to silver. Her last words were slightly mystical, “Just use four drops, one to each side.”

The secure bag and the reconstructed tray are now in London and already at work. They are the product of BHV, a store in which at least one department – the wonderful basement – believes in employing motivated and informed staff, and in which there is the luxury of a vast and varied stock geared to practicality and need, rather than to fad and fashion.

For this alone, it is worth a visit – and a celebration.

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