Thursday, December 04, 2008

Decline of the French Cafe

Parisian Lovers

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 600,000 bars and cafes in France. In 1960, there were 200,000 cafes in Paris alone. Today, there are less than 41,500 nationwide, and two more close every day.

Proprietors report business down by 20 to 30 percent. Daniel Perrey, the owner of a bar in Crimolois near Dijon, refers to the cafe as a "public living room," an image I really like and which other columnists have picked up

Bernard Picolet, the owner of the Paris cafe Aux Amis du Beaujolais, started by his family in 1921, says, “The way of life has changed . . . The French are no longer eating and drinking like the French. They are eating and drinking like the Anglo-Saxons . . . They eat less and spend less time at it.”

The reasons? Many. As the New York Times wrote: Not only are the French spending less, and drinking less . . .but on Jan. 1 of this year, . . . France extended its smoking ban to bars, cafes and restaurants. To this, add modern life. Cell phones, less downtime. The lure of trendier clubs. And, of course, "C'est l'economie, stupide!"

Is it overly romantic to lament this? I'll compare it to newspapers--an industry that also came into its own during the 19th century and reigned in its field through most of the 20th. Like the cafes, new technologies and lifestyles started to lure customers away over the last twenty years. During the last decade, young people especially view both cafes and printed newspapers as an old-fashioned product which will someday become downright anachronistic.

Viewed that way, I suppose all things run their course and are eventually replaced. Will a few historic and high-priced cafes survive for the tourists, so that we can sit and pretend that Hemingway or Picasso is scribbling at the next table?

For more info, check out this November 08 piece in the New York Times or the same piece in the International Herald Tribune, a 2001 story from CNN, or this 2007 Eursoc article about both the cafes of Paris and the pubs of London, also in decline.

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