Shopping in France #3: get thee to a quincaillerie

Traditional local quincaillerie

[Have just realised that I spelt quincaillerie in three different ways in this post, only one of them correct. Having checked in the Collins Robert, I’ve now amended.]

What is a quincaillerie? In England, we would call it an ironmonger’s, i.e. the sort of place where you can buy nails by the pound, get glass cut to size and buy a new lid for your dustbin. Except that in England, I suspect they barely exist any more.

In France, the passion for bricolage (DIY to you and me) has taken off in the last 10 years. There are now chains of DIY stores (Mr Bricolage, Bricomarché, Leclerc Bricolage, etc), comparable with those in the UK. And, as with the UK versions, provided that what you want is standard you will have no problem finding it.

But what if it isn’t standard? That’s where your local quincaillerie comes in. Our local village has an absolutely wonderful one and I hope it will keep going forever. It’s a family-owned business (as most of them are) and Monsieur et Mme. V. run it in person, seconded by their faithful employee, Denis.

You can buy anything there. It’s an Aladdin’s Cave of interesting and sometimes unexpected items. For some reason, in addition to electrical cable of varying lengths and thicknesses, all shades of paint and varnish and screws of all dimensions, they sell perfume and soap. And if they don’t have what you want in stock, they will order it for you for delivery the next day, or the day after. The shop itself spreads over two floors, but the stock is stored in several subterranean levels. I’m sure that somewhere in the fastnesses of the storerooms, there are boxes containing tractor parts and spares for old Citroën CVs.

Many years ago, we wanted to buy a barre à mine (a long iron bar with a point at one end and a flat lever at the other – the name in English eludes me). We needed it to move stones and excavate planting holes for shrubs. “Pas de problème,” said Monsieur V. “What size would you like?” and proceeded to produce various lengths from his storeroom. We bought the 2 metre version, which proved so useful that we went back and bought a second one. We use them all the time.

On another occasion, we were unable to find what we were looking for (I forget what it was) and it didn’t appear to be in stock. We said we would try elsewhere and left. After we had gone 50 metres or so down the street, we heard the pounding of feet behind us and an urgent “Monsieur, ‘dame!” Denis, the assistant, rushed up to us exclaiming, “Ça y est – I’ve found it!” They don’t relinquish a sale in a hurry.

Sometimes there’s a promotion, and the shop window and the pavement outside are festooned with things you didn’t know you needed. This week, they had heavy-duty working clothes – which I wouldn’t be seen dead in – and heavy-duty working shoes with reinforced toecaps – rather more interesting, given the idiotic things we do with boulders. Equally, it might be ladders, or fencing material, or swimming pool chemicals at the start of the season.

Monsieur V. always greets us like long-lost cousins. This is partly because, as commerçants ourselves, we attended a meeting hosted by the local Chambre de Commerce early on in our séjour here. There’s therefore a certain quasi-Masonic bonhomie between us now. It’s also partly because a good proportion of his chiffre d’affaires (turnover) comes from foreigners who live, or have second homes, here. A few years ago, he told us that foreigners accounted for 60% of his turnover, local councils and state enterprises for 30% and the locals for the remaining 10%.

I never cease to marvel at their patience with foreigners (mostly Brits), whose grasp of the language is rudimentary, especially when it comes to the complexities of plumbing or electrical accessories. Many’s the time I have witnessed the Vs or Denis patiently listening and trying to interpret what their customers require from their halting and painfully inaccurate French. They haven’t managed to master the rudiments of English themselves, but then why should they? This is their country, after all.  

Like all local shops, of course, they are not the cheapest. Frequently, you can find what you want at Mr Bricolage for 2/3 of the price. But for customer service, you can’t beat them. They occupy an important place in our life and when the Vs take their 4-week congés annuels in September, we are bereft. Then we remember all the things we should have bought before they went off with their bucket and spade (you can buy those there as well).

So long live the quincailleries of France, I say. 

Copyright © 2010 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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