What is it that makes French towns so charming? Apart from the architecture and local style, the variety of small shops and businesses gives each place its own specific character.
The negative impact of out of town supermarkets on le centre ville is well known and there is no doubt that since the arrival of a Super U on the outskirts of Lamastre it has been a struggle for many of the family owned shops to survive. As supermarkets go it is pretty good, with locally reared meat of excellent quality, many products such as honey, yoghurt and chestnut delicacies made by neighbouring small artisan farmers and a cheese counter beyond the wildest dreams of Waitrose. But Lamastre has felt the pressure.
There are now four bakers where once there were over half a dozen, two butchers instead of five, one ironmongers has closed and the other is up for sale. Admittedly this is not bad for a town of around 2,600 inhabitants but the small shops need support and we make a point of only going to the supermarket for household goods, of which there is a better range at better prices. In England it is of course convenient to find everything under one roof, but here most of us happily go the rounds of boucher, charcutier, fromagerie, boulangerie-pâtisserie stopping for a chat at each port of call. It is this variety of independent shops that makes the centre of most smaller French towns so fascinating.
Whereas on any UK High Street you would expect the usual array of clothing and shoe chains, W H Smith, Boots, Superdrug, and the rest, in Lamastre we have four local clothes shops, five family operated garages and two each of independent chemists, florists, newsagent-stationers and bookshops.
All this makes for a wonderful variety of shop fronts. We have been making a bit of a collection from neighbouring towns, for instance these come from Tournon,
where we were especially pleased to find Sarzier the plumber.
Nearby Montelimar also has a particularly good collection of old established businesses, each with its own distinctive sign and frontage. People have obviously been buying slippers, spectacles and shopping bags from these stores for generations.
There is something very charming about the old fashioned graphics and lettering of these signs, which is justified by their longevity. Delrieu has been a leather goods store since 1867 . . . . .
. . . . . and nothing much has changed at this boulangerie since it first opened its doors in 1930.
We are happy to see that the graphic tradition contiues in this cheerful little crêpe van with its blithe disregard for orthodoxy in the matter of accents. Vive la variété!
And in the interests of balance, here’s what we saw in Ross-on-Wye during our Christmas holidays.