In the 20 years that I have owned a little studio apartment in Paris’s ninth arrondissement, the district has changed considerably. Almost every restaurant has been replaced at successive intervals by other restaurants; fancy gift shops have been transformed into Italian delicatessens; poster stores have become yoga centers; and every supermarket has been superseded by a larger chain.
Only one tiny store survived all the changes. Nestled between laundromats and plumbers’ shops on Rue Manuel, just off Rue des Martyrs, was a shop run by a jovial little man with a bristling mustache who seemed to come straight out of a French movie from the 1930s. He presided over a minuscule space stuffed from floor to ceiling with cards, frames, posters, picture hooks, screws, light bulbs, children’s toys. If ever I needed anything, he would unfailingly have it tucked away somewhere above or below his counter.
Often I would wait in the cramped space while he chatted in a leisurely fashion to a shopper who had just dropped in for a chat. In other circumstances, I might have felt impatient standing in line while clients spoke at length to the shopkeeper, but with him I never minded waiting because he was so courteous to everyone. And he always charged the most reasonable prices, never pressing the most expensive items on you if there was something of better value available. Even if I had nothing to purchase that day, he would wave at me from his counter as I passed by, smiling or making a joke about the bad weather.
It seemed part of his Old World charm that we always addressed each other as “Monsieur.” I didn’t even know his name, but I do now because when I went to buy a light bulb this morning after a few months away, I found several messages addressed to him posted on the window of his store. From them, I learned that a few weeks ago, José closed his shop, put a notice on the door with the words “Closed due to a death” and chose to end his life.