Former New York Times Paris Bureau Chief Elaine Sciolino has lived in Paris since 2002, but it took her almost a decade to move to the rue des Martyrs, which she calls “the last real street in Paris, a half-mile celebration of the city in all its diversity.” Sciolino discovered the street early on as an appealing alternative to the touristy Marais. Visiting the neighborhood, located half a mile south of the Sacre-Coeur in the Ninth and Eighteenth Arrondissements, became an anticipated Sunday morning ritual. When it was time for the journalist to give in and make Paris her permanent home, she knew she could live nowhere else.
In 2010 Sciolino moved into an apartment just off the rue des Martyrs. What, she wondered, made this stretch of Paris so special, so uniquely contained? The street, she discovered, “jealously guards its secrets.” Overlooked in most guidebooks, the rue des Martyrs runs half a mile but contains almost 200 restaurants and shops, many of which have been opened for years and are run by traditional merchants and artisans passionate about their crafts yet reserved around strangers. After some time spent wedding the crowds, Sciolino ingratiates herself with the residents of rue des Martyrs. Soon she is so busy greeting residents that it takes her 30 minutes to walk a few hundred feet. Slowly she gains insight into their world.
Through a series of themed essays compiled in her new book The Only Street in Paris, Sciolino pieces together a vivid portrait of her neighborhood, peppered with enthralling characters and engaging historical anecdotes. While one chapter is devoted to the art of cheese mongering, another assesses an antiques dealer who cares more about admiring his goods than selling them. Perhaps the most heartwarming chapter for bibliophiles focuses on the neighborhood’s three bookstores. Considered national treasures, bookstores in France are government protected, as are the books themselves. Booksellers on the Rue des Martyrs take their jobs very seriously. One couple doesn’t open shop until the afternoon, reserving mornings for reading so they can better advise customers.
Sciolino manages to find beauty in every corner of her new home, usually aided by an enthusiastic neighbor, such as the caretaker of the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette church who urges her to imagine what years of dirt and water-damage have rendered invisible. “No matter what the day,” she writes, “I can never walk alone on the rue des Martyrs.” The people, and their passions, have shaped the secluded street into an escape from an increasingly globalized world and, for now, remains an authentic tribute to Parisian village life.