jeudi 26 février 2009

The Oriental Express

Once upon a time, about a hundred yards down the street from our apartment, sandwiched between tourist shops and expensive salons, there was a store which sold oriental rugs. The store was fronted by large glass windows on which half a dozen cheap paper signs were taped advertising sale prices, each outbidding the other in obnoxiously colorful, bubble-shaped numerals. Inside, one perceived the majestic carpets draped lazily over humps of unidentifiable furniture, one on top of the other, seemingly in conversation. The showroom extended all the way to the back of the store where, behind the lone supporting column, slightly to the left, a small but tidy desk supported a single flat screen computer monitor and a small lamp.

These elements were worth noting since they were often the store’s only occupants. In five months of passing the rug shop, which bore no name, posted no business hours, and had no phone number, I saw one customer. One customer, one time, who seemed determined not to lean too closely toward any of the wares lest he look interested in an actual purchase. There was, of course, the owner, whose face was most often turned intently downward as he concentrated on some invisible puzzle between the lamp and the computer screen. Occasionally he would be on the phone, but most of the time he simply sat motionless at his desk, a quiet sentry over the sleeping rugs. I don’t know why, but I imagined that he was Turkish, as I imagined the rugs were, and that one might even be expected to speak Turkish upon entering the store. Most of all though, I sensed through the glass that these rugs missed their mother country, and were spoiling in a foreign land where no one knew their worth, where their only spokesperson was a pack of sale signs from the two-Euro store.

The store was a sorry spectacle, one was forced to conclude. But after a few months of sharing Aix-en-Provence with Oriental Rugs Anonymous, I was anything but sympathetic.

It all started with a sign. TAPIS ORIENTALES: GRANDE VENTE AUJOURD’HUI ET DIMANCHE– PLUS DE 60 a 70 % DE REDUCTION. (Oriental rugs: Grand Sale Today and Sunday...) Three feet by four, perhaps, with a blue background and loud white lettering—taped somewhat audaciously to the pole of a “One Way” sign near the Hotel de Ville. Continuing up the street toward our apartment, I soon glanced another identical sign,just outside the rug shop. Normal, it was their sale, after all. One hundred yards later, a third sign appeared, this one at eye-level, frantically tied to the old lamppost in our square. Bright orange. The kind of orange one needs to avoid a hunting accident. This was becoming somewhat insistent, I thought, but figured that the weekend must have been an important turning point for the store to move stock.

That Monday the sign in our square still hung securely to the lamppost, its tidings of the weekend’s bargains defiant in the face of the new week. I soon learned that the rug shop only considered time an ally, and never an adversary. By Wednesday afternoon I was passing dozens of cars whose windshield wipers were dutifully holding onto flyers for the previous weekend’s sale. These flyers would disappear and reappear over the next few months, and nary a street in Aix-en-Provence was spared as far as I could tell. The orange placards took up more and more offensive positions in town, as well. The road leading from the bus terminals to centreville had been completely overrun; one could not help being reminded of the rug shop’s outrageous sales no matter if one was trying to enter the city or to flee.

Soon, the store had revamped for another major push, and so at least half of the posters and flyers were advertising deals yet to come at the same time as their predecessors continued their campaigns for the glorious prices that had been. My customer count still stood at one person despite multiple daily observations, however, and I was growing more and more impatient with each daring attempt the rug shop made at increased visibility. I had started to see signs 30 kilometers away in Marseille.

For the second sale, flyer production seemed to hit a peak. Aix’s municipal parking officers could have easily lost their jobs if their superiors had seen the efficiency that was actually possible by a determined force of windshield apostles. At one point I spotted a min-van on the highway with a TAPIS ORIENTALES flyer clinging furiously to its rear-wiper blade like a hyena that had locked onto a frantic wildebeest. That that particular bite was not the fatal one did not so much matter: there would be others that would pick up the trail. They came at night, anyway.

One of the most maddening aspects of this experience was the utter openness with which the rug shop had perpetrated its campaign. A simple calculation would have quickly led one to the conclusion that if every store in Aix employed a similar poster-flyer campaign, we would quickly have become the most ridiculous looking city in the world. France even spends money to maintain public bulletin boards for just these types of reasons. Furthermore, sales are strictly regulated in France. A store cannot simply slash its prices, claim to sell, or actually sell at a loss whenever it wants to. There are rules and seasons for sales, imposed by the government... Hadn’t the police seen these posters? Or the mayor? Or the trash men!?

This past Sunday new posters went up around the Hotel de Ville once more. DESTOCKAGE TOTAL...AUJOURD’HUI SEULEMENT (Today only!)...and more mind-blowing numbers and percentages-off their already mystical prices. At one point the rug shop had actually just gone ahead and put one their carpets outside the store with a sign on it showing the calculation of what 70% off actually came to. I think the rug, about the size of an average bath towel, still cost two hundred forty Euros—which, after it had been outside decorating the sidewalk for weeks, seemed a little steep to me. In any event, I had a minor flip-out when I saw the new signs going up this past weekend. I am not proud, but I actually did kick the first sign I saw. I should say, and Julia can attest to this, that it was a light kick—my equivalent of throwing a shoe at someone instead of, say, shooting them—but it was not altogether without disgust.

And then it happened.

I was walking home from class on Monday and I reached the place where I normally made my “observation” of the rug shop’s business. With each passing view of the store’s empty showroom over the past few months, I had at least experienced a modest shot of schadenfreude—which just goes to show how deep and mature this whole experience had been making me—but Monday, oh Monday was very different.

I was actually ready to walk right by the rug shop without glancing inside when somehow my peripheral vision picked up some subtle incongruity in the fuzzy background off to my left side. My eyes were riveted to the street, as usual, which is, by the way, why I have gone five months and three weeks without stepping in a single piece of dog poop. However, at that moment my subconscious needed only a split second to assemble some very alarming data into a full-fledged reflex that wrenched my head to the left:

Empty. The store was empty. Not the usual empty, either. There were no carpets. There were no signs. There was no desk, no computer, no lamp, no Turk. The space looked as if construction had just finished that morning and it would be ready to accommodate its first lessee in the coming week. I managed a small and ungraceful hop of delight. I took my bearings, and tried to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The chic visagiste to the right, the postcards stands to the left—yes—this was it—the rug shop—no—the not-rug shop—the rug shop was no more!

I will not assume full credit for the store’s demise, of course. I did kick the sign, I know, but certainly other forces—market ones, for example—probably played some role. The important thing is that the rugs have left the city, and left it for good from what I can tell. They have perhaps migrated again, quietly alighting on some unsuspecting showroom floor behind an normal looking storefront in some far away city. They will try, for a while maybe, to find homes willing to pay retail. But it won’t be long. I tell you, it won’t be long before the signs. It won’t be long before the flyers.

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