From one cup to another

Before The Stray Bean, there was La Bonneterie de Saint Louis.

If you don’t know what a “Bonneterie” is, you’re in good company. I think about half the French people I’ve ever mentioned that word to don’t know either. I only knew because this one was in my local area and I used to pass by it regularly, though I’d never actually been through the doors.

Not until I started looking for a place to set up a coffee shop and a real estate agent took me in. The occupant, let’s call him Monsieur K, had been there for 38 years. It was time for him to retire and his shop space was up for rent.

We wandered around. It was cluttered full of stands and shelves of rather large bras and underpants, stockings (lots of stockings), slippers, nighties, dressing gowns … Intimate apparel for seniors, you might say. An old-fashioned hosiery business – that’s what a “Bonneterie” is. Here, brand names like Dim, Wonderbra, and Playtex seemed to be the big movers.

I had to use my imagination to see whether I could transform it into a coffee shop. It wasn’t easy. I tried mentally removing all those undies from view, but then had to get past the lino flooring, fluorescent lights, beige textured wallpaper on those parts of the walls not lined with white laminated shelving, and a distinct impression that nothing had changed since Monsieur K had first moved in.

There would be a lot of work to do. Changing from bra cups to coffee cups is easier said than done.

Monsieur K was a very pleasant man and, as he wound down to retirement, his business was quite naturally doing the same thing. He had a television screen on his counter – it was for him, not the customers. The latter would occasionally interrupt his daily programmes, as we were doing ourselves that day.

He asked what I wanted the shop for, so I told him. I’m not sure he fully understood the concept, but that wasn’t unusual in France at the time. There isn’t even a word in French for coffee shop – “café” is often used to refer to a bar. He gathered, though, that it wasn’t going to be another Bonneterie.

It wouldn’t have been easy for him to accept that the business he’d been running for 38 years was just going to disappear. He said it wasn’t the same as it used to be, but it still had potential. There’s always a huge demand for stockings, he said, and there’s no-one else in the area doing them. He gave me a tip: even if I was in the coffee business, I should keep the line of stockings going.

I’m afraid that I didn’t take up Monsieur K’s suggestion, so I’ll never know whether a coffee and stocking combo might have worked. I’m also sorry to say (though not really) that virtually nothing of what could be seen inside the old Bonneterie that day survived the transformation: Monsieur K had an “everything must go” liquidation sale, and then we stripped every covering off every wall, floor and ceiling.

One thing did survive, though. When you walk in, you see a big horizontal mirror on the far wall. It’s actually a door, the one that used to go through to the changing room. The mirror was already stuck on the back and all we had to do was to take the whole thing off its hinges, give it a clean and a paint, turn it 90 degrees and bolt it to the wall.

For us, it does the job perfectly. For Monsieur K, perhaps he can take some heart that there is at least one little part of the Bonneterie of Saint Louis that lives on to this day.