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How best to describe the sprawling hyper-quincaillière that is Marseille’s Maison Empereur? It’s un super magasin, sans pareil. A wondrous, 1,300sq m hardware-drome of catering equipment and DIY tools. The Two Ronnies’ “Fork Handles” vendor on steroids. A lovingly curated, grand-scale utility shed spread across a whole corner of the old port’s Rue des Récolettes.
To the people of Marseille, Maison Empereur is a landmark and institution, opened in 1827 by wood-carver and toolmaker Louis Empereur. For out-of-towners, a rainy afternoon of a Côte d’Azur holiday can be joyfully whiled amid the store’s two floors. It takes a couple of hours to browse even a fraction of the rooms – everything you ever wanted and needed for your home, lovingly displayed next to things you never knew existed. There are fixtures and fittings, spoons and soft furnishings, pots and pans, sinks and shoes, labelled wherever possible “French Manufacture”. There is very little that plugs in and nothing that requires a WiFi signal. For me, stepping through Maison Empereur’s doors induces electrifying frissons of raw desire.
Rows of Japanese knives, saws and shears are housed under glass like precious museum exhibits, alongside a rather lethal-looking champagne sabre and at least 30 different types of scissors. The wire mini-tombola cage on the end of a broom handle turns out to be a device for rolling up windfallen walnuts. Not to be confused with the humane mouse trap that tempts rodents into a spiralling, one-way maze. Next I spy a small anvil and a selection of lemon-shaped soaps.
This self-styled Droguerie Générale was recommended to me by designer Tom Dixon. “We have lots of well-known customers; one of our big fans is fashion designer Simon Porte Jacquemus,” says Laurence Renaux-Empereur, the Maison’s first female proprietor and a seventh-generation Empereur descended from a family of 18th-century master nail-makers – and whose outdoorsman father was, incidentally, part of the French Olympic shooting team in the 1960s. She has expanded the space to include a café and a chic clothing shop offering sturdy high-waisted workwear trousers, bleu de chine jackets, clogs and the kind of chapeau Provençal that Jeanne Moreau favours in Jules et Jim.
The 193-year-old store, Renaux-Empereur says, lives by the simple but demanding philosophy of its loyal customers: “To prioritise quality and authenticity in everything they do.” This ethos has also been applied to the delightfully appointed, linen-draped chambre d’hôtes – bed-and-breakfast – over the shop. Decor is très Empereur: dark walls are hung with vintage tools; the bathtub is zinc and wood; and a pleasant aroma of linseed oil and Marseille soap infuses the air. “It’s decorated like an apartment in the late 19th century,” says Renaux-Empereur, adding that the store is located in “le ventre de Marseille” (“the belly of Marseille”). “There are numerous restaurants nearby: Sauveur, one of the city’s oldest pizzerias, Épicerie L’Idéale, La Mercerie, Restaurant Fémina… And lots of others. There’s also a famous spice shop, Saladin, and herboristerie Père Blaize.” The latter even pre-dates Empereur by 12 years, making this quarter of the city as historic as it is happening.
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