PARIS — On a recent evening, Amar Sitayeb squeezed behind a tiny counter at the minimart that he and his older brother Ali Sitayeb have run for more than 35 years in the Marais district of central Paris. A plump gray tabby cat prowled the floor, and faded photos of neighborhood babies, many now grown-ups, were taped to an old cash register.
A stream of regulars filed in, grabbing potato chips, gum and soda and lingering to exchange gossip and pleasantries. One neighbor with the sniffles bought honey and tea. Sitayeb fished mint for her from a refrigerator. “This should help,” he said.
Ten minutes later, she returned and asked for rum. “That’ll attack the cold quicker!” he laughed, pulling a bottle from the shelf.
The purchases were mainly an excuse to spend precious moments bantering with the Sitayeb brothers, known to residents around the rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie, a boutique-studded Marais street, as the eyes, ears and unofficial mayors of the area.
For soon, the unthinkable is set to happen: On Jan. 31, their store, Au Marché du Marais, will close, swept away in a tide of moneyed gentrification, like nearly every other independent shop and cafe around them.
“We know everyone here, we’ve lived our lives with them, and we’re sad to leave,” said Ali Sitayeb, a fatherly figure who recently turned 70 but exuded a much younger energy. In place of the daily necessities that his store offers, like toilet paper and freshly squeezed orange juice, he announced, a Princesse Tam Tam lingerie chain would be installed.
When I first heard the news, I was stunned. I had settled near the épicerie after moving to Paris in 2000. Since then, an incursion of designer boutiques had accelerated, turning the area into an outdoor shopping arena that draws thousands of visitors.
The brothers, who originally came from Morocco, remained steady fixtures throughout, greeting me on my way to work, dispensing witticisms and advice, and peppering me with questions about a succession of American presidents.
My neighbors were in mourning.
The épicerie was a rare gathering spot, and the brothers, with alert eyes and sunny mustachioed faces, kept vigil over everyone. They held people’s keys and knew all the latest news on marriages, divorces, children, thefts, rivalries, real estate deals — the list goes on.
Theirs, however, is a tale of a rapidly changing Paris. And the closing of their shop, on a street where boutiques now sell 585 euro designer sneakers, has sparked angst among residents, who see a warning in how big money-backed luxury brands aimed at wealthy tourists are consuming neighborhoods and eroding cultural identity.
“This changes everything,” said Eva Beau, a doctor who has lived near the shop for 20 years. “I feel like breaking all of this — it’s too sad,” Beau added, her eyes brimming with tears as she scrutinized the luxury storefronts.
Beau used to lower a basket with a rope from her fourth-floor apartment, into which the brothers would place coffee and other orders. “The neighborhood doesn’t need more boutiques,” she said. “We need the human contact of people like Ali and Amar.”
The brothers had long debated when to retire. When an electrical fire ravaged the shop five years ago, support from neighbors was so strong that they decided to keep going. But then the lingerie chain, run by Fast Retailing, a Japanese retail giant that owns Uniqlo, Theory and Comptoir des Cotonniers, made an advantageous offer for the space.
The pattern is playing out in cities across France. From Aix-en-Provence to Reims, Tours and Strasbourg, bakeries, cafes and shops are increasingly being taken over by retail conglomerates with vast financial resources. The stores look like quaint boutiques, yet the money behind them is formidable.
Near the Sitayebs’ shop, the Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot clothing chains expanded under the ownership of U.S. private equity firm KKR before being taken over by Chinese textile giant Shandong Ruyi.
Lacoste and Kooples, which replaced a bakery and bookstore, belong to Maus Frères, Switzerland’s largest privately held retail group. Chanel and LVMH Moët Hennessy opened perfume and makeup stores, intensifying a surge in Marais real estate prices.
Adding to the pressure is the rise of late-night convenience stores backed by supermarket giants Casino Groupe and Carrefour. The increased competition has shuttered scores of corner shops in Paris, many run by immigrants from North Africa.
“It’s money that makes the laws,” said Ali Sitayeb’s son, Tariq Sitayeb, 34, who helps run the épicerie but no longer counts on taking over.
The Sitayeb brothers left Morocco in the 1970s as teenagers to earn a living as waiters and dishwashers in Parisian restaurants. But they found they could prosper more by operating a convenience mart well past the traditional 7 p.m. closing time of French retailers.
When the brothers opened the shop in 1984, François Mitterrand was president; prices were in French francs; and the Marais, the historic Jewish quarter of Paris, was evolving from a gritty working-class textile and metal factory district. Butchers and boulangeries honeycombed the area. Yiddish was heard everywhere along the rue des Rosiers.
As cafes, bars and artisanal boutiques moved in, the Marais became the center for Paris’ LGBT community, drawing more visitors and prompting an ever more vibrant makeover.
While the Marais had already developed when I arrived, the influx of luxury storefronts has exploded since Europe’s economic and debt crisis ended in 2012, squeezing out residential and LGBT commerce and taking over the historic Jewish center.
“This used to be a real neighborhood, with families and kids,” Amar Sitayeb said as crowds of tourists strolled past on a recent weekend. “Now all that’s disappeared.”
Jean Luc Rouillard, 67, a denizen since 1980, chimed in.
“The Marais has lost its soul,” he declared.
“That’s closing,” Rouillard said, pointing to a 45-year-old antique shop being dismantled for a luxury hotel. “And that’s closing,” he added, eyeing Au Rendez-Vous des Amis, a neighborhood cafe that had just shuttered to make way for a hamburger joint.
“That too,” he continued, nodding to Les Mots à la Bouche, the oldest LGBT bookseller in the Marais, rumored to be converted soon to a Doc Martens shoe store after the lease became unaffordable. “It’s dramatic,” he said.
As locals contemplated the end of an era, they arranged a surprise party for the brothers on a recent weekday at Le Point Virgule, a small comedy theater next to the shop.
Neighbors filed in silently: Beau and her daughter Manon Beau, 21; Vincent Douget, a former chef at the cafe; Henriette Delyfer, an art boutique owner who knew the brothers since she was a child; and local police officers who had dropped in regularly to chat over orange juice.
At last the brothers arrived. They were speechless at the surprise. Tears misted their eyes. While they were looking forward to spending time with their families, “it’s very hard for us to go,” Amar Sitayeb said.
“They were the heart of this area,” said George Fischer, a retiree who has lived next to the shop for two decades.
Back at the épicerie, Tariq Sitayeb had prepared a potent rum punch and Moroccan pastries to welcome a growing crowd.
Ariel Weil, mayor of Paris’ 4th arrondissement, appeared and shook Ali Sitayeb’s hand. A circle formed as neighbors lamented the Marais’ latest transformation.
“It’s just clothes, clothes, clothes,” Fischer said. “How is a bra going to replace my orange juice?”
“On a personal level I’m sad,” Weil said. “And as mayor, I’m worried that we can’t find a solution to keep small businesses from leaving.”
Ali Sitayeb looked at his watch and sighed. It was his brother’s turn to man the register, and he had to get home to rest. Tomorrow, they would continue the sobering task of winding down the store.
“People don’t want things to change,” said Tariq Sitayeb as his father faded into the dark night. “But a page is turning.”