I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the apothecary trend. It’s generally struck me as a marketing ploy to raise the perceived value or originality of products and crank up their prices– irrespective of whether they’re produced with the artisan care the setting suggests.
But after a recent visit to L’Officine Universelle Buly in Paris’ Marais district, I admittedly found myself charmed by the efforts to revive a once-vibrant city tradition. Part beauty dispensary, part throwback cafe and “soda shop”, this is an ideal stop for gift shopping, decent coffee and tea or a dish of homemade ice cream.
Conceived by artistic director Ramdane Touhami and cosmetics specialist Victoire de Taillac, the apothecary concept followed the creation of a new beauty brand called Buly meant to revive 19th-century design and traditions.
A first apothecary opened on the left bank of Paris in 2014, in the upwardly mobile St-Germain-des-Prés district. It was followed by a second location in the Marais in 2017, and a gift-shop style counter at the Louvre Museum. There are also counters around the world these days, from Taipei to New York.
Touhami and de Taillac aimed to conjure up the nearly fogotten Paris apothecary tradition with the retail concept. And interestingly enough, the Buly brand and stores pay homage to a perfumer and apothecary owner named Jean-Vincent Bully, who opened a store in the capital’s chic Rue Saint-Honoré in 1803.
The perfumer sold fragrances and scented vinegars at the historic shop, and his “officine” was particularly famous for a product called Vinaigre de Bully– an aromatic lotion formulated to perform ablutions and maintain skin tone.
Bully was such a prominent Parisian figure that the French novelist Honoré de Balzac reportedly based a character from The Human Comedy on him.
Whether you’re just browsing or looking for a particular item, the beauty counter at the apothecary is mesmerizing. In addition to a full range of Buly-branded products in vintage-style bottles (lotions, moisturizers, perfumes, packaged soaps decorated with the brand’s angel emblem), you’ll find all the elements you’d expect in an old-fashioned dispensary.
Wall-to-ceiling cabinets frame the room, eye-catching for their painted and carved panels. These are filled with enormous jars and further stock.
A back wall is decorated with engraved wooden panels listing names of common herbs and pharmaceuticals, some commonly used in past centuries: rice germ, red clay, passion fruit, calophylle. Even the ceilings boast elaborate carvings and decoration.
The counter is further decorated with small antique mirrors, combs, brushes and beauty accessories displayed in handsome glass and wood cases, scales in sturdy metal for measuring wares sold by the gram; bell jars holding perfumed papers, natural sponges and other unpackaged items; and fine powders in an array of striking colors.
To one corner of the apothecary is a dried flower bar where customers can purchase hand-made floral arrangements.
The Grand Café Tortoni
If you’re familiar with my tastes, you’ll know that a nice café will almost always lure me in and win me over, even if it’s located behind a gas station or under a circus tent.
One of the things I appreciated about Buly’s Marais location is how much prominence the designers gave to the onsite, old-world-inspired café: it takes up about as much space as the apothecary counter does.
So even if you’re in no mood to browse or shop for beauty products, sitting at the marbled counters and sipping a well-brewed cup of coffee or tea is still something I recommend.
Read related: The Best Places for Afternoon Tea in Paris
Modeled after a historic Parisian café popular with artists called the Grand Café Tortoni, the 21st-century version replicates the Belle-Epoque grandeur of the original. It also takes its name.
Counters in dark, reddish marble and handsome wood, old-fashioned wall menus with gold lettering, bottles in decorative green glass and baristas dressed in formal wear create a grandiose mood. The menu is short and includes coffee, tea, sodas with syrups of various flavors, and artisanal ice cream.
This isn’t the sort of place you’d be likely to perch for more than half an hour or so, but it’s a very pleasant place to take a break between strolling or sightseeing in the Marais.
Read related: Where to Enjoy Some of Paris’ Best Coffee?