what do you do with a broken umbrella? most people would simply throw it away and buy a new one, but parisians have the luxury of being able to send them to umbrella repairman thierry millet, whose deft hands give new life to as many as 10,000 parasols each year. thierry took up this twilight trade about 12 years ago, after he was retrenched as the commercial director of a furniture company. he had no prior experience or any form of formal training in the art of umbrella making and repair, but when he found out that pep’s (parapluie and parasols service) was up for sale, he decided to take the plunge and picked up the tricks of the trade on his own.
pep’s was established at a time when the industry was thriving and now, at over five decades old, this shop is one among just a handful of its kind in paris. its artisanal value is such that the french government has acknowledged pep’s as a living heritage company.
the quaint two-storey store is nestled within paris’ oldest passageway in the 3rd arrondissement, its facade marked by dark green wooden panels encasing a window display of vibrant umbrellas. inside, yellow lights cast their warm glow over a parade of parasols, displayed in their full glory either hanging upside down from the ceiling or stored in a cabinet, their handles peeking out over the drawers. they come in varying lengths, prints and even shapes. some are for sale, others are damaged goods sent for restoration.
if you think that all umbrellas are made in the same mushroom-cap form, you need to see thierry’s unique design: the eiffel tower umbrella, a monochromatic piece that’s shaped like the iconic structure.
it’s a tight squeeze inside pep’s but it’s all the space that thierry needs as he works alone. the ground floor is the retail section and where he greets customers, while his workroom is on the upper level. a winding staircase leads to a small room packed to the rafters with boxes and shelves filled with seemingly random odds and ends. those are the various small parts that go into the making or repairing of an umbrella, from tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screws to slim metal rods.
a specially-made round table sits at one end of the room surrounded by pliers, electrical drills and interestingly, a hair dryer – to hasten the setting of glue, among other uses. this is where thierry works his magic, refurbishing damaged umbrellas so they’re as good as new and will last “a thousand years!”, as he is fond of jesting.
watching him work can be a little dizzying; a flurry of flying hands, multiple tools and a matter of minutes later, a foldable umbrella that previously laid in a heap of broken rods is whole again and possibly more sturdy than before. thierry’s customers are as varied as the umbrellas he fixes, which have included prized creations from private collections and even antique 18th-century models. it’s understandable for one to want their precious collectibles restored but you have to wonder why anyone would bother with a bargain bin buy, for example.
“it’s often cheaper to restore a faulty umbrella,” says thierry. “also, some people attach sentimental values to their shades and would like to keep using them for as long as possible.” it’s an emotion that thierry can relate to for, after all, it is his passion for the pep (french slang for pepin, or umbrella) that keeps him and his cherished craft alive.
> pep’s passage de l’ancre, 223 rue saint-martin or 30 rue de turbigo, paris opens (sept-may) 1.30pm-7pm, mon-thur/9am-12.30pm, sat; (june-july) 1.30pm-7pm, mon-thur tel +33 (0)1 42 78 11 67 www.peps-paris.com nearest metro stations réaumur-sébastopol and arts et métiers