Beirut‘s Mar Mikhael (Saint Michael) looks at first glance like a pretty quiet neighborhood, a place where the sounds of machinery coming out of auto repair shops emit the only real noise of note. Scratch the surface just the tiniest bit and it becomes obvious that Mar Mikhael has gone the route of many other neglected urban corners. In between the exhaust and the whirring motors, the neighborhood boasts lots of innovative shops. Taken together, they offer the perfect antidote to the much-hyped Beirut Souks shopping center with its Beverly Hills-in-Lebanon glitz.
Here is a clutch of exciting stores for shoppers and culture browsers in Mar Mikhael.
1. Papercup (Agopian Building, Pharaon Street) is a bookstore/café, the obvious place in the neighborhood to launch or conclude a Mar Mikhael shopping adventure. It’s well lit, has a community bulletin board, serves very good coffee – try the Vietnamese espresso! – and stocks an impressive selection of magazines and books, some keyed to current museum exhibitions around the world.
2. Tan (Alexandre Fleming Street) is conceptually geared to the current financial moment. Partners Ghada Rizk and Rima Sabbah decided that the global recession was a good moment to start a business and proceeded to start a label of affordable clothes for women: “We can’t afford to pay $500 for a dress, and neither can our friends,” they told me. Sensible. Their signature item is a lovely versatile tank top, good for work and going out both, priced at $80. Tan set up shop in Mar Mikhael in October 2011.
3. Plan Bey (Armenia Street) is to my mind the star shop of the neighborhood. It is an extraordinary bookshop and exhibition space that also sells music, photographs and various little objects. Owner Tony Sfeir has curated an appealing selection, and is exceptionally friendly. When I visited, Ethiopian jazz was playing and the star products for sale were super seasonal jams and oils from Syria. I didn’t leave empty-handed.
4. Nayef Francis (Armenia Street) opened in December 2011. The store sells Francis’ own very expensive mirrors, furniture, aluminum cups and lamps. Everything is beautifully finished and made in Lebanon.
5. Some great mid-century modern furniture pieces, plus some one-of-a-kind vintage signage and other industrial cast-offs can be found at Studio Karim Bekdache, a vast space on Madrid Street. Some of architect Bekdache’s original designs are for sale here.
6. Find jewelry nearby at Rania Choueiri’s L’Atelier Fanfreluche (Madrid Street). The shop doubles as an exhibition space. Last year saw an innovative exhibition of buyable upcycled goods, including furniture and lamps.
[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]