An estimated 15 million umbrellas are thrown away in France each year. Thierry Millet is trying to change that, one umbrella repair at a time.
An estimated 15 million umbrellas are thrown away in France each year. Thierry Millet is trying to change that, one umbrella repair at a time. Lejeune/Maxppp /Landov
When an umbrella breaks, most people just throw it away — and pick up another one, from a street vendor or maybe a drugstore.
But what if you got it repaired instead? Would you even be able to find someone who could do the work?
In Paris, it's still possible, but just barely. What was once a thriving profession has dwindled dramatically. These days, Thierry Millet, 58, says he is the city's last umbrella repairman.
Millet's shop, Pep's Maison, lies in a tiny passageway in what used to be a thriving artisanal district in Paris' 18th arrondissement. Downstairs, Pep's — which is French slang for pepin, or umbrella, bursts with elegant and colorful French-made umbrellas for sale.
Millet says he is the last umbrella repairman in Paris, and his shop has been designated a living heritage company by the French government. He says he repairs about 10,000 umbrellas a year.
Millet says he is the last umbrella repairman in Paris, and his shop has been designated a living heritage company by the French government. He says he repairs about 10,000 umbrellas a year. Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
But upstairs, the umbrellas are all broken, lying in a pile in one corner. In boxes along the walls, Millet points out stacks of ribs, springs, handles and all kinds of umbrella parts you wouldn't even know the names for.
On his scarred wooden work table, Millet repairs about 10,000 umbrellas a year. He says he has to be fast and precise. But why bother to repair an umbrella at all?
The first reason, says Millet, is environmental: In France alone, about 15 million umbrellas — which aren't recycled — are thrown away each year.
Millet works on an umbrella at his tiny shop in Paris' 18th arrondissement.
Millet works on an umbrella at his tiny shop in Paris' 18th arrondissement. Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
"But it's more than that," he says. "People who come to me are attached to their umbrellas for sentimental reasons. Many times they have beautiful stories about them. So I feel obligated to restore them."
Millet says buying multiple cheap umbrellas costs more than investing in one good one, which can last a lifetime. He harvests his parts from used umbrellas people give him.
Despite his passion, Millet wasn't born into the trade. He bought his shop 10 years ago after being laid off as director of a high-end furniture store. He's lucky, he says, that his craftsman training at a French art school has made him very versatile.
With his quick wit and convivial style, Millet has also become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Many guidebooks write up his little umbrella shop from a bygone era. The French government has classified it as a "living heritage company."
On a recent day, Millet tells a group of visitors that umbrellas originated in China about 6,000 years ago. That makes repairing them the world's oldest profession, he says with a wink.
Millet bought his shop, Pep's Maison, 10 years ago after being laid off from his job with a high-end furniture store.
Millet bought his shop, Pep's Maison, 10 years ago after being laid off from his job with a high-end furniture store. Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
"Umbrellas began to be democratized in the beginning of the 19th century, when the bourgeois class didn't have horse-drawn carriages to protect them from the rain, so they started carrying umbrellas," he says.
Millet says umbrellas were popular into the 20th century, before falling out as a fashion statement. Later, the market was flooded with cheap imports from China.
He says repairing umbrellas still brings surprises. Like the time he discovered a sword hidden in the shaft of one. Millet also found brass umbrella parts engraved in the 1870s during the uprising of the Paris Commune. "To the brave Parisians on the barricades," the engraving reads.
Millet says his work is seasonal — at best, nine months a year.
Chantal Almeric, 70, has brought in two of her favorite umbrellas for repair. "I couldn't find another one which was automatic and so light," she says. "I bought it in Portugal many years ago."
Not surprisingly, Almeric loves umbrellas. Among her favorites is one with a lizard-skin handle that used to belong to her mother. Almeric estimates that the umbrella is 100 years old.
She is delighted as Millet hands back one of her umbrellas, good as new.
Millet says giving a second life to a much-loved object also gives a little youth back to its owner. And that, he says, is magic.