Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Kaslik, now a shadow of its former self.

Zara, Bershka, and Buffalo Wings and Rings are the three latest casualties to close shop on Kaslik street (Patchi, Zmilelee, Petit Cafe, Lord of the Wings and Massimo Dutti had started the macabre series earlier). Brands For Less is operating with minimal stock, while Glowbal - also an outlet store but more upscale - was one of the first stores to close early 2019. Legend, Straight, Viril/Virale, Stile, Studio X, and Masculin are still operating though all of them only have the Kaslik branch. H&M, Springfield and Sport Loisirs are also there, but till when is a different question.

Many will treat this with a casual what-else-is-new shrug. But Kaslik was at one point the most exuberant and priciest shopping streets in Lebanon. Sometime in the mid-90s celebrated Egyptian actress Sherihan dropped around 300,000 Dollars on one shopping spree there. But even as far back as the early aughts, there was a whiff of dwindling sales as Beirut, especially downtown Beirut, was gaining momentum.

Remember Via Spiga? Then Lebanon's most upscale store? Even in 2003, their sales manager said: “We used to sell products while they were still in the boxes, but now we have excess stock.” When discount store Akil Bros opened a store in Kaslik again in the mid-90s (akin to Tati opening in Place Vendome - Paris), the joke was that people would park their cars in front of upscale stores but shop at Akil instead. No wonder Akil is thriving today still, as the other stores close done by one.

However, it is fair to say that by now, Kaslik had lost its raison d'etre due to different geographical, political and socio-economic reasons. When Beirut got torn in half during the war and the souks obliterated due to shelling; the Eastern regions needed their own upscale area to compensate for Souk el Tawile which used to harbor: Al Ahram, Dix Mille Articles, Chaussures Elie and Venise Verte all selling shoes and bags for women, Hashem Shoes for men, Zahar and Semrani for children's clothing in addition to Alpha and Vita, respectively clothing for Men and women - all upscale and pricey stores of which some brands survive till today in various degrees of health and prosperity. 

Note that Kaslik is also often compared to Hamra which is only partially correct. Whereas Hamra housed Camomille, Red Shoe, Charles Jacob and Mylady; it also had a street Bazar as well. I was also told that Kaslik was playground for people with means from Tripoli. Back when Byblos and Batroun were still lackluster, and Beirut still half an hour of driving further, and still destroyed by the war.

With its proximity to the luxurious ATCL, to very high-end new buildings, to beach resorts (Portemilio, Samaya, and Solemar come to mind) where people loaded with money would stay or live, Kaslik was a perfect sample of where moneyed people would hang, shop and spend money. With Espace 2000 center  only a stone throw away with its famed night club, while the center was replete with a branch of The Chase restaurant, and Juicy Burger right opposite of it, just as Papagayo, Downtown, and La Creperie restaurants close by (bordering the street at both ends), and Options night club reigned Supreme on night life, Kaslik was the perfect microcosm of money-spending while enjoying the usual Lebanese exhibitionism for everyone to see where you shopped, ate or dropped your money.

The caricature of such people would end up at S.L.Chi the classic early 90s satire program on MTV (the local Murr TV) under the "Kas" people saying they bought their wares at "Francisco Puta" (ahem) as they smoked long cigars. I personally overheard a conversation long ago (in the late 80s) between two teenage girls, one describing a new swimsuit she acquired, only for the other to say "wait, I got the same one! I bought it for a beach party at our compound in Kaslik. But I managed to get it before the sales" (linguistic emphasis not mine).

But as L.P. Hartley said: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And indeed, the past of Kaslik matters little to its present, its closed shops, or the dwindling footfall on those that remain open. The days of Via Spiga with Sherihan shopping with an open wallet are now gone. And for good.

A mood of Sunset Boulevard covers the street. A has been who still thinks it can pass off as star. To quote Ernest Heminway:

"How did you go bankrupt?" Bill asked. "Two ways," Mike said. "Gradually and then suddenly."
Same applies to Kaslik and Lebanon as a whole.