I have often heard people tell me that one of the highlights of their French holiday was meandering thought the narrow alleys of the Puces de Saint-Ouen flea markets in Paris. By far the biggest ones in the world, these markets sprawl across several hectares of the Cligancourt suburb just north of the 18th arrondissement and across from the boulevard peripherique, the ring road that forms a circle around the city.
Originally a medieval food and linen market, the Saint-Ouen markets have grown in the centuries to encompass twelve large groups of shops, totalling about three thousand stalls selling antiques and collectibles of all periods. Despite modern developments Saint-Ouen has kept something of its early origins in the informal way that goods spill higgledy-piggledy out from the tightly packed stalls onto the narrow pavements and alleys.
The market is open all week, but the best days to visit are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Early in the morning on these days all the shops are open and the streets are filled with itinerant sellers who display their wares on the ground. There is a lively air of expectancy as buyers from all over the world rub shoulders looking for pieces of treasure. Even if one is not a buyer it’s a fascinating sight to watch the interaction between buyers and sellers, the body language and the theatrics of it all. By midday the stall vendors use their antique tables and chairs to sit down to lunch, complete with the ubiquitous baguette bread loaves and bottles of wine.
This is a well-known shopping haven for antique dealers around the world. It is said as a boast that in the heyday of powerful U.S. dollars, American antique dealers could purchase a container-full in a single morning, thus allowing themselves ample time for other Parisian pleasures. Personally I’m not so sure about this claim, plausible as it may seem. Despite the enormous amount of goods on offer in these markets there is still the importance of making careful choices, and the need for lengthy haggling on most of the asking prices.
Saint-Ouen may be the most famous flea market, but not the only one in France, the country par excellence of markets. The puces are such an integral part of French culture that there are several monthly magazines to be found in newsstands dedicated to the where and when of numerous flea markets and trade fairs that take place all year round.
In these magazines antique dealers look for dates and venues of déballages, the trade fairs reserved for local and international dealers only. The larger of these trade fairs take place in a towns’ exhibition buildings, and have recently become very well organised and with very tight security. If previously one could always “sneak” a few purchases in before the official start, the opening time of 8:00 am is now enforced to the letter. The hilarious consequence is that at 8:00:01 there is a mad flood through the gates as people sprint through the corridors and stalls in the hope of securing the best pieces for themselves.
Summer or winter, rain or shine, in the whole of France people organise flea markets in the form of vide-greniers (the emptying of a barn markets), brocantes (antiques and second-hand goods markets) and marchés aux puces (flea markets). These sorts of fairs will attract buyers of antiques mainly in the early hours of day, sometimes very early. I have been known to start work at a large flea market soon after midnight, torch in hand, and to then go to bed after ten in the morning.
After about this time flea markets become bustling country fairs. Throngs of entire family generations go strolling, the youngest in prams, the oldest with walking sticks. It is an informal occasion for people to get out and socialise, and to possibly take back home some small treasure that they’ve had the pleasure to find.
As the day progresses these markets offer various types food from shops and street stalls. At seven in the morning die-hard antique dealers stop to rest from a long night’s work, and (incredibly, at this hour) drink beer and whiskey, telling each other stories of their successful finds and sales. The less hardy opt for a café and croissant and chat in the cafes that have stayed open all night. By mid morning the delicious smells of charcoal roasted chicken and merguez sausages mingle in the air with the sweet smells coming from the patisseries and boulangeries.
It is interesting to note that the French passion for the puces embraces not just the older generations, as one would expect, but also the young and the very young. A French flea market generally offers a selection of antiques, collectibles, and has a range of second hand clothes, CDs, DVDs and all sorts of used hi-fi equipment, toys and sports equipment.
Miguel Meirelles Antiques