Spring’s triumphant arrival in Paris is evident not just by tulips blooming in the Tuileries but also by the brocantes popping up all over the city. Brocantes are similar to flea markets except that they are temporary. The secondhand dealers are like a band of gypsies. They rove the brocante circuit from one Paris arrondissement to another, week after week. They stuff their cars or vans full of goods, which they might have procured from flea markets, auctions or estate sales, or a hoarder’s attic.
Usually starting on Saturday mornings, they pull in early to pick as prime a spot as they can get along the sidewalk, ideally shaded by plane trees. They haul out boxes and display their goods on rickety folding tables or thick blankets spread on the ground. Then they settle in for a long sit, often with a bottle of wine within easy reach.
The sudden appearance of neighborhood brocantes seems random, almost magical, and that’s part of their charm. But in fact the city controls the scheduling of these well in advance. The most visible tip-off is a bright yellow banner that hangs high over the streets, announcing the upcoming brocante. These banners appear about a week or ten days before it arrives. But for those who like to plan ahead, the city provides a listing on their website.
For those who enjoy la chasse au trésor, the thrill is in discovering the unexpected.
And the first thrilling discovery might be stumbling upon the brocante itself. When I last visited Montmartre, for example, it was with the intention of checking out the latest items at the fabulous fabric market Marché Saint-Pierre. I climbed the stairs from the Métro and exited into a hustle and bustle. Sidewalks were thicker than usual with people strolling. The normal pedestrian traffic patterns were interrupted by mannequins and other wares jutting out onto the sidewalks. Usually visitors to this neighborhood are looking upward at the gleaming dome of Montmartre’s famous church Sacré Coeur. But this day their gazes were trained lower, alighting on the rusted and worn, the secular treasures at eye level.
Treasures or trash? Well that’s a matter of individual opinion and fancy – and memory. I sighted several items that reminded me of childhood. An Utz potato chip tin. An Amish-style blanket with interlocking hexagons in peach and blue pastels. Where did these items come from? Sometimes sellers are willing to disclose, but just as often that’s their trade secret and not to be disclosed easily or honestly. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter. Knowing that the current provenance is a sidewalk in Paris is usually good enough for me.
Some brocante dealers specialize in certain types of items–artwork, furniture, enamelware, silver serving pieces and cutlery, vintage jewelry or clothing, for example. And this, in part, is what distinguishes them from the vide-greniers (attic-emptiers) which are like yard sales where individuals come to unload a motley assortment of items they no longer use or want. The lines are frequently blurred though, and at brocantes you can expect to see a wide range of quality, condition, and expense.
There are some high-end brocantes, such as the Salon Antiquités Brocantes, which takes place at place de la Bastille every May and November.
The 2016 spring Salon Antiquités Brocante runs from May 5-15 in place de la Bastille. About 500 dealers from all over France bring their goods. Several appraisers are on site as well to advise on authenticity.
Some tips and words of caution: Don’t take photos without asking permission. Or else you risk being scolded– sometimes vigorously–for an extra dose of public humiliation. Bartering is okay, but always handle the discussion respectfully and don’t start off too low if you want to be taken seriously. Walking away with indifference can sometimes help re-engage the seller to come back with a counteroffer. I might ask for a 30% reduction in price, and typically get about 10-25%.
Especially at the smaller neighborhood “pop-up” brocantes, I find that many of the sellers are equally as fascinating to view as their displays. Roughly an equal number of men as women, their faces are often etched with the lines of hard-scrabble living. Some don’t seem all that interested in making a sale. At the Montmartre brocante, I arrived around lunchtime (a 2-hour window, mind you) and many of the dealers had shifted their positions to join friends. I watched as one woman unfurled a tablecloth, laid it upon a mahogany end table she had brought to sell, and pulled out a sumptuous lunch for herself and a vendor friend to share. Like so much else in Paris–and certainly at the markets of Paris–the brocantes are not just about completing quick transactions but instead savoring the experience: Being outdoors, enjoying friendship, trading gossip, sharing food, and taking a swig of wine. If an item happens so sell, so much the better.
For more information about brocantes:
Or pick up a copy of the magazine Antiquités Brocantes (easy to find in Paris) for a listing of the month’s brocantes.