The Big Easter Junk Search

la vieille epoque
La Vieille Epoque: just open or open for business?

Hesitation Costs Cool Plate Set

by Tracy Turner

London:- Tuesday, 15. April 1998:- One of the best things about living in London is spending lots of weekends in Paris. I've just returned from a long Easter vacation, renting an apartment - or 'hiring a flat' - with some Britisher friends in the Marais.

Walking down rue des Archives, they all got a good laugh from an 'Antiquités Anglaises' shop with a window full of 'Ye Olde Englishe' antiques.

I remember another friend's story about the ongoing trafficking in French and British antiques: carloads of Brits still ferry over to Normandy and the Pas de Calais every weekend, hellbent on scooping up treasures to fill the trunks of their Vauxhalls; plundering France for ancient objets d'art.

The only thing that has curbed this reciprocal French-English pillaging is the popular BBC program, 'Antiques Roadshow,' which PBS has adapted for the US. After 'Antiques Roadshow,' everyone thinks their bric-a-brac is worth 50,000 pounds and has it insured.

But back to Paris. Another friend has tipped me off that the weekend markets, Antiquaires, and 'Marchés aux Puces' were the real deal and something to see.

I scoped out my first flea market in the most upmarket, lovely location: the Pont Louis-Philippe. High noon on Good Friday behind the Hotel de Ville, and the white stalls on the bridge were flapping in the wind, but no junksellers yet.

The Community of Jerusalem monks and nuns had occupied the bridge as part of their Good Friday procession, theirkitsch white habits also waving in the breeze, singing the litany before heading back to St. Gervais-St. Protais.

The sign overhead told me that the Brocante du Pont Louis Philippe is Saturday-Sunday-Monday only. Good news. I decide to return later during the weekend, and the three Brits and I make for the Brasserie de l'Ile Saint-Louis for a spot of lunch.

Come in, look around; something for everybody and every taste, inside.

Easter Sunday; I am back down on the bridge. Carillons ring out from all the lesser churches, the bells carried up and down the Seine. I am disappointed not to hear Notre Dame's booming Easter tribute. I am here too early. But the market stalls are all buzzing, including a few which have spilled off the bridge onto the quai.

It takes me two minutes to realize these aren't 'junksellers,' but 'brocs' - merchants of 'Other People's Stuff' - and the wares on display, as well as the crowds swarming the stalls, are terribly BC-BG.

I've hit the top-of-the-line market! Lots of Chinoiserie: tea chests, lacquered Japanese serving dishes, carved stone Buddhas pilfered from Indochina. The Asian stuff was thick on the ground, as well as furniture and housewares.

The 'Pottery Barn'-look would have been easy to achieve, if one was lucky enough to have a place in Paris; leather, wood, a bit of deco, and the wannabe-Hemingway décor could be installed. A 1930's desk lamp and telephone on the desk would complete the illusion.

Unfortunately none of this good stuff would fit into my backpack to take home. I started searching for something that would.

Among all the glassware and crockery I found a set of blue and white enameled plates - valuable probably not for what they were but for their motto: "Je mets toute ma gloire à rire, aimer et boire." I hesitate. Would one look good mounted up on my kitchen wall? "Il faut reflechir," I explained to Monsieur le Broc. I'd be back - I have another market to explore.

From the Fourth to the 14th - to the Marché aux Puces de Vanves

I emerge from the Porte de Vanves métro to a relatively busy place de Vanves. Formica and neon cafés aremore kitsch & canes half full of gesturing, smoking Parisians. Instead of Easter chimes, a RER line thunders overhead, half a block to the start of the puces on avenue Marc-Sangnier.

A tourist information kiosk had been incongruously set up in some portacabins, closed up tight on this 'jour férié.' The other shops, Chez Huon and the Boucherie d'Agadir, were also shut tight. No matter - the raggedy open stalls of the market extend down the avenue.

Less colorful, but just as bric-a-brac, just as kitsch.

My first impression is of the number of men enjoying cans of strong lager so early on a Sunday. Then I realize that some of the clochards seem to have emptied their pockets onto the sidewalk - in an attempt to play at being junkseller?

Quickly I realize that many of the actual stall holders were also nursing a drink. Joyeuses Pàques! Everyone is into the spirit. And the diverse crowd here also buzzes from stall to stall - similar to the fourth - primped and painted Parisians rub shoulders with the men I mistakenly took for clochards.

Locals have laid out goodies right on the sidewalk as if they couldn't be bothered to set up a portable table or overhead tarp. The constant murmur of 'jolie, ça,' 'mignon!' and 'trés, trés belles' hang in the air, along with nonplussed bargaining.

Nobody is in a hurry; the trees alongside the road are just beginning to blossom, and the stalls became nicer and nicer the farther down the avenue I stroll.

However, the other side of the street was solid with modern tower blocks, and most of their shutters are closed against the grey day. The street's architectural heritage: 'modern brutalist.'

There is an unusually high crucifix quotient among all the white elephant tables, along with old photos, porcelain, glass, new and used linen, and lots of costume jewelry. Some stallholdersstalls at closed puces specialize in unusual goods: African carvings, war medals, café ashtrays, fantastical doorknobs, '70's pop-kitsch.

What the stalls at the Paris 'puces' look like when closed, and raining.

The old pros have hand-lettered signs attached to the trees; having backed up their Citroën hatchbacks to unload their treasures behind their stalls. I remember a bit of British slang: 'Off the back of a lorry' means 'stolen.' None of this really looks 'hot' or even valuable. But it is eye candy all the same.

I like to collect travel guides - vintage Baedekers and the like - useful and fun for wandering around cities and getting a sense of historical zeitgeist. There are a couple of good bookstalls but I know I really need to hoof it over to the nearby Marché du Livre Ancien et d'Occasion.

However, I decide to continue down the avenue Marc-Sangnier to avenue Georges Lafenestre. A couple are cooing over vintage fans; a stallholder is trading the metal bits found on top of champagne corks with another; several tables - the most popular - display 'Tout à 10F' signs.

I quiz one merchant about French 'saint' souvenirs, having found a Sainte-Thérèse fob with fold-out photos of the then-newly-beatified patroness of France.

Next to me a man bellies up to the stall: 'How much for that handsome cigarette lighter?'

"800 francs."

"800 francs? Folie!"

"No, Monsieur; 800 - it works perfectly. I'll show you?"

"Non, non, I've got one here, only bought it for 100." Shows it, lights it.

"Hmmm, can I see?" Examines it. "Yes, very handsome. Of course. It's very good. Very handsome, you know, but I have to make a living."

"Of course. Joyeuses Pàques, Monsieur!"

Down at the intersection of the two avenues, a 'Grand Déballage: 200 Brocanteurs' banner waves over a crépes-frites van and a jolly little group of families out for a promenade. A man plays a portable piano, belting out chansons with people up and down the streets warbling or whistling along with the familiar tunes.

"Vous étes ici le dimanche?"

"Oui, le dimanche, et aussi le samedi" - every Sunday and every Saturday - he responds in song. I decide not to ask any more questions.

Lafenestre is definitely half a step up the puces ladder, but not as chic as the Pont Louis-Philippe. The periphèrique freeway roars nearby; the sun decides to make an appearance.

I am diverted by stalls with ranks of toy soldiers - plastic and lead armies! - and classic aviation accessories, including model planes, carry-on bags, clocks and vintage airline cutlery. All the London fashion victims could get their little leather '60's handbags here. And their fur-trimmed coats - an entire stall just full of fur. Perfume samples, too.

Keeping my ears open, I am the only non-French person here. My award for most fascinating stall goes to the antique camera center; with every decade of still camera represented; with film, accessories, photography magazines old and new, developing supplies - the works. More interesting than the stall with human skulls, no teeth, craniums cut open neatly.

It strikes me that stalls need to be close together, since solo stalls mean that people gather speed and didn't stop unless the knickknacks are grippinglytwo figures interesting. Hence the name: 'stall at the stall.'

Going back up Marc-Sangnier, the brocs have already mostly packed up for lunch at noon. The bustling flea market is transformed into empty streets.

Go back up the métro line and across to the fourth, and the crowds have intensified on Pont Louis-Philippe.

What every home needs: a Mr and Mrs Gnome, to be your very own 'house-gnomes.'

TF1-TV had broadcast the Easter Mass live from the St. Gervais-St. Protais church, and I want to watch the outside broadcast techies strike the lighting and camera setup after the service.

I just have to go back and get one of those cool plates for my kitchen wall. Catastrophe! Of course, the entire set of plates are long gone - disparues. Lesson learned: if you see it, bargain for it, else it'll go. I'll be back doing the brocante thing during my next Paris visit: "Je mets toute ma gloire à rire, aimer et boire."

Tracy Turner is an American, who lives a 'dream life' in London. When she isn't snooping around junk dealers, flea markets, les brocateurs, in London and Paris, she has a dayjob working at BBC in its Documentaries Department and on the BBC's The Travel Hour Online,' which is worth a look. Send any comments about this feature either to Tracy Turner or to me.

Tracy Turner©1998
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