July 25, 2010

How to pick up secondhand bargains in France

I found this great article in the Guardian, and thought I would share it with you. Even if a trip to France is not on your current schedule, you may pick up a tip or two.

The French hold second-hand in great esteem. From Easter to September, the country stages a prolonged clear-out, with weekend brocante flea markets held in most towns and villages. Brocante means bric-a-brac, specifically 20th-century, and comes under many names: brocantes, vide-greniers, dépôts-vente, braderies, déballages. All are variations on the same theme: knick-knacks and furniture, circulated from attics to living rooms and back again.brocante1

All types come for the rummage: professional dealers, expats and second-homers sourcing wrought-iron daybeds for their gardens, locals in search of doorknobs and tourists thinking they need a spinning wheel. Bargain hunting becomes addictive – if you're lucky, you can snap up an original Pastis 51 water jug, say, for the price of a pain au chocolat – and the secret to success is do your fieldwork, bypass Paris and comb the provinces. Rather than waiting for goods to reach the capital's chichi flea markets, or head abroad to the likes of Kempton Market, grab it fresh from the hands of a papi in a village square.brocante2

There are bargains to be had – the market has stagnated post eBay and the credit crunch. And it's worth haggling: slope off unimpressed and you'll often receive a volley of lower offers. Arrive early, when stalls set up at dawn, or buy late at lunch, when heat and hunger break down the stallholder's bargaining power. Being charming helps, too. Hefty farmhouse furniture and traditional coffee grinders are particularly out of favour right now, while you could pick up a pair of battered leather club chairs for €150-300 (around £125-£250) or a porcelain soup tureen for €20 (around £16).rbrocante1Brocantes

Stallholders are mostly professionals, though a few are wily amateurs. Organised by local clubs and councils, they fill streets and squares; more recherché versions in local halls charging for entry. Look beyond the cake stands, coloured blown-glass vases, ceramic sugar pots, enamel bedpans, farm tools and armies of Orangina bar glasses for rarer treasures such as wooden carousel horses and vintage épicier cash tills.

The best brocantes
The annual, giant
Braderie de Lille on the first weekend in September is Europe's biggest flea market .

Best for Rotary dial telephones, bistro chairs and factory lamps.

Amiens, 75 miles north of Paris, bookends the season with the Réderie de Printemps in April and the Réderie d'Automne, this year on 3 October, and its 2,500 stallholders.

Best for Wicker farmhouse chairs, coal buckets and 2CV headlights.

Isle sur la Sorgue is the upmarket antiques repository of the south, an attractive Provençal town 25km east of Avignon with a weekly Sunday market bordering the canals. Lofty prices reflect the local wealth. The twice-yearly Foire Internationale Brocante et Antiquités at Easter and, this year, from 12-15 August, fills the town with 200 stands.

Best for Iron garden furniture, old station clocks and church statues.

Lyon in the south-east is another major brocante centre. One of the best markets is the weekly Les Puces du Canal in Villeurbanne, north-east of the city. On Sunday mornings, 400 extra stands are set up.

Best for Enamel jugs, art deco lighting and 1940s soleil mirrors.

Bordeaux to the west holds a market every Sunday around Basilica St Michel, near the city's antiques area.

Best for Antique books, gas lamps and copper basins.

For details, go to brocabrac.fr.Bric-a-brac-in-Lille-Fran-006 Vide greniers

Your best bet for a bargain, vide-greniers are smaller-scale amateur markets where locals sell incomplete china dinner sets and the like. Look for antique books and linen, enamel street signs, milk churns and wartime postcards among the grubby stacks of toys, 1980s VHS cassettes and rinsed-out yoghurt jars.

The best vide-greniers
La Farfouille de Leymont, 30km from Bourg-en-Bresse, on the last Sunday in August, has 1,700 stands.

Best for Pernod metal waiter trays, silverware and wine glasses.

Carpentras in the Vaucluse, north-east of Avignon, holds a weekly Sunday vide-grenier, and a big market on 12 September.

Best for Garden urns, floral ceramic chandeliers and wine bottle carriers.

The more remote you go, the more obscure the booty (and the more naive the prices). Vide-greniers in Aiguebelle in the Savoie, Craponne sur Arzon in the Haute-Loire and clusters of villages in the Creuse around Guéret have been known to unearth cowbells, scarred breadboards, boulangerie price panels, ornamental wooden block planes and antlers. Be strategic, and rake several vide-greniers in one morning.

For details, go to vide-greniers.org.

Dépôts vente

The concept of secondhand megastores, where household goods are sold on behalf of private sellers, is highly developed in France. Troc.com is a chain of 148 warehouses on the periphery of most major towns and cities. A good-value source of large pieces, including architects' drafting tables, retro dining chairs, country dressers and chimney pieces; prices drop the longer items remain unsold. Bargaining is not accepted, though bulk-buying usually entitles you to a discount. Check stock regularly and buy online. Delivery can be arranged.

Elsewhere, France's secondhand mania is embodied in the success of the charity Emmaus. Founded by Catholic priest Abbé Pierre to fight social exclusion, its 191 "communities" collect furniture, ornaments, textiles and electrical devices donated by people emptying their houses and resell them at reasonable prices. Everything is up for grabs, from accordions and wooden skis to spiral staircases.brocante3

And finally…

Getting your purchases home is the tricky bit. Instead of stuffing cut glass into your luggage or resisting a butcher's table due to its size, send it home using transporters. Try Hedley's Humpers or Alan Franklin. Better still, do it yourself: hire a van, and wine, wheel and deal your way around France.


  1. What a fabulous post!!

    I love the fleas of Paris. Last time I was there 2 years ago I was going to buy a couple of big pieces but just couldn't get good info on how to get them home via some of the container shippers. So this is really helpful.

    Thank you!!

  2. Not that I need a thing but how that reminds me of the fun one can have even just looking!

  3. Great informative post!! The details are so important and you really gave them to us. thanks. Mary

  4. Lots of good suggestions here. Plenty of good alternatives to Clignancourt, which is overwhelmingly large, and expensive -I've never found any bargains there.

    Isle sur la Sorgue is wonderful, but definitely upmarket. Very much for the crowd who drive down from St Remy.

    Carpentras is a terrific provincial market town. I'd be happy there just looking for local jams and honey.

    Haven't been to the market in Lille before, but sounds like it could be a good Eurostar trip in September.

    However, I'm not sure I trust the prices in the article. I've never seen club chairs (even very battered old ones) for EUR 150-300.


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