Any shopping section of a Paris guide-book will confirm it: while the chic boutiques and classy department stores are not to be missed, to round out a truly Parisian experience you must visit its flea markets and second-hand antique shops. Nothing beats the rush, they say, of spotting that gem hidden in plain sight under a century of dust and neglect; an old family heirloom from the attic of a calloused-fingered French grandma is just waiting to fulfill its destiny by adorning your modern home.
Yeah, I skip right over those sections.
But on Sunday as we brainstormed to find a pleasant married-couple activity, I realized that such an excursion would be a perfect fit: the designer in her would fawn over the vintage decorative aspects, while the Paris nerd in me would appreciate checking off another historical site from my to-see list. I had heard after all that the French term for these places, les marchés aux puces (markets of the fleas), is probably where the term “flea market” came from. Just add it to the long list of popular trends that Paris had a hand in inventing. At any rate it was time to see it for myself.
We went to the antique markets of Saint-Ouen which are just north of the city and considered to be some of the best in the world. Once you breach the cheap knock-off items along its periphery, the more reputable areas inside give a sense that you’ve stumbled onto an old treasure trove. We were immediately under its spell.
The markets are arranged like a small village. A network of narrow pedestrian streets are lined with tables and large vendor stalls that tempt you from all angles. Our conversation consisted mainly of variations on the same theme: “Honey, look at that!” or “Wow babe, check this out!” or “Yeah that’s cool but you’re gonna love this!”
It became clear early on that the visit would be window-shopping only (the first chairs to catch my wife’s eye cost 1,000€ each), but that only slightly diminished the fun. She dreamed of constructing the perfect home interior; I indulged in the fantasy of discovering a long-lost Matisse or an original Declaration of Independence concealed behind the backing of an amateur painting.
I briefly considered the piece above to be an overlooked original by Renaissance master Fra Angelico. Had I finally found my secret jackpot? The fact that it seemed to be a poster glued to a board raised some doubts. There was also the matter of a large sticker on the back listing the artist’s name and birth date for all to see. It was…also on a discount table selling for two euros. Maybe my life-changing hidden treasure moment would have to wait.
But another kind of fantasy was satisfied when I turned a corner to find I’d walked straight into the archetypal Paris dream. I had that odd feeling of distant familiarity that happens when you recognize a site from a movie…and this wasn’t just any movie!
Midnight in Paris, a favorite movie of mine, was filmed party in these antique markets and I was tickled to find myself in the same spot. Not surprisingly the area was “charmed up” for the film shoot: the movie’s Oriental rugs and shrubs we see on the left were there to hide the public restrooms (which saved me twice during our visit), and the prop objects for sale in the movie look almost ridiculously idealized compared to real life. But hey, that’s movies. Here’s a shot of mine to compare, showing the same red awning:
With that pleasant moment acknowledged and absorbed, we continued our search for old and interesting things. The variation of items was impressive: tiny delicate objects, large imposing ones, art and sculpture, furniture and animals — as much as your eyes and imagination could ask for.
My wife rediscovered her childhood love for croquet when she saw a vintage set in a window display, and I imagined the joy on the little French boy’s face when he first received the old go-cart adorning the roof of vendor’s stall:
In this market you could furnish yourself with the necessary parts for whatever project you had in mind, whether it be a Gothic facade for your apartment…
…or a classical sculpture garden (complete with urinating cherub fountain).
Some objects invoked stories of the Parisian past in my mind. What sorts of tawdry scenes did this lamp-post once illuminate? How many old bottles of French wine did that basket of corkscrews open? How many dapper gents in their Sunday best strolled the boulevards of Paris with those canes in hand?
After killing several hours and spending too much on armfuls of discounted tomes at the nearby bookstore, I had become a believer in the antique markets of Paris. But our eyes, stomachs and feet were asking to call it a day so we couldn’t stay any longer. Just before exiting, one more item caught my eye — a tantalizing reminder of all those treasure-finding possibilities:
I started to approach it for a closer look, searching for tell-tale signs that it might be an authentic —
“Honey let’s go, it’s getting cold,” my wife reminded me.
It was true. I was too tired and hungry and was carrying too many books. My life-changing art discovery would just have to wait for another day.
*The Saint-Ouen market is large and made up of several smaller markets connected to each other. In order to avoid the bad stuff and focus on the nice areas shown here, I recommend the Paul Bert and Serpette areas, where most of these pictures were taken.