My Favorite Paris Flea Markets
How much do I love flea markets? Let me count the things. There’s the art pottery from the 1920’s, my collection of 1950’s world globes and the weathered wire baskets from French farms. Not to mention the century-old Woodstock typewriter, the 1950’s Brownie cameras and the vintage postcards, cufflinks and costume jewelry that my wife Gayle and I have found. And then there’s the deer head that hangs in our cabin in Maine. We purchased it at the old Sixth Avenue flea market in New York, though I doubt it was bagged anywhere near the Lincoln Tunnel.
The first thing I do when I head to a new city is to see if there’s a weekend flea market. I’ve done so in Beijing, Bangkok and Budapest. And London, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Lhasa, Rome, Geneva and West Palm Beach. And odd as this may sound, it’s not necessarily about shopping.
Well, not entirely. I’ve left many flea markets empty handed. The point is that a flea market introduces you to a side of the culture that a museum visit or musical performance does not. And by culture, I might be talking rural Wisconsin or sophisticated Brussels. You meet salt-of-the-earth characters, sharp-eyed dealers, and locals out for a stroll. The language, assuming you can speak some of it, is colorful and idiomatic. And you can often tell something about a culture in terms of what it chooses to sell and the value it places on a given object.
If you’re a flea market neophyte, remember comfortable shoes, sun protection and vigilance against pickpockets are the first rules. In terms of price, everything is negotiable. And if you really like something, buy it, because you will never see it again. Aimless wandering through the market is mandatory, since serendipity is everything.
One last thing. By flea market, I mean a place where you might find an old icebox, framed etchings, a bust of Napoleon or a Bakelite bracelet. Markets that sell tube socks, baseball caps, vitamin supplements and cleaning products don’t count in my book.
This week, my favorites in Paris:
“flea market” comes from the French “marche aux puces,” or market of
fleas. Indeed, in the 19th century, the original markets were
gatherings of ragpickers who had combed rubbish heaps for cast-offs.
Hence the assurance that fleas were part of the bargain.
Marches Aux Puces de la Porte du Vanves. I like Vanves’ rough charm and the unexpected gems we always unearth buried in mounds of dreck. It’s easily my favorite flea market in the world. But it’s not pretty. Located in a working class neighborhood in the southern edge of Paris, Vanves consists of a series of a couple of hundred ragtag stalls and tables spread out along a sidewalk that runs for about a mile and occasionally forks out on a side street.
Between sips of bitter coffee and a nod to the organ grinder with his monkey, Gayle and I have bought vintage bar ware, from Ricard bottles to Pernod glasses. None of these ran more than a few dollars each. We’ve found turn-of-the-20th century soup bowls, a 1930’s board game for about $10, Paris department store calendars from the 1920’s and a half dozen metal Eiffel tower models left over from some restaurant. There’s plenty of junk but an equal amount of 50’s modernist chairs, old maps and jewelry. It is hands down my preferred way to spend three or four hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning in Paris. And yes, we’ve been know to go two days running, in rain or gloom, weather be damned. Open Saturday and Sunday, from 7AM to 1, 3 or 5PM, depending upon the merchant. Metro Porte du Vanves.
The original Marche aux Puces still exists in Paris today, though fleas have long since been priced out by interior decorators. It is the grand dame of Paris flea markets, located in Clignancourt, in the northern part of the city. It’s divided into a number of smaller markets, such as Vernaison (above) and Paul Bert. It’s beloved by international decorators because there are very serious wares here, as in furniture, chandeliers and antiques. But they’re sold at very serious prices. Lunch at the market’s Chez Louisette is mandatory (at least once), not for the food, which is so so, but for the ersatz 1930’s atmosphere and a chanteuse who sings Edith Piaf songs. Open Saturday through Monday, 9:30AM to 6PM. Metro Porte de Clignancourt.
Les Puces de Montreuil has been around since 1860. There are lots of old clothes — too many for my taste — but also trinkets, bona fide junk, collectibles and even some antiques, including furniture and jewelry. Open Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 7 a.m. to 7.30 p.m., Metro Porte de Montreuil