The Magic of Brocante

“such stuff as dreams are made on”

For me there is no better way to spend a Sunday morning than wandering around a brocante market or flea market in France. The term ‘flea market’ comes from ‘marché aux puces’. There are a couple of theories about the origin of this term: firstly that it came from the fleas in second-hand upholstery that used to be sold or secondly from the slum dwellers who were evicted from their homes during the reconstruction of Paris by Baron Haussmann and congregated in the St Ouen area of Paris.


From the biggest and most expensive in Paris to the smallest vide-grenier in French country villages, the anticipation of what I might find gives me that childhood Christmas Eve feeling every time. In this world of high street shops, mass production and globalization it is harder and harder to find something unique and the brocante markets are the place to find them. When I visit a brocante market I feel like a dog lover must feel in an abandoned dogs’ home. I want to rescue all these beautiful objects, once loved and now separated from their owners. I’m not about finding treasure in the financial sense but rather saving treasures, no matter how small, insignificant or unloved. As well as the craftsmanship, the uniqueness and the ageing beauty of the object itself, there is the imagined story of the object: where it once lived, who its owner was and the lives of which it was once part.


There is the knowledge that you will probably see that object only once in your life and never again. I still dwell on the brown leather crocodile handbag at the Sablon Market in Brussels or the straw disc hat with hand-embroidered flowers at the Puces de Vanves, many years ago, that I foolishly didn’t buy. ..


Rummaging through boxes of old family photographs wondering about each person in them and their life, picking up remnants of lace leftover from a draper’s shop and imagining what kind of dresses the rest of the lace was used for – this is only part of the enchantment of the brocante market.


The Japanese have a word ‘Sabi’ which describes beauty that comes with age, when the life of the object is evidenced in its wear. It is the kind of beauty found in antique teacups and ageing pieces of cloth.


The flea market is a beautiful open-air museum where you can touch the items and even take them home with you. You can learn about history and craftsmanship, about provenance and long since closed ateliers. Where else can you buy a taxidermy monkey wearing a bowler hat, a teacup that protects your moustache, a 1920s fashion magazine, an original Victorian Punch and Judy tent complete with hand-carved puppets or a Parisian Taxi sign?