The Paris Flea Markets/Le marché aux puces


August 3, 2012 by The Editor

Luigi Loir, Le marché aux puces. (Public Domain)

“Le marché aux puces, Porte de Clignancourt” by French painter and engraver Luigi Loir (1845-1916). Oil on canvas.

Recently Alex and I took the train to Paris! From our flat in London, it’s about two hours to the Gare du Nord and if you’re willing to leave at 5:30 am, you can get a pretty good fare. We know Paris pretty well, so when we have a chance to get away, it is a known quantity where we have favorite walks, restaurants, and neighborhoods.

In over ten years of traveling to Paris, neither of us have ever visited one of its big attractions: the Paris flea markets, known as les Puces (literally, the fleas.) Located on the north perimeter of the city at Porte de Clignancourt, the flea markets have always been on my agenda, but for some reason, I have never made it. So this time we decided to deviate from our usual perambulations and have a visit.

From our hotel in the 7th arrondissement, it was a short 20-minute journey by Métro to the markets. Upon arrival I had a sense of deja vu. As you walk from the Métro station you actually encounter a series of markets. The first is the knock-off and knickknacks market. This is found directly across from the station and stretches for about a city block. Here, guys from their early teens into their middle age sell multi-colored Eiffel Towers, hanging by the hundreds from cables draped across their arms.

If not miniature Parisian landmarks, then you can buy Gucci bags and Prada purses. The fake bag market is thriving and in Paris it is at Clignancourt. I’m quite sure you can find it elsewhere as well. In the course of a 5-minute walk, you will encounter dozens of men selling essentially the same goods. Remarkably, no one was particularly aggressive. The sidewalk was easy enough to navigate as the salesmen largely stood to the side, gesturing to passersby and waiting for a curious glance.

After the knock-offs, you come to the next market which is a vast canopy of covered stalls. Here you find leather jackets, jeans, sweatpants, hats, and, to be fair, more knockoffs, of the Polo and G-Star variety. I can’t say for sure whether these are knock-offs. They could be the same sort of ‘seconds’ and damaged wares that find their way from first-line retail to Filene’s Basement.

And that brings me to the actual flea Market. Down the narrow walkways and into les Puces, is the covered market of dreams. What you can find here is the breadth of human possessions. From African tribal masks to piles of antique tableware, from glassware to toys.

This is ‘antiques’ at their most raw, so to speak. In some cases the antiques are thoroughly vetted (there are shops that are well curated for the discerning buyer), but in most cases they are jumbles of goods, packed in, and overflowing their shelves and carts. Despite this, the purveyors undoubtedly have an encyclopedic knowledge of their stock.

For the collector, a market like this I am told is the great fun of collecting. Only in a place like les Puces, with scores of merchants, could you spend hours amidst the items that draw your attention. Nearly every interest has a small niche at les Puces and nearly every budget can be accommodated. The same could be said for designers who use the market to furnish and decorate the homes of clients across the world.

As I wrote above, when we arrived at the markets I had a sense of being there before. But what I was experiencing, I think, were separate memories coming together in the organized chaos of the markets at Clignancourt: there were the antique shops of Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, side by side with migrants selling souvenirs at Notre Dame, up against the garage sales Mom used to stop at when we were kids, combined with resale shops like Value Village and the Goldmine in Petoskey, Michigan. It’s all there. A paradise of resale.

If you are a true collector, this is really your place. For myself, I have never been much of a collector. Although the great PBS show Antique’s Roadshow has raised our consciousness about the value of things all around us while raising the hope that grandma really did leave us a Tiffany lamp or that perhaps the old leather satchel in the closet is actually a Plains Indian treasure…I still have not been able to convince myself of the merit of collecting. I know that for many collectors it is not about finding a treasure so much as enjoying the pastime for its own sake. I can respect that. I am more of an organizer and cataloger: after all, I am a librarian and genealogist.

If my first impression of les Puces was that “I’ve been here before” my takeaway impression was, “I don’t want to buy anything ever again.” While this is a bit of an overstatement, the sentiment came from seeing so much “junk” – the same sort of stuff that I so often think that I can’t live life without. A good set of tableware. Cordial glasses. Candelabras! Antique dolls (ok, I jest on this last one.)

I am not a committed minimalist, but for me, going to the flea market told me a great deal about what I don’t need. As I commented to Alex on our way back to central Paris, life is just not about things. Sure, it’s fun to have stuff. But there was something existentially disturbing about it all. I imagined our stuff ending up there someday. You never know where you might get a reminder of the really important things in life!

Blue Willow and
Depression Glass
enshrouded beneath
plastic tarpaulins
await resurrection
to eternal life
in a china cabinet.

For mine is the silver, and mine is the gold,
declares the Lord. Hagai 2:8


2 thoughts on “The Paris Flea Markets/Le marché aux puces

  1. LaVagabonde says:

    I once stumbled upon a small flea market at Les Halles that sold vintage postcards. It used to be the fashion to send colorized photos of yourself on postcards to people. I restrained myself and only bought a couple. One of them is a real treasure – the person wrote about having to leave their village to search for work after the end of WWI. My translation (along with the image) was published in a literary magazine not too long ago.

    Have you seen this postcard market? I’m not sure if it was a regularly occurring market.

    P.S. After your post about letter writing, I bought some stationery and sat down to write my first real letter in years. I thought it would be tedious, but as soon as I started writing, the words just flowed and it was fun! Maybe there’s something about using your hand to write that stimulates creativity. 🙂

    • James LaForest says:

      That’s fantastic! At the moment I am only sending occasional letters to my aunts, as they don’t have email. I love postcards. I have kept all the postcards people have ever sent me – it’s a nice collection! But I’ve never bought old ones, although I do love looking at them. There was a place in Ann Arbor that sold old postcards called Middle Earth. The postcard I *wish* I had was a postcard that I have a photocopy of from my great-grandmother to her sister in 1915 saying she was coming to visit and to be at the train at night!

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