Treasures and Trash in Paris
Bewitched by kitsch? Join the rave. Throughout the year, the City of Lights
stays retroactive with weekend flea markets and pop-up bazaars. But where to start?
Marché aux Puces de Vanves
Métro: Porte de Vanves
If you’ve only got time to visit one Parisian flea market, this is the one. With its bustling vibe, it’s impossible, not to feel happy-go-lucky here. There’s even a piano player! Pirouetting straight to the point: the treasures are eclectic and affordable, and the dealers are friendly and fun.
The WOW factor:
You’ll find everything from plastic key chains, perfume bottles, bolts of fabric, and vinyl records, to ice buckets, ashtrays, and bottle openers, all sporting logos of French bar classics like Suze, Ricard, and Picon. You might also uncover old medical leech jars, shrunken heads, or even genuine Old Masters—stage prop perfect for Antiques Roadshow.
What to buy:
Keep your peepers peeled for lightweight winners like antique illustrations, magazines, postcards, buttons, lace, powder boxes, and photographic calling cards—the 19th century version of Facebook. Take heed: Collect but one, and you may want the entire lot. A favorite carte de visite stall is kitty-corner to the piano player. Follow the music!
Look for bargain tables with handwritten all-one-price signs. This strategy once scored fab ski pants from the Sixties in tangerine, mustard and turquoise, with original tags still a-dangling, and for just one euro.
A gentle warning:
Porte de Vanves is sweet but short: 9 am to noon Saturday and Sunday are the peak hours. By 1 pm most dealers are packed and gone.
Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen
Métro: Porte de Clignancourt
Here’s where Chef Julia Child bought her first antique mortar and pestle “. . . about the size and weight of a baptismal font,” she wrote. “One look at it, and I knew there was no question: I just had to have that set!” That very mortar and pestle is now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Everything has a history!” as Julia would say.
Who else found inspiration at Saint-Ouen? Elsa Schiaparelli, André Breton, Pablo Picasso, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Andy Warhol, and Coco Chanel—just to name a few.
The WOW factor:
The market still has a certain Proustian charm, meshing past and present. It’s also photogenic, rain or shine, and the perfect place for more than a few existentialist Instagram moments with your inner flâneur. After sipping a beer at Le Paul Bert, strike out on a slow roll through the labyrinth of shacks and tents, chock-full with the faded gilded and gloriously gritty.
What to buy:
Finding bargains at Saint-Ouen can be a challenge. But with a little quill power, what about some vintage postcards? Never more than a few euros, these feather light souvenirs will fit well if you’re traveling light. Check out Caveyron Devey in the Passage Lecuyer.
At Caveyron Devey, the cards are meticulously organized by genre. Looking for something specific? Cats? Circuses? Just ask. Also, if offered a seat at their table to paw through a box, take them up on it. You’ll look like a real aficionado and your feet will thank you.
Scattered around Paris are temporary brocantes (dealer-run antique sales) and vide-greniers where the neighborhood locals empty their closets. Recent finds include pink Valentino heels, Charles Jourdan boots in noir, and Ted Lapidus hexagonal sunglasses, none for more than 20 euros. You’ll also spy gently used scarves, hats, and Catherine Deneuve-worthy trench coats—but without their usual exorbitant price tags.
Plan of action
Have a “quest” in mind. Previsualization helps narrow the hunt while increasing your chances of finding the object of your desire. What’s missing from your closet? Ballet slippers? A striped Breton sailor shirt? Both are timeless French classics. Need a showstopper for the house? Old maps, chalkware cats, mannequins, mounted beetles or absinthe glasses offer charmed vintage at its best. Grab a pen and make your wish list.
Before setting out, consider your shopping kit: water bottle, Métro tickets, maps with the markets circled, maybe a folding umbrella. Don’t forget a sturdy bag for your finds, available at almost any grocery store for just a few cents. They make perfect souvenirs, too. Also, do carry cash, since many dealers don’t accept credit cards. Just keep it on you in a safe place.
Time is precious but it’s possible to visit both of these fleas and even a few brocantes in one day. Just get on the bus, Gus. For the price of a Métro ticket, you can spend a weekend morning at Porte de Vanves, then hop on the 95 bus all the way to Saint-Ouen at its final stop. No need to keep track of the stops—everyone gets off at the end. Just rest your feet and gloat over your early successes as the whole fantastic panorama of Paris rolls by. Forty-five minutes later, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running once more.