A little less than twelve days before Christmas, my true love and I made a trip to the Marché aux Puces de Clignancourt. It was a chilly December Saturday morning, so the first order of business was to fortify ourselves against the cold with a café crème at a cozy inside table. Then we strolled among the shops, encountering the following items for sale.
12 ostrich eggs on a padded swivel chair from some long-abandoned office. That will teach you to sit down without looking.
Across from the café we found 11 globes on a shelf. They still show things like the Soviet Union, so they are for ornament only, not instruction.
We spotted 10 pots of ivy and ferns in a florist’s shop on the rue des Rosiers (not to be confused with the street of the same name in central Paris, in the Marais; the flea market is in the commune of St-Ouen to the north of Paris).
The 9 dolls in a box were part of a larger collection of dolls with porcelain heads. When she was a child, my mother had a doll called Felicity with a porcelain head. I wonder if Felicity might have been French.
The 8 sparkly salamanders were in a boutique selling second-hand jewellery. A bit too glittery for me.
When we returned home and I looked through my photographs, I thought at first that I did not have a picture that represented 7 of anything. And then I realized that there were 7 little white elephants (some might be ivory, some might be plastic) in a cabinet that was otherwise filled with pocket watches and compasses.
Six is for 6 royal and imperial miniatures. Can you identify them?
Five is for 5 amber bottles (cider and calvados) in the window of a shop selling all manner of bits and pieces related to food and drink.
Four is for 4 metal cash boxes in a pile: these are modern reproductions of a traditional type of box, not antiques. Not everything in the Marche aux Puces has a lengthy provenance.
Three is for 3 glass domes. Perfect for your stuffed owl collection.
Two is for 2 armless half mannequins on a table. Useful for displaying hats, scarves and necklaces. Not so good for gloves or bracelets.
Finally, one is for a toy mouse (or rat) peeking out from a pile of linen. This was in the shop with the bottles and other food-related items. The woman minding the shop told us that some months ago, there was a special event at the Puces, and each boutique was invited to add some decorations related to a specific film. Her shop (naturally) chose the theme of the movie Ratatouille, and tucked toy mice/rats into pots and pans, glasses and napkins. Apparently at least one customer shrieked when he first spotted one.
Our day at the Puces was rounded out with a visit to the wonderful Librairie de l’Avenue, where the 92-year-old Jean Bedel was signing copies of his latest book, Saut de ‘Puces’ à Saint-Ouen. Naturally, we bought a copy and had it signed. We even chatted to the publisher (Monelle Hayot) over a glass of champagne.
As he wrote an inscription in the book, Bedel asked me for the English equivalent for “chineur.” This is what the French call the type of people who haunt flea markets. I suggested “bargain-hunter,” but it is not really the same thing. Bargain hunters in Canada go to Dollaramas. Chineurs are at least one part antiquarians and they are hunting for more than simply utilitarian objects. And the word includes both buyers and sellers.
It was a wonderful day, thanks in part to advice from our friend Michael, a Parisian letterpress printer. In the spirit of Christmas we share it with you. And may you too have a visit as fine as ours.
Take the No. 85 bus, which connects with the No. 1 Metro line at Louvre-Rivoli. The bus winds its way up and down the Montmartre hill on its way north (sit back and enjoy the tour).
Do not get off at the Porte de Clignancourt (the stuff here is for bargain hunters, not chineurs). Do not get off at the stop called “Marché aux Puces” (You will be tempted, I know, but your patience will be rewarded).
Wait until the bus is inching its way up the crowded and impossibly narrow rue des Rosiers and get off at the stop called “Paul Bert.” You will be right in the middle of the action, across from the Paul Bert/La Serpette market, which is where you will find some of the more interesting and unusual boutiques.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good Paris flea market.
Photographs by Philippa Campsie; text by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.