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Fun at the French flea markets

We bought a sadly furnished home east of Bordeaux three years ago. Then Covid hit. So, we stayed away.

Now we’re back. And this is what we see: sofas the color of sun-bleached coal, lamps with shades akimbo. There’s a table made of durable lead paint. The double beds are actually twins with mattresses zipped together.

It’s like living in an Ikea discard center. Yet we’re unfazed. Why?

We’re in France, the world’s biggest garage sale. Wine may be this country’s leading export. But used furniture drives the French economy.

We know. Here’s our haul from just two weeks of bargain hunting:

  • Two armoires
  • Four commodes (dressers, not the porcelain appliance in your bathroom)
  • Five chairs
  • One buffet the size of a French aircraft carrier
  • Thirteen rugs

The French have a fetish for used furniture

The French amass used furniture the way other countries stockpile wheat. It’s not clear why. One theory is that young French people reject old-fashion design. They want stark, modern pieces. Why have Louis XIV when you can live in a dentist’s office?

As a result, traditional French furniture falls into a booming secondary market. Faux French like us buy it. We’re called ‘Vintage Enthusiasts.’ Sounds better than soft touch.

There are many ways to source second-hand furniture in France. The most well-known is the brocante. These are weekend events where dealers sell old stuff. Some is of questionable provenance. Some is of doubtful utility. There’s a guy in Beaumont who peddles rusting anchor chains.

Vide-greniers – a chance to judge your neighbor’s style

Then there are vide-greniers. These are garage sales that pop up during summer in small towns like ours. Vide-grenier literally means attic emptier. You may not find what you need there, but you can harshly judge your neighbor’s taste.

The best brocanteurs also operate brick-and-mortar shops. Monsieur Girard is well-known in our neighborhood. His studio features a breath-taking inventory. Outdoors, there are enough cement Aphrodites and Bacchus’ to furnish every Italian restaurant in Jersey City.  Inside are polished treasures from grandma’s living room.

Negotiation is the key to second-hand furniture shopping in France. It demands give-and-take. You give, then wonder if you’ve been taken.

Here’s how it works. An overstuffed canape (it’s a couch, not smoked salmon on toast) is listed at X euros. You offer X-minus 10 percent. The brocanteur silently counts to five, feigns anguish, then gives in. You leave triumphant. Five minutes later, you realize he caved too easily. You could have offered X-minus 20 percent. Your anguish is not feigned. This is known in the trade as DFR – Delayed Furniture Regret.

Here’s how to shop at a French flea market!

Brocante browsing is fun but daunting. To prepare, study this FAQ – Furniture Acquisition Quiz. It’ll help decide if you really need ceramic wall sconces.

  • The vendor says the muddy footprint on this carpet is Charlemagne’s. Did they make Nike Trainers in the eighth century?
  • Would a feed trough accentuate the salon?
  • Does a 14-seat dining table fit in our two-cylinder Renault?
  • Is this imported Italianate love seat Pliny the Elder or Murray the Fraudulent?
  • I don’t have a boat, where can I display an anchor chain?

One thing to know about brocantes: they prefer cash. The piece costs 800 euros? You’ll need an ATM – several if there’s a withdrawal limit. Quick tip: do your money shopping the day before your furniture shopping. It facilitates impulse buying.

Buying used furniture is France’s second-favorite pastime, right behind being thin and attractive. It has benefits. For instance, vintage pieces are wooden, not made of veneer on dried mayonnaise like modern furniture. And it costs less. You could furnish an entire three-bedroom house for under 3,000 euros.

Antiques or tat?

But here’s the rub: Are you buying antiques, or props from a Three Musketeers remake? Antiques are at minimum 100 years old and valuable for aesthetic or historic reasons. Everything else is highly varnished reproduction. Which is ok.

Furniture that gleams and has painted cabbage roses screams Versailles to us. Who cares whether or not Cardinal Richelieu spilled corn flakes on it?

Shoppers find storybook France in brocantes – not futons. They close their eyes and see Gigi on crushed velvet. If they wanted minimalist, uncomfortable modern furniture, well, that’s what Sweden is for.

Mike Zampa is a media relations consultant and former newspaper editor and columnist who, along with his wife, splits time between the Dordogne Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.

How to find out flea markets for every department of France

Lille Braderie – Europe’s biggest annual flea market, held in the north of France

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