Flea Markets

When I was young and unworldly, I read a book by Erich Maria Remarque. The setting was Paris. Something about Dr. Ravic, a displaced WWII victim forced to work “under the table” in France.

The book was interesting and I’m sure I enjoyed it, but only one thing about it stuck in my mind, and has never gone away.

Dr. Ravic followed a young woman into the labyrinth that is the Paris flea market.

I can’t remember the words he used to describe the place, but I do remember that I was caught up in the intrigue and mystery that came with it. Forget the Casbah. This was Paris!

Up until then I had never heard of a flea market. After reading that book, I dreamed of visiting Paris one day and the flea market would be right up there with the Eiffel Tower and The Arc of Triumph. Far as I was aware there were no flea markets where I lived. It didn’t even occur to me to try to find out.

Many years passed by but every so often I’d fondly remember that imaginary Paris flea market. If you had asked me during all those years I’d have told you the only flea market I know of is in Paris.

Many years later I was living in San Francisco and somehow heard about a giant flea market in San Jose, some 40 miles to the south. Had to go.

It wasn’t quite the romantic labyrinth I had in mind, but it was great. Acres of merchandise of every age, quality, condition and at just about any price. You could walk for hours, pausing here to look at old furniture, there to look at new shoes; snack bars abounded at every corner and there was something of an “auction” going on at least part of the time. The auctioneer would manage to get an item sold and then cry out: “Who else wants one at this price?”

You could get your portrait taken, or painted. You could get a photo of your kid sitting on a pony. There was literally no end to the odds and ends you might just find if you kept looking. Price? Rule Number One: Never shell out the asking price. Come back with a gentle, “Could you let it go for $ This $ much? or whip out your pocket calculator and punch in numbers. Then you look up with a disappointed expression and say, “Wow, that just won’t work for me. Could you —”. Sometimes just pulling out actual cash will put you over the top. I have, on occasion, honestly told the dealer I have only x amount of money on me, and you’d be surprised how low some of them will go to consummate the sale. You may very well get your item at your price, or the seller may want to split the difference. How far you want to go and how long you want to “hondle” is strictly up to you. Sometimes the price is so ridiculously low that I don’t have the nerve to ask the seller to accept less.

That was just the beginning of a new phase for me. I haven’t really done in-depth research on the subject, and while flea markets have probably been around since the first cave man laid out some used clubs and rock axes in front of his cave, I didn’t begin to become aware of their ubiquitous presence until after that visit to San Jose.

Acutely aware now of flea markets, their interest to a fellow like me who likes to poke about and dig in unmarked boxes, became — well, not obsessive. Well, okay. Maybe a little bit obsessive. As Joe E. Brown said in Some Like It Hot: ‘Nobody’s perfect!”

I found a drive-in theater in Alameda that on week-ends became a flea market. As time went on I found others, and eventually I finally got it in my head that nearly every city of any size in the country has not one, but several flea markets.

Where I live we have two pretty good-sized flea markets. Great places to wander about, eat, drink, people watch and sometimes strike gold.

I eventually got to Paris. I didn’t go to the flea market first. Okay, I couldn’t. It’s only open on week-ends. I went to some museums and did a lot of walking. But when Saturday morning rolled around I was out there…all by myself.

I found one elderly man sitting on a sidewalk beneath the overhead freeway. A few quaint old keys lay displayed on a handkerchief. I had to buy a couple just out of politeness. He told me I was early and by nine or ten o’clock things should be picking up. He was right.

Actually there are several flea markets; I’ve counted about eighteen so far. Paris is a big city. But obviously this was the one. Okay, it didn’t turn out to be quite the mysterious and romantic labyrinth I had pictured in my mind, but it comes pretty close. Most of the shops look something like one-car garages with pull-down doors that open onto tiny uneven streets with still tinier sidewalks. If the weather’s pleasant, the owner can display some merchandise on this bit of sidewalk. The owner will sit on a chair, perhaps outside, wrapped in an enormous scarf whilst studiously reading a book and also studiously ignoring you…until you show interest in an item. At that point, the friendly vender springs to life and becomes most accommodating.

I believe many vendors live in small apartments above or behind the shops in this labyrinth of narrow alleyways lined on each side by similar small shops. The surrounding neighborhood smacks of mysterious rooms and apartments where foreigners never enter.

Even though the market is now a world-famous tourist attraction and therefore can be a costly place to do business, you can still find some wonderful buys in the world of collectibles and antiques. Just be soft spoken, non-confrontational and even imply, “Gee, I don’t have a lot of money to spend, but I’d like bring home something from Paris.”

You can find plenty of affordable items. If you have a generous credit card limit you can buy museum-quality furniture and art pieces and have everything neatly shipped back home.

The area is vibrant with color and variety. There are so many small cafés that it’s tempting to stop at everyone to sample their specialties. (Many of which are unfortunately bad). Wine and beer flow freely wherever you go and you can spend as much or as little on food as you, your stomach and your pocketbook can tolerate.

Of course as I say, there are other markets as well. Markets that fill entire streets with awnings and narrow alleyways created by the installation of venders’ stalls. Each has its own personality and wonderful finds can be found in every one.

The market at Vanves, while smaller, without fixed shops, boasts some 380 venders and claims that you may well rub elbows with well-known personalities such as television personalities and screen stars. In my limited experience I have yet to see anyone I recognize out there, but hey, I’m kind of dim anyway.

I never quite found that romantic flea market I had been seeing in my mind’s eye for so many years, but the Clignancourt flea market comes pretty darn close. Besides, just after World War II it probably looked a lot more like the shabby mysterious labyrinth I had been carrying around for lo! these many years.

I’m still a flea market habitué. Unfortunately I can’t run over to Paris all the time just to visit a flea market. Besides the people who care about the museums and monuments would be appalled that a grown man should travel so far just to spend a day in the flea market.

But every so often when the chance comes up….


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