I recently wrote (here) about France and why I travel all the way from Devon to buy there. My plan for that piece had been to talk about the different opportunities for buying over there, hence the title 'La Belle Brocante' which has nothing to do with an impecunious, if pretty, female relation and more to do with the ways the French sell their antiques and decorative items.
I failed spectacularly to discuss my intended, so please accept my most insincere apologies, and here, a tad late, is the planned content.
Brocante - It's a second hand thing
The Brocante in the title refers, in my mind (only mine it turns out), to the open air 'shops' that seem to abound everywhere from medium sized villages upwards. They stock everything from salvaged window frames to fine tables and endless piles of china, and everything in between. In the UK these places would stock floorboards, bricks, tiles and have piles of used scaff poles too and be called architectural salvage yards, but in France they seem to keep their household and their reclaimed builder materials apart.
In translation, La Brocante actually means the second-hand trade, but the image I get when I hear that phrase is of one of those places, stacked to the gunwales with household and garden stuff: from refined furniture to huge, heavenly, locally forged gates in wonderful pastels, window shutters with years of sun-drenched patina and peeling blues, green and the palest of lilacs, and probably a huge barn full of interior stuff too.
If we take that literal definition of Brocante, you can find a lot of it in a Vide-Greniers. This translates along the lines of 'empty barn' or 'loft'. And that gives you a clue as to what to expect. The reality is a street market, with dealers setting out their wares in marked spaces. These occur all over France and there is a whole sub-industry of guides to them, in private my and on line, providing all the relevant details including when, where, how many stalls there are, and how many metres of frontage that translates into (some of them extending so far they register in kilometres – exhausting both physically and mentally - but choice! Oh boy!).
They offer everything, from refined antiques to a local householder doing a clear-out. It is pot-luck as to what your chosen fair ends up offering, unless you have researched it first and have been selective: the larger, the wider the range of dealers and stock, but maybe, just maybe more bargains at the smaller ones?
We try to be professional
Sometimes (often) on the promotional material they will have the phrase “professionals” written alongside the number of stalls – for example; “80 Professionals”. In one of the guides this is marked by a P in the listing. By this they mean that it will include, or consist mainly of, dealers that make a living by antiques, or Brocante, trading. And this means you have more likelihood of better quality and restored antiques, whereas the ones that don't list “professionals” may have more bargains. It's all down to research, or if you want to risk it, luck-of-the-draw. I like this method. By the way, “Professionals” also attracts the French police who will check dealers registration papers to see that they are legit, in other words paying their taxes. What is earned in France stays in France, or at least the tax portion of it does. A Vide-Greniers often takes over a whole village or town, and can mean the closure of whole streets/roads or even the entire place for the day, or sometimes two.
Make yourself at home
Another thing to look for is a Vide-Maison. This is a private affair and means a house contents in whole or part are being sold off by the owners. Sometimes you get to rummage through the house itself, and sometimes everything is laid-out outside. Either way you are negotiating with the owners/family who are clearing the house and it is (likely to be) bargain city. Unlike Vide-Greniers these are usually advertised only locally, and as far as I know not included in any on-line or published guides (how would they be?), so it is pure chance if you come across one. That's how the one I got involved in recently turned up. Pure chance, also known as 'right place right time'.
You may also want to keep any eye open for a Braderie, which is more correctly a sale, but who knows whether a local Brocante might not go for Braderie just as much as the local clothes shop does? Also don't ignore Fete Brocante: another phrase well worth a dig into. This might be organised by a local entity: a church for example, and is basically a fund raiser, known over here as a jumble but better known internationally as a hunting grounds for dealers.
The dealers den
Most villages have dealers with premises, maybe only the one, but often more. There's the first kind I mentioned at the top of this post, but more often than not they are ‘out of town' along a main road. The other kind are in the town or village, in a shop. Whilst its not always the case, I find some (many of) these are like shops in the UK used to be a decade or more ago: the stock piled-in any old how, covered in several feet of dust. You have to get stuck-in: rummage, sneeze, and rummage again. Here's one I popped into recently:
I like these shops. And how. Occasionally, I'll go into one where the stock is superbly presented and is polished to within an inch of its life and ready to go, but then it will be priced accordingly. Give me a shop where I can dive in and emerge triumphant with an acquisition held aloft, and dust everywhere. Glorious antiquing days. Sneeze.
Check my Instagram feed for pics as I go: link below