When I am in the City of Light, I rarely set foot in a gallery unless it has a gift shop. My favorite place to dine is the department-store café, with the frites stand at the flea market a close second. But recently it dawned on me that even a world-class compulsive shopper like myself has a tendency to visit the same markets, the same charming boutiques, the same venerable department stores. So on my latest trip I decided to consult three shopping gurus—two natives and one honorary citizen—about their favorite local haunts. Claudia Strasser, who runs a New York–based interiors business called the Paris Apartment and has been showing American clients around Parisian markets for decades, is charged with taking me fleaing; Juliette Gitel-Lassablière, a fashion forecaster and a tour guide for Context Travel, swears she can introduce me to surprising discount venues in lofty St.-Germain-des-Prés; and Rosemary Rodriguez, the creative director of Thierry Mugler, has been persuaded to share her secret cutting-edge addresses.
Hitting the Fleas
When Claudia Strasser sweeps into the café across from the Vanves Métro stop on Sunday morning she has quite an entourage with her—three members of the B. family, whose 15-room mansion in Seattle she is helping to furnish, along with Toma Haines, an Oklahoma native who calls herself the Antiques Diva. Before we hit even the first booth, Strasser and the Diva are unloading trade secrets: Did I know that the traveling fairs that set up in different neighborhoods on summer weekends are listed at the Vide-Greniers website, and that there are three keywords to look for: antiquités (for items at least 100 years old), brocante (for classic flea market merchandise), and vide-greniers (what in other cultures is commonly referred to as junk)? Was I aware that the best time to go to markets is the last weekend in July, before the whole of France goes on vacation, when dealers are desperate to empty their booths and want quick cash?
Okay, sure, but what if what I want to buy with that cash is, say, a copper bathtub as big as a truck? How is it that people like the B.’s are hauling those 15 rooms worth of furniture back to the Great Northwest? The answer, Strasser reveals, is a Camard account. At that Mr. B. takes out his Camard book and waves it gleefully in my face. Strasser explains how the account works: Camard, and a number of other shipping companies, maintain offices at the Porte de Clignancourt flea market and other spots around Paris. You register, and they give you a receipt pad, stickers, and your own personal Camard number. When you see something humongous that you are dying to take home, you take out your Camard pad and the dealer slaps a sticker onto your purchase. The dealer fills out some paperwork, which is relayed to Camard, which then picks up your furniture—even if you purchased items at a number of different markets—and the next thing you know you’re unpacking an 18th-century chifforobe in Cedar Rapids. The best part: no money changes hands until Camard has everything ready to ship. This arcane and wacky system, Strasser assures me, is based on an ancient antiques dealers’ honor code and is surprisingly foolproof.
Next, we’re off to the Vanves market. The B. family is searching for 18th-century chairs and chandeliers; the rest of us for anything that catches our fancy. Strasser surprises me by insisting that the best deals are to be found in the bins of prints for $4 and at the $7 tables, where she snatches up a mirrored 1930’s dressing-table box. Even when things are marked higher than $5, bargaining is swift and easy—while I scoop up a pair of framed sepia prints of 1920’s flappers for $40, down from $70, Strasser is dickering over a trifold Art Moderne mirror, a total steal for $140, though because she lacks her own Camard book, it would have to be lugged on the plane, a prospect she reluctantly decides is too daunting.
We sweep up our small purchases—among us we have bought vintage rosaries, old brass keys to string on cords as necklaces, and one dazzling bargain, an Alaïa dress for $140—and hop on the Métro to a brocante in the bohemian neighborhood of the Place des Abbesses, clear on the other side of town. I am torn up about not being able to buy a marble-topped night table here (it’s small but still needs a Camard sticker) until Strasser tells me why it’s lined with marble—once upon a time this pretty piece was used to store a chamber pot.
The B.’s haven’t found any chandeliers yet, so we get back on the Métro and cross the river once again, to the Brocante Rue Chardon-Lagache, in the 16th Arrondissement. The refined merchandise here reflects the surroundings, and before you know it a Camard sticker has been slapped onto a hand-carved early-19th-century walnut chest that hard bargaining (the language barrier surmounted by two of Strasser’s flea market staples, a pencil and pad) has reduced to $3,200. In short order, the B.’s have also fallen for a daybed with satin cushions for a ridiculously low $280, and I am loaded down with an assortment of necklaces and ephemera, anxious to get back to my hotel, log on to Vide-Greniers, and see what other antiques markets and brocantes are coming up.