When you leave the Metro at Porte de Clignancourt to browse through Paris' Marche aux Puces, the grande mere of flea markets, your first impressions may be discouraging.
Although the streets are lined with vendors, they're offering only poorly made leather bags and jackets, cheap jeans and gadgets.
Aggressive hawkers, who are mostly North Africans, shout sing-song faux French that makes you think you've just arrived in Morocco, instead of a Parisian neighborhood.
Walk a little farther. Turn off Avenue Michelet into Rue des Rosiers and you will find about 3,000 dealers who sell their wares from permanent stalls, car trunks, cardboard boxes and on folding tables. There is an extraordinary range of antiques, vintage clothes, memorabilia and curiosities. This is the Marche aux Puces that's loved by millions.
Although you're not likely to discover a Renoir tucked among the old prints or a signed Galle vase forgotten at a bin bottom, you can acquire collectibles for about one-third of what similar items cost at Left Bank antique shops.
For several years, Marche aux Puces suffered a bad reputation and savvy Parisians seemed to leave the area to the tourists. But things have changed as sellers became more responsible and prices more reasonable.
Marche aux Puces is so huge, seeing it all can be exhausting. Occupying four square miles, the market is made up of seven different sections: Vernaison, Biron, Cambo, Serpette, Paul-Bert, Jules-Valles, Malik. Each section is independently owned, has its own entrance and specializes in merchandise that's not sold by the others.
The largest of the markets, Vernaison, 99 Rue des Rosiers and 136 Avenue Michelet, is a maze of stalls featuring a hodgepodge of antique furniture and objets d'art from a variety of periods.
Although much of it is of 1950s vintage, occasionally pieces date from the mid-19th Century and lovely Deco desks and dressers sell for under $400. Small chests, old wooden boxes, straight-back and bentwood chairs, glass-front bookcases and file cabinets abound.
Many dealers display old post cards, photos, prints and posters from the turn of the century, priced from $1.50 to $150. There are art and theatrical posters, plus delicate, idyllic illustration prints from antique books and dozens of souvenir post cards, particularly from French provinces and historical Paris.
The highlight of Vernaison is Chez Louisette, a cafe/bistro that has the ambience of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting and characters in modern dress. The food is \o7 charcuterie,\f7 with soups and daily luncheon specials selling for under $10. A floor show by singers and accordion-playing accompanists, clowns and jugglers is performed periodically by the waiters.
Marche Biron, 85 Rue des Rosiers, expensive and exclusive, has a long corridor lined with dealers displaying elegant Napoleon III furniture, plus antique crystal chandeliers.
Not much in Marche Biron costs less than $500. Left Bank antique dealers, who prowl here in search of pieces to resell at astronomic prices in their own shops, knowingly request the \o7 prix marchand,\f7 or dealer's price. You can try the same and perhaps get a 10% to 15% discount. You can try for a discount in other sections, too, but your chances of success are best in Biron, where the prices are highest.
Marche Cambo, 75 Rue des Rosiers, sells late 19-Century paintings, including canvasses by lesser known Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The artists' names may not set off bells of recognition, but pleasing paintings can be bought for less than $250.
Marche Cambo also offers English mahogany furniture in good condition at reasonable prices. An oval dining table with six chairs from the early 19th Century was about $900. An elegant small chest with four drawers was $350.
Marche Serpette, 110 Rue des Rosiers, is good for furniture and decorative objects from the 1930s through 1950s, as well as French provincial furniture. Aside from handsome pine tables (from $200), chairs (from $170) and cupboards (from $300), Marche Serpette sells vintage plastic everything.
Kitchen containers, clocks and radios, lamps and electric fans, modern chairs and night tables. It's the French equivalent of things that might be found in granny's attic if they hadn't been given away. Prices are reasonable: pretty platters sell for $8 and complete table service for four might cost $75.
Marche Paul-Bert, Rue des Rosiers 96, has as wide a range of merchandise as Serpette, but most of it is simply used furniture and household goods, without the fashionable vintage. However, several Marche Paul-Bert dealers specialize in bronzes, small and large. A carry-on-sized bust of a handsome but obscure French politician might cost $80. Life-sized nudes can cost $1,000 or more.