10 Rules of Shopping at Paris Flea Markets

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There are Paris brocantes (roving flea markets selling second-hand goods) in every season except summer. The biannual Salon Antiquites Brocante at the Place de la Bastille, which opens today and runs through May 18, is one of the biggest, with furniture and objects from the 12th to the 20th centuries in 350 stands set up along the Seine. Once a budget alternative to overpriced Clingnancourt and Paris antique stores, the brocantes have gotten more expensive over the years. Brocanteurs are delighted to offer mini-lectures about the origins and uses of curious objects. If you want to buy something, remember that you are dealing with the equivalent of a used car salesman. Here's a refresher course on how to bargain with the natives, and a photo tour of the last edition.


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1. Go on a weekday if possible to avoid the crowds.

2. Don't be surprised if the brocanteur is more interested in a novel, cellphone conversation, onsite lunch or coffee break than in serving you. The French abolished their monarchy, customers included.

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3. Speak as much French as you can, even if it's just "Bonjour." French etiquette dictates that it's your job to say hello to the proprietor, not the other way around.

4. Every social transaction in France is an act of seduction. Don't be surprised to find you're the one doing the romancing. The French consider the act of buying the merchandise a privilege, not a right.

5. Avoid excessive praise of a desired object. Look it over, frown at some real or imagined defect, and ask "Quel est le prix?" Look vaguely disappointed when offered the standard 15 percent discount and a laundry list of why it is rare/beautiful/desirable/a steal. Ask "Quel est votre dernier prix?" — but only if you really want it — lest you be considered an ill-mannered tease.

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6. Never put an object down and walk away in an attempt to lower the price if there is a French person within earshot. Brocante-goers are a covetous breed, and objects of your obvious affection will take on a powerful allure.

7. Don't be surprised if the brocanteur treats your demand for a lower price with an indignant "C�est cheap!" for the rich American you will be taken for, no matter your bank balance or the pitiful state of the near-worthless dollar.

8. Never overestimate the French desire to actually sell the merchandise.

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Leather club chairs for sale at a Paris flea market

9. If you do wrestle a beloved possession from a brocanteur's arms, it's best to smile when he insists, as you hand over your hard-earned, 1.30-to-the-dollar eurocash, that he's giving you — just you, only you — "un cadeau."

10. Most brocanteurs work on a cash-only basis. Stands with credit card signs may reduce the price if you offer cash. If you have a French checkbook, many brocanteurs will let you pay in two or three installments. Many will deliver larger items and some brocanteurs at Bastille will ship internationally. Any brocanteur will give you a statement saying that an item is more than 100 years old, and thus exempt from customs duties, should anyone ask.

(Images: Kristin Hohenadel)

5/8/08

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