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It’s in every guidebook and has been a tourist destination for decades. And yet, somehow, the Marché aux Puces remains one of the best-kept secrets in Paris. Situated in the shadows of Montmartre, in the northern suburb of Saint-Ouen, this Victorian-era flea market remains an utterly unique place where passersby can find virtually everything that is unexpected.
Words/images: James Startt
Throughout much of the 19th century there was little organized trash collection in Paris. Residents would put out their waste on the sidewalks and in the evenings rag pickers and tinkers would pass by on carts, carrying away the trash and salvaging what was redeemable for resale. But this all changed when Eugène-René Poubelle, the préfet of the Paris region, invented the trashcan, which has dubiously carried his name ever since. Every home was required to have their own poubelle, and the rag pickers were quickly marginalized.
Soon though, this motley crew gravitated to Saint-Ouen on the northern edge of Paris, where they would sell their prized findings on the weekends and, in 1885, the Marché aux Puces was officially opened. And when the Paris Métro made its way to the nearby Porte de Clignancourt in 1908, the flea market became a popular weekend destination for Parisians looking for odds and ends.
As the Marché aux Puces continued to grow between the world wars, numerous markets like the Marché Vernaison and the Marché Biron opened, giving the area at least a semblance of organization. And the expansion continued until 1982, with the opening of the final market, Le Marché Dauphine. Today there are 15 separate markets with nearly 2,000 merchants, and coming here remains a memorable experience.
Open from Friday through Monday, the Marché aux Puces is a world all its own. Here, in the sea of stalls and shops, one can find historic objects alongside paintings from the 19th century or original Art Deco furniture from the 20th century. One can find nautical objects, vinyl records or historical garments and costumes. And if you make it to the Marché Dauphine, you can even find a futuristic home, the Futuro House, first conceived by a Finnish designer in the late 1960s and commercialized for a brief spell until the early 1970s (see page 34).
But perhaps even more intriguing than the objects found is the utterly haphazard way in which they melt together in a rich potpourri of styles and tastes. You may be right next to Paris, but you are virtually transported into another world.
“The Puces remains an extraordinary place,” says Benoît Romogino, a shopkeeper in the Dauphine market and caretaker of the Futuro House. “Where else can you find objects from 3000 BC to today? It’s just amazing, so rich. It’s a living museum and it’s open to all. You can find objects for 5 euros up to a million euros. It’s international and it remains a magical place. People come here every weekend and they come from all over the world. Some just come for a walk, while others come looking to buy. It’s the biggest antique market in the world. There are over 1,000 merchants here and each one has his or her specialty. Some are specialized in stereos, others in cars and others in paintings or furniture.”
Like so many merchants here, Romogino has the Marché aux Puces in his blood. After having a stall here in the 1980s and ’90s he returned in 2013 and has no plans to leave—after all “les Puces” is a way of life. Romogino focuses on furniture and design from the late 1960s and early 1970s. And he is particularly proud of his latest acquisition: a blue, egg-shaped beach cabin, once found along certain beaches in France. “I found it deep in the heart of France,” he says with a smile. “And it’s probably the last of its kind.”
Next door, Hugues Cornière looks quite at home sitting at a yellow-and-blue table from the early 1960s. His shop, Sounds Good, specializes in rare and collectible hi-fi equipment.
Down the hallway and through a corridor, Leyla Lebeurrier Ahi plays ping-pong with her partner in the middle of her rich display of fine textiles, clothes and costumes. Many are centuries old. Some could even be a museum piece all their own. But, in perfect Marché aux Puces spirit, they serve as the perfect backdrop for a ping-pong game.
Taking a break, Lebeurrier Ahi explains, “We have Coptic tissues dating back to the 5th century and we have tissues all the way up to today. We have a lot of tissues and costumes from the 18th and 19th century. We work with everybody, from costume designers to movie production companies to individuals.”
“Personally I love everything that has to do with bullfighting,” she adds, before getting back to her game. “It’s so rich with the capes and all. We have a lot of religious garments as well. But mostly I just love textiles. They are everywhere. We wear them every day without even thinking about it.”
To get to the heart of the Marché aux Puces, most visitors take Ligne 4 of the Paris Métro to its final stop at Porte de Clignancourt. Immediately, you are greeted by counterfeit street sellers, pawning off copy watches, telephones and sunglasses. And do not be surprised to stumble upon a makeshift card game or two, because this northern edge of the city is not the most gentrified of neighborhoods. Passing under the Boulevard Périférique, or beltway, that skirts the city, you can find an abundance of sneakers and leathergoods if that is your thing. But it is only when you make your way to the Rue des Rosiers in Saint-Ouen that the real fun begins.
Once you arrive, prepare yourself for a visual feast of rare objects and happenings. Old-world cafés can be found nestled in certain markets and traditional gypsy jazz once made famous by Django Reinhardt can be heard oozing from others. People from all walks of life mix here. Some come looking for treasures while others appear unaware of the many jewels that can be found here. Little matter though, because the Marché aux Puces is a melting pot like no other.
While today the Futuro House remains a curiosity at best, when it was conceived it was nothing short of revolutionary, and like its name implied, completely forward looking. Conceived by the Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in 1968, the Futuro House called to mind a sort of utopian architecture, imagined, but never quite realized before. With its round, fiberglass design, the Futuro mimics a flying saucer or perhaps George Clinton’s Mothership. But it was actually conceived as a ski cabin that was easy to construct and heat in the Finnish winters. Although originally built for winter, Futuro Houses were soon found around the world in limited numbers and were used on occasion as restaurants or offices.
But the Futuro Houses soon met with an unsavory demise. Often ridiculed and criticized for their space-age design that did not fit easily into the environment, they were easily vandalized. And the fact that they were void of showers and toilets made them simply impractical. But mostly it was the 1973 oil crisis that provided the final blow, as it drastically increased the price of fiberglass production, making an already high-priced novelty simply too expensive to produce.
Barely 100 of them were ever made, and today only a handful still exists, most in various stages of disrepair. One that has been brilliantly restored is on exhibit at Central Saint Martins in London, where guided tours are available. Another can be found at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. But an easier option might simply be to stop by the Marché aux Puces in Saint-Ouen.