Who would have said that ‘Les Puces’ or ‘the fleas,’ as the St. Ouen flea market is commonly referred to, actually includes 14 separate markets? The maze of alleyways, each heaving with all things vintage and antique, seems to have grown organically, bursting with bric-a-brac. Each stall is like an ephemeral installation, one leaning against another as if hastily put together to welcome the plethora of goodies on display. In reality, St Ouen has been welcoming motley traders since 1885 and now hosts 1,700 dealers, 1,400 of whom sell antiques. The Parisian market has come a long way since the ‘biffins’ who scavenged rubbish set up shop here over 200 years ago.
Marche Paul Bert
The most popular market, attracting most of the five million yearly visitors, is the Marché Paul Bert on Rue des Rosiers. Now specialising in designer furniture with an accent on 1950s and ‘70s pieces, some parts of it look more like a museum or a gallery than a flea market.
Clocks on sale at Marche Paul Bert
Getting lost in the alleys is a treat, but there is more to it. My guide Guillaume is quick to point out that beyond the costume clothing shop lies a hidden gem: Marché Jules Valles. Pleasantly crowd-free and light, it feels like a more authentic experience. Display cases sparkle with vintage broches, fine crystals and costume jewellery, rails bow under the weight of old fur coats and period dresses seeking a second (or third) life.
Related: 5 walks to remember in Paris
Ma Cocotte restaurant with interiors by Philippe Starck
The jumble is dizzying. Everywhere one looks, stalls or shops are spilling out, a veritable smorgasbord of antiques, curios, clothes and furniture. There are ‘proper’ shops too, like Quintessential Playground, a new concept store, or rather a showroom of eclectic pieces that will probably find a home in a hip hotel or on a film set. Further along, the Marchand de Curiosités is the spot for taxidermy fans and those who have a penchant for the bizarre.
Silky nightdresses at 'Sarah'
Trendier, Paul Bert is also home to the Starck-designed Ma Cocotte restaurant (all pale tones, raw wood and cement, sexily mismatched tile floors) giving the upmarket visitor somewhere to refuel, something that was lacking before. Other options fall short, whether it’s the basic Napolitan Pizzeria “great pizzas but iffy service,” says my guide, or Le Voltaire which looks cosy but the menu “isn’t all that,” continues Guillaume. Chez Louisette is an institution, with guinguette spirit in heaps, an Edith Piaf lookalike and checked tablecloths. Perfect for plenty of atmosphere but not the best if you want to carry a conversation over the enthusiastic accordion.
Related: How to live like a Parisian
On to the smaller Marché Biron where Anne Bossennec’s stall, 163, stands out amongst the more ‘classic’ offerings. Her atypical collection of contemporary designer homewares is a breath of fresh air amid the heavy bronze gilt mirrors and varying Louis pieces. She also believes in more approachable pricing, admitting that other dealers buy from her, selling at a mark-up in the larger markets. It seems that it’s worth venturing off the beaten track to pick up a bargain.
Related: Best parks in Paris
Although still off Rue des Rosiers, the Marché Malassis and Dauphine aren’t as popular. The ugly sisters are housed in 1980s and ‘90s monstrosities clearly lacking the charm the other markets have in spades. The plus point? A peek at the retro orange Futuro House pod. Sadly, it’s not for sale though.
As we mosey on through the pretty outdoor labyrinth that is the Marché Vernaison, where Pop Art sits alongside old farmyard tools and colossal twinkling chandeliers, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. Each item calls for a moment to appreciate and to wonder.
Related: 5 quick steps to Parisian style
Without clear pricing, the real investment here is time. Time to look, time to chat, time to ‘discuss the piece of fat’ as the locals might say. Time to agree on the fee. Each vendor has his own modus operandi so whether you want to bring home a stuffed giraffe or a Napoleon desk, remember that these things can’t be rushed. And wear comfortable shoes.
Ma Cocotte restuarant designed by Phlippe Starck