Located just north of Paris – so close, in fact, that you may not realize you’ve left the city – is the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. Exit the crowded, rowdy Porte de Clignancourt Metro station and cross the ugly Boulevard Périphérique, and you’ll find yourself in a surprising place.
In English, “marché aux puces” means “flea market” – but St. Ouen is unlike any flea market I’ve ever seen. An outdoor conglomeration of small stalls, shopping halls, cafes, and narrow corridors, this mazelike area, the largest antiques market in Europe, is navigable, yet impossible to know. Within its twisting covered alleyways you’ll find human warmth and merriment, juxtaposed with ghosts.
Even if you're not looking to buy antiques, there’s always something to see. The place is bustling with energy, especially that of the sellers themselves. Antiques dealers are a special breed here in France; they generally seem to sincerely love history and the objects they’re selling, yet they have no snobbiness about it. You’ll often come across a group of them chatting and laughing together. Some of them you’ll find eating lunch on a makeshift table in their small shop. They are almost always accompanied by one or more small dogs. The vendors sell just about everything, from primitive weapons, to retro ‘60’s lamps – sometimes in the same shop.
Despite the energy and visual stimulus, there’s another side to Saint Ouen. The Marché aux Puces is only open on weekends and, for some stands, Monday’s, which usually means a good amount of visitors. But sometimes this isn’t the case, and you wander through lonely narrow spaces, all the objects that furnish our lives silently standing testament around you.
The first time I visited, I left feeling like I’d been to the Underworld. Old clothes once worn daily by everyday people of centuries past, hang on wracks and now and then stir in the wind. Nineteenth century children’s baptismal robes float in the air of one of the shops.
A few weekends ago, we went up to Saint-Ouen. We love going, but hadn’t been there in a while. The day was dreary and very cold, and though we arrived a few hours before the market’s usual 6pm closing time, very few of the stands and stalls remained open. Antiquarians make their own hours.
Still, a bright, unexpected surprise awaited us. Here are some pictures from that day.
As we were walking along the grey corridors, the bright yellow of this little box caught my eye. I picked it up to have a closer look, and found something pretty special: the old tin used to contain tire repair patches. The artwork and lettering made me think immediately of the early 20th century, when bicycles were becoming popular and cars had started to appear. I was utterly charmed by this testament of everyday life in a time of major changes in how people got around, and had to have it. Luckily, regardless of their beauty or interesting history, many small objects like this don’t cost a lot. Even if you have just a few euros to spend, you can still come here and find a treasure. For 10 euros, the box was mine.
When I got home, I did a little online research and found that the company, Velox, still exists today. Besides that, I found little else that allowed me to precisely date the box. The company was founded in 1902, and forums, ebay, and other sites have more or less helped me confirm that the box could date from that year, until around the 1920’s. I’m still trying to find out more information.