Choosing a second subject for my series of “local artisans” was made easy by many comments I received after introducing you to our ‘boulanger’ last month. Since so many of you take a special interest in the ‘brocantes’ of France I thought I would head to a local treasure cave and see if I could squeeze out some details of this time-honored French tradition which you might find interesting.
The ‘brocante’ is a French institution with a devoted following, both in France and overseas. Over the past few decades this world of bric-a-brac and antiques has grown significantly, especially since the advent of the internet. In a lot of countries, this has also led to a proliferation of television shows, magazines devoted to the subject and numerous websites and blogs featuring vintage homes with a French feel, many of which I love to follow. However, in France, the ‘brocante’ for many towns and villages is still what it always was, more of a working junk-shop than an antique shop, and with many items in stock being sold for re-use rather than profit. The country ‘brocantes’ we enjoy here in the Charente-Maritime have changed little over time, in ours we could as easily buy a cattle-trough for our cows, as we could a complete set of monogramed bed-linen for a newly-opened ‘chambres d’hôte’, for example.
The Brocante du Val d’Arnoult on the outskirts of Pont l’Abbé is owned by Pierre and Michéle Morardet, a drive-in yard sits alongside two long warehouses, with reams of agricultural evidence both inside and out, 200 year-old plough-shares sitting side by side with used pesticide tanks, beaten-up zinc watering cans and rusting garden chairs. It’s an incongruous melange of items that is compounded as you walk though an innocuous door into what seems, from the outside, to be an innocuous shed.
Once inside however, you realize you are in a far from innocuous place – instead, you’ve relocated to a time capsule of all things French; national products, colonial souvenirs, kitchen implements, big farmhouse furniture, glassware for mansion houses and toys for a million grown children – this crazy warehouse has it all. Indeed, if you wanted to outfit a house with a vintage vibe, you’d find everything you need here, right down to the thimbles for the sewing kit, and the 1950’s cooker for the 1950’s kitchen. Each time I come here, I feel like Alladin looking into his cave for the first time, knowing smugly that one is rich in antiques beyond one’s dreams, but still with an urge to add more.
It turns out that Pierre and Michéle have not always been in the brocante business. This is only their fifth year here, and before starting out on this part of their lives they ran a chambres d’hôte in the Gers, visiting the world of brocantes at weekends just for fun. Then, it was just a hobby. Now, it is their lives, and looking at the floor to ceiling racks of stock, I truly appreciate just how big and busy that life must be, and just what a step up it must have been for them.
My first question was an easy one – where on earth did they find all their stock? It turns out the answer is simple – from their customers. While they do occasionally visit an antiques fair or auction, Pierre and Michéle actually buy most of their stock from people they know – either people who bring items to the shop for evaluation, or via house-hold sales, sometimes after a death in the family, or sometimes when a family knows it’s time to move and start afresh. The house sales can either be an all-in affair, where everything must go and Pierre and Michéle just leave a bare, swept floor, or a selective occasion when specific items are bought and the rest of the house is offered to a disposal team. Most of their stock is acquired this way, though sometimes the better conditioned and more sought-after items are those that have been specifically brought to the shop to be sold. Surprisingly, there does not seem to a specific trend going on at any one time in their world – furniture, books, clothing, paintings, jewellery or glassware – it all comes and goes, both ancient and modern.
I asked Pierre and Michéle about their working rules and pricing, and got somewhat of a shock when they replied they had none. Instead, they fly by the seat of their pants, buying and selling stock at prices dependent on a variety of factors. One of these is profit, of course, but they have no fixed mark-up or percentage. They have a good, up-to-date knowledge of the market and what things sell and buy for at any time, so they have a guideline to refer too, but they modify their offers to buy based on what they feel an item is worth, more than what it will sell for, happy that they can then adjust the selling price to reflect any discrepancies. The buying price is their working medium, for example, not the selling price. For, as they explain, as long as they make some profit, of some sort, on an item, then they have not made a loss. They write into this set of guidelines their own foibles too, which include gut-instinct and sound business practice. Old stock does not rot in place, and a bargain is never turned down, even if not on the menu.
Pierre tells me a story of how once at a flea-market he went past a stall where an old lady was selling a pushbike. It was like any other pushbike, and Pierre is not an expert on bikes at all, but as he went past the bike called out to him. Startled, he stopped and looked at, asking the old lady how much she wanted. 15 euros was the reply. Pierre scratched his chin and offered 10 euros, entirely unsure of why he was buying this bike. But when he got home, and opened a magazine on his desk, he realized why. He had seen an identical bike before, in this magazine for sale at 600 euros. Gut instinct had won the day, with a handsome payoff.
The Charente-Maritime is a busy summer destination for many people, and the clientele at Pierre and Michéle’s brocante truly reflects that – there are a huge number of French customers, not just locals (some of whom are fellow dealers) but also Parisians who own second homes in the region. Added to the French contingent are a large number of Germans, Dutch and Spanish, with a smattering of Russians and others. I asked about British and Americans, and although they do have some British customers from further inland, there were very few American names in their database. However, a lot of their customers have one thing in common – they buy things to use, not to sell.
Pierre and Michéle explained that their customers are made up of three distinct groups – the first being those who come to buy items for their collections. These people are on the business’ email list and often have specific requirements. Typically, they are the sort of people who browse through the shop in three minutes and then leave without asking any questions. Then, there is the group who want to buy something for a purpose – to either replace something they have already or something they want to be an addition to something they already have. Lastly, there is the ‘chance encounter’ group; people who drive by, stop to browse saying they won’t buy anything, and then go home with a stuffed giraffe head or a box of 24 assorted plates that they think would look wonderful on their vintage dresser. As is typical of the modern age, we also found out that Pierre and Michéle do over 50% of their business on-line. Much of the stock in their third warehouse is just for this market.
After an hour of questions it was time to head out for lunch, I looked around, amazed to think that so much of what I saw would be bought and put back into use over a period of time. But to be truthful, it was easy to understand, as there is a great deal of stuff in there that I really wanted to come home with me in the back of the car. Some to leave as is, and some to “play with” – a bit of sandpaper, a pot of paint, a little fabric – there is so much fun to be had in the world of brocantes. Most of all I really want this chandelier!