Rural French Life: The Brocante
Twice a year, every year, my little village in the south of France holds a ‘brocante’, less romantically known in English as a ‘car boot sale’. For the sellers, it’s a chance to clear out the attic, empty a few cupboards and earn a little tax-free cash while having a sociable day out. For shoppers it’s a pleasant stroll with a lucky dip thrown in; the chance to find that unplanned for, unexpected bargain that raises the spirits and lightens the purse in equal measure.
Correction: There are in fact two distinct French terms for this sort of thing and oops, I used the wrong one and of course cannot change the title. A 'Brocante' is a more professional set up, the equivalent I suppose of an antique fair, while the every day clear-out is in fact, called a Vide Grenier, or 'empty the attic.' My apologies!
Last Sunday was the Big Day. I walked up to the village in anticipation. In the past, I’ve found lovely, framed pictures for five euros apiece, succulent plants for the garden for a euro or so, the occasional English book and Asian artefacts from a former shop-owner. One of the highlights is the cake stand provided by the retirement home, including such delights as the Tourte de Blettes , which manages to combine chard, parmesan cheese and pine-nuts with brown sugar and get away with it. So what delights would I find this time?
The church square (pictured) was abuzz. In amongst the usual display of clothing, shoes and general bric-a-brac was a more professional-looking stand selling African and Asian objets d’art , sadly at professional prices. And despite the healthy amount of books on display none were in English. (It might sound arrogant of me to expect English books in France, but in the past I’ve found hidden gems people were only too glad to get off their hands.) One enterprising lady was selling pots of jam, though at 4.50 each I thought they were a little overpriced. My first purchase was from a woman who was clearing out high quality Danish scented candles from her old shop: on reflection I should have bought more. (I dithered and missed out on the vanilla ones, much to my chagrin.) I found a DVD of the film Michael Clayton which of course I’ll be able to watch in English (hurrah!) and a cute plant pot which I’ll fill with succulents and give to a future dinner-party hostess.
Not one of my more successful outings – no sign of my plant lady and the oldies didn’t even have the Tourte de Blettes – but it was fun all the same.
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A few years ago, I decided to have a clear-out myself, and persuaded my friend to join me in a stand, halving the 25 euro fee. I chose our location carefully – it was near the coffee and refreshment stop, and in a bright, sunny spot. I was selling high-street clothes, old handbags, costume jewellery, bits of make-up and a few pieces of never-used fitness equipment. She was selling English books and videos, children’s wear, handbags and designer clothing. The inevitable happened. I bought her black Joseph trousers while she chose one of my never-worn evening dresses. We swapped handbags and I selected a few of her books and videos. Unfortunately for her, I was possibly the only person to do so.
One old lady stormed through my jewellery collection with such gusto I began to wonder if I wasn’t accidentally selling precious heirlooms. Then she bought a baggy old fleece, just to add to my confusion. A tiny Chinese woman, bent over double through arthritis, drove an extremely hard bargain, wrestling a cardigan down from three euros to one, then cackled hysterically at her success. Younger shoppers relished my hardly-used designer lipstick mistakes, going on to buy nail polishes to match. It had been an experiment even trying to sell old make-up, but it worked. Yves St Laurent shocking pink lippie for two euros? Pourquoi pas, madame? I sold nothing for over five euros, and made about 250 in total. I was thrilled.
My friend, however, was less successful. Strangely, people shied away from her designer clothing, as if convinced that the prices would be prohibitive, and there were fewer than expected rental-home owners around who'd be interested in the books or videos for their English-speaking guests. Even her son’s old clothes, which I thought would fly off the stand, went unnoticed. We couldn’t understand it. Undaunted, she used the occasion to spend more than she made, buying lovely, high-quality presents for her boy. Not content with the sausage-in-a-baguette lunch on offer, either, she ordered a salad from the restaurant nearby and sat there, regally, a glass of rosé never far from her lips. This made everyone laugh, if nothing else, and we were for ever being told that ours was the most fun stand to visit in the village.
It was an exhausting, but terrific day out.
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Brocantes and Vides Greniers happen at regular intervals in towns and villages all over France, and are well worth a visit. My advice for selling at a vide grenier is to keep it simple, and keep it cheap. People will buy on impulse, especially if they’re only spending a euro or two. And as for the shopper, if you see something you like, just go for it. You might never have the chance again.