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Paris’ Biggest Flea Market: Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen

Last weekend, after organizing my kitchen cabinets and drawers in a Martha Stewart-style mania, complete with P-touch labels on everything that I could stick them on, I decided that it was time to search for what I needed most for my little Frenchy kitchen: the TABLE OF MY DREAMS, namely, something wooden, something old, and with a shelf along the bottom for additional storage. I don’t really know what you call tables like these – they aren’t really tables, per se, but something that’s used either in a factory or a shop, usually. Over the years, I’ve seen one or two at brocantes, but they’ve been too big for my small space. Nevertheless, I knew that this was what I needed, something high enough to be an additional workspace for chopping and rolling out pastry doughs, and deep enough to do double-duty as a table for eating and for students to sit around for my cooking classes, and pretty enough to be used for my videos – a tall order for just one piece.

So I did the only thing that I knew to do. I downed my coffee, got dressed, and set out for le marché aux puces de Saint-Ouen — in the village of St.-Ouen, just outside of the peripherique, northwest of Paris. One of the biggest fleas in the world, established in 1885, the St.-Ouen flea market is actually more than a dozen individual markets, each with hundreds of vendors, selling everything from old toys and Louis Vuitton trunks to put them in to chairs, tables, mirrors and commodes spanning Louis XIV to Art Deco and 20th century modern.

It’s all spread out over a nearly 18-acre area, and can be overwhelming. (I picked up a brochure with a detailed map at one of the booths one year produced by St.-Ouen tourism, which you can print from their website. You can also print a map from this website)

A word about the flea markets in Paris: they aren’t dirt cheap, as the name would imply (and as you would hope), but there are some great finds  – if you know what you’re looking for, and what the prices are, you can find some deals. Sometimes. Sometimes not. I go to what I call “the big flea” (as opposed to the Porte de Vanves, “the little flea”) when I know what I want and when I know that there’s probably no other place to find it. Still, I knew that the likelihood of finding my dream table – and one to fit my ideal measurements of 130 cm long, 70 cm wide, and 90 cm tall – was slim.

Twenty minutes and one change on the metro later, I stepped out of the Garibaldi station, crossed the street and walked past the little church, and turned right down rue des Rosiers, headed toward my two favorite markets, Paul Bert, and Serpette. But first, I came across L’Entrepot, a market that specializes in mostly architectural pieces. Not that I need any old gates or heaters, but it’s always fun to look. You just never know what you’re going to find.

Like this set of headboards for a daybed, and at just 100 euros — wouldn’t this look cool covered in cowhide?

I marched on.

As much as I was in the mood for a table, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t plan to look – and swoon – over other great finds (X doesn’t understand this sort of shopping, but I’m sure that there are plenty of you out there who will).

Check out this wonderful piece, covered with what looks like fabric that was used for grain sacks (I have a shorter piece almost just like this, with a navy stripe, that I use as a table runner on my farm table from Burgundy).

And this iron day bed – I love it just as it is, rusty and worn.

Look at this old timey cot – feels completely “Out of Africa,” and would be perfect if I had a loft.

Love this mirror, and in a size which isn’t easy to find over here.

More great chairs and things to sit on.

And a fun fireplace screen. If I had a fireplace, I would have bought this.

Probably too wide to fit into our living room, but I love the idea of using an old piece from a French retail store – I imagine cashmere sweaters stacked to the ceiling – for books and other pieces, such as great old pottery.

Finally, I made my way from Paul Bert to Serpette, where I saw an “if” (these are for storing old wine bottles) much like the one that I bought for 20 euros a month ago at a brocante near Gare du Nord– for 50 euros. I feel better already, but no table in sight.

Soon, I found this table, and in a very pretty honey color – exactly what I’d hoped for – and for just 280 euros, but without a shelf on the bottom, and it was a bit too long, too. I turned back and figured it was time to head home. I’d been here for more than an hour, and had been through most of the stalls where I thought that I might find what I was looking for.

Perhaps it wasn’t the right day. Or the right time. Or something.

I decided to give it one last run through. I don’t know how I missed this place, one that specialized in things for the kitchen. Old casoles. Copper pots. Wooden cutting boards. I walked in and felt like I was home.

I looked up and at the end of the narrow space, I saw her. Up three creaky wooden steps, on what could be described as a small stage — ta da! — there she was. With sexy curved legs and two drawers that opened with skeleton keys long lost or forgotten, I approached her with caution and skepticism. I measured — 130 cm long, 70 cm wide, 79 cm high — exactly what I wanted, just 11 centimeters shorter, which was fine. I touched her smooth, worn wood, scarred in places, burned in others, and water-stained on one end. She obviously had a glorious past.

The shopkeeper approached me. “This was used in a restaurant to keep the tarts,” she said.

The tarts? I knew that there was something special about this table. Something magical. She had lived too long, seen too many desserts – thousands, I’d guess — not to impart her experience onto me.

This wasn’t just a table. It was my talisman. My muse. I knew that if this table could be mine — my tarts would be better, the crusts lighter, the fillings more creamy and smooth. I put my hand on top of her and sighed.

The price could be negotiated, she said.

Four days later, she arrived.

I sit sometimes at my new table and wonder how old she is, what conversations took place around her, what she held – how many tarte Tatins, gateaux au chocolat, and crème caramels —  and how she got burned.

I sit and I drink my coffee and I wonder about it all —  how I ended up here, in Paris, making more tarts than tortillas these days, in my faded jeans and old cowboy boots, and with a dog that ought to be herding sheep, not chasing tennis balls at Parc St. Cloud. But like my new table, right now, it all somehow seems perfect.