I spent all week collecting clothes and shoes to sell and then cleaning, ironing and separating them into piles for how I was going to display them. I borrowed a table, some umbrellas in case it was hot and sunny and got the lawn chairs out of the van. I was nervous, like I was getting ready for a gig. But I’ve done so many shows whereas I’ve never tried to sell stuff at a flea market, especially one in the French countryside.
I’ve been looking for another way to make money, and also a way to get into the French health insurance system. I researched picking apples during the fall harvest but it starts today and we’re touring in England beginning Saturday so that’s out. For a while I’d been thinking “Damn, I wish I could be a migrant farm worker but instead I have to go play these #$%^ shows” but since I hit on the market seller possibility I’ve started looking forward to the tour.
It was good to have something different to be stressed about for a change. Eric helped me load the car the night before so all I had to do was get up at six and drive to Piegut, a half an hour away. I’d never been out in the countryside at dawn, except when we’ve been rushing to the train station. It was slightly misty, the sky rose-colored, the trees dark shapes along the road, all the old stone houses with their shutters down. No one on the road. I got to Piegut and the street was blocked off where all the rides were set up for the Foire, or fair, and even though I’d consulted Via Michelin about where exactly the flea market was, I still wasn’t sure. So I parked and walked to the boulangerie which I’m familiar with from when we go to the Piegut market on Wednesdays. I was wondering if the flea market part was happening at all, because I didn’t see another car anywhere.
In the bakery there was a guy picking up a cake and two huge baguettes. At 7 AM! People are farmers around here, but it still seems unthinkable that they’re out doing errands at that hour, and on a Sunday. I imagine he’s probably in bed asleep by eight o’clock at night though, not out partying at Kim’s in Brantome, as we’d done.
I asked the woman behind the counter where the flea market was and she told me, but because of all the weird hills and one way streets in the village I decided I’d better walk over and see how to get there before I got in the car. I’ve gotten a lot better with the manual transmission but I still have my moments, especially around pedestrians, where I have extreme fear I’m going to do something wrong and go plowing into a crowd.
The place was full of people setting up, all looking like they knew what they were doing. It was a big parking lot on a hillside, surrounded by trees and some bizarre moderne official type of French buildings that turn up in small towns – it’s hard to tell whether they’re from the thirties, fifties or seventies – lots of curves and geometry, white or grey plaster. A weird contrast to the fifteenth century buildings and cows and sheep on hillsides in the distance.
I walked back to get the car, carefully maneuvered in to find a spot, choosing a space between what looked like an English couple (she – blonde in sweats, so it was pretty obvious she wasn’t French, he – tall, bald with a dark beard, so same thing) selling furniture, and a couple of French country guys unloading an assortment of furniture and old TVs from an ancient white and bright yellow Peugeot van. I asked if there was room next to them and they were nice and helped me unload the table from the car and when they saw me leaving to find a place to park, one of them ran over to tell me to just park right next to their van.
I put the clothes on the rack, laid some more out on the table and shoes beneath. I didn’t bother with the umbrellas because we were under the trees. Our friend Francoise was supposed to join me later so I put out a table for her and the lawn chairs. By now it was eight and the first shoppers were coming around. I hadn’t been sure whether to put prices on things or not, but I thought if I put a few it would at least give people an idea of my reasonable prices.
For a few minutes at the beginning it hit me that possibly I would not sell anything. I wish I could say I was completely wrong and that when I left at the end of the day the car was empty except for a table and rack.
But there just weren’t very many customers. By eleven o’clock, when I’d sold enough to feel like it was worthwhile, the not-exactly-a-crowd thinned out for lunch and never returned. The woman running the market came around with a recycled water bottle full of kir, low-grade champagne and cassis, and poured a plastic cup for all the sellers, and that was pretty much it. I hung around for a few more hours sketching, hoping for another customer or two and having to endure the lame, limp-wristed versions of Beatles, Paul Simon and Bob Marley songs by local group Vis a Vis. When they launched into their Who medley I knew it was time to pack up.
I have to look at it as a learning experience. I’m 100% sure I chose a bad vide grenier – it seemed promising because it was connected to the fair with its rides and feasting and those draw a lot of people, but they’d chosen a location all the way on the other end of the village for the flea market. Eric tried to find me but the signs actually pointed in the wrong direction, so that couldn’t have helped.
And it’s clear used clothes are not an easy sell in the French countryside. I saw sellers who just threw a nasty tarp on the ground, dumped a pile of clothes on it and shoved a torn piece of cardboard on top saying “1e” – one euro for everything. Charge anything more than that and people huff and raise their eyebrows.
There are very few people under forty in the countryside – they are the ones who bought the vintage stuff. There are a lot of English people around but they’re all broke thanks to the devaluation of the pound. The French are very marque-oriented – things I had from H&M, a pair of Superga sneakers never worn, shirts and skirts by Benetton – these all sold. The US brands are too much a mystery. The US sizes are different – even though I ended up translating them and writing the French equivalents on stickers, people are unsure and I can understand that, especially with trousers and skirts that they can’t try on.
People would rather stand around in the baking sun than try to stay warm in the shade – I noticed that the few tables out of the shadow of the trees got more customers. And they won’t look at clothes unless they’re on racks. For the table you need household items, or at least purses (no!), objects. And only having things for women – that’s no good, because you cut out half the crowd right there.
So I will definitely try it again, in the spring. I’ll do more research on where the better markets are – out of the sticks closer to Bordeaux and Toulouse probably. And if it doesn’t work there’s always next year’s apple harvest.