It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up - a chance for a jolly good clear out of all the junk that had been gathering dust in the attic forever with the added bonus thrown in of making a few cents into the bargain.
There’s a tradition here in France every summer for villages and towns up and down the country to throw open their doors so-to-speak and welcome the world to their brocante, or vide grenier.
Basically it’s a glorified sale – jumble, garage or car boot – call it what you will – in which local residents can get rid of some of their clutter and visitors might pick up something at a snip.
Of course there’s bound to be plenty of rubbish on offer, but there again one person’s junk is another’s treasure.
And it was with this in mind that we loaded the car with our assembled assortment of less than tasteful tat.
Old riding boots fought for space with a mess of holiday knick-knacks. There was a pair of mismatching Russian oven gloves - pretty to look at but far too thin to fit their purpose. In went a decorative bread bag and a 25-volume encyclopaedia – a little underused and outdated for a generation that prefers to Google anything and everything. Trays, a Rubik’s cube – one side finished, four matching eggcups, and much, much more.
So with the vehicle virtually bursting at the seams, off we headed for the village main street.
Now this wasn’t going to be totally unfamiliar territory for us. While not exactly being frequent visitors to brocantes we had nonetheless picked up a few bits and pieces over the years.
But we had never really been fired up with the fervent “collection fever” that seems to motivate many who go out treasure hunting. No, we remained more fair-weather friendly in our enthusiasm.
Still it was with a certain amount of trepidation and a healthy dollop of naivety that we approached our first brocante from the other end – as sellers.
What prices should we set for the battered briefcase? Would anyone really want that ghastly set of three porcelain geese with yellow ribbons tied around their necks that we had been given many years ago? And wouldn’t that picnic set – never used – complete with plastic plates and cutlery not look a trifle out of place among the costly booty of the professional stand holder?
Our last fear proved to be largely unfounded as most of our fellow “brocanteurs” turned out to have attics full of riches similar to ours.
Of course you can’t keep the professionals away entirely and there was the odd stand heaving with antique treasures, trinkets and dubious wannabe Old Masters at inflated prices. But on the whole a quick glimpse around was enough to reassure us that we “belonged”.
It might have been indecently early – in fact far too early really, especially for a Sunday morning, but that wasn’t going to stop the real bargain hunters from pitching up.
Moments after we had finished arranging our hoard to maximum effect (we thought) there they were in all their glory intent on proving exactly what the early bird really can catch. Welcome news to us as business got off to an unexpectedly brisk start.
It was at this point that we quickly realised just how keen some people are to haggle – no matter how low the starting price is – presumably just for the sake of having done a deal. Apparently it’s all part of the fun.
Hmmmn. That’s sometimes a hard fact to hold on to. We were there to sell, and enjoy. Even the shyest buyer (a group I would have fallen into had the roles had been reversed) seemed galvanised to ask for our best offer so we learned not to set ridiculously low prices to begin with. But occasionally some customers overstepped the mark.
Such as the woman who spent 10 minutes minutely pouring over a largish suitcase – well known brand, robust and, even if I say it myself, in pretty good condition - pointing out that it had been used (what did she expect at a jumble sale?) complaining that it was too heavy (then don’t buy it, I wanted to scream) and wasn’t large enough (don’t even think about how I was supposed to counter that one).
She asked how much it weighed, its capacity, why it wasn’t larger, lighter, a different colour. And of course she made full use of all negotiating tactics in trying desperately to bring down the asking price (€15) even further. Mind you, it seemed to pay off as we kept our cool and eventually settled on €12 - as much to get shot of her as sell the case.
Ah keeping our cool wasn’t always easy as we listened to all manner of excuses as to why the sale couldn’t be made. They ranged from “I don’t have enough money” (response: ”The cash point is just behind you.”) through “I don’t have any small change only a €50 note” (response: “That’s all right we stocked up on coins ahead of time.” We really had) to “I’ve only just arrived and don’t really want to carry it around with me.” (response – obviously: “If you like it, pay now and we’ll keep it for you until you pass by again.” It worked.)
Then there was the Carrier Bag Hunter, presumably something of a familiar phenomenon at this kind of event. We had the forethought to take along a pile of used bags with us. And they seemed to be among the hottest items, even if we didn’t charge for them. Perhaps we should have done. Of course they certainly came in useful for the excuse “We have nothing to carry it/them in”.
The mad early rush soon became the midday lull as the French headed off for lunch, so some hastily prepared sandwiches and a thermos of coffee hit just the right spot at we sat back to enjoy the break. We resisted the temptation of wandering up and down ourselves to see what “steals” we could make as we really didn’t want to end up packing more into the boot of the car at the end of the day than we had arrived with at the start.
Even though the weather held, there simply weren’t the visitor numbers around after lunch, so we decided to call it a day.
Of course we hadn’t sold everything although most of the larger items had gone and believe it or not someone actually bought the encyclopaedias and bravely hulked them off.
But we headed home less heavily weighed down AND a whole €98 better off.
We’ll be back at the next brocante in September, with more of our junk (yes there’s still more cluttering the attic – isn’t there always?) and hopefully a little wiser into the bargain.
And here we go! - Ask a Frenchman‘s fourth incarnation is about to start… right now! Now this is on this blog: David + World that everything will happen: As you will...