The meaning of Brocante

In Australia we have ‘trash & treasure’ the British have their car boot sales and the French have brocantes. Brocantes are great fun with not only professional second-hand dealers but also individuals selling their bits and pieces, some vintage or antique, that they don’t need any more.

 Tools and utensils found at the Brasserie in Amiens

Tools and utensils found at the Brasserie in Amiens

Brocante are generally held on a week-end and I love strolling along the streets, watching the families talking with each other, comparing items and enjoying the food being sold either on stalls or in nearby cafés. Goods for sale are displayed on trestle tables and local musicians and bands often stand on corners entertaining the crowd.

A brocanteur/brocanteuse is a dealer in second-hand goods and the french verb, ‘brocanter’ means to trade in goods at a flea market. Another french verb ‘chiner’ means to search or hunt for second-hand goods and antiques.

France also has second-hand stores which are called depôts vente and these are just as exciting to wander through as the markets. I have visited exquisite small depôts vente that sit at the back of someone’s garden and through huge warehouses filled to overflowing with 30 years of collectables.

On a recent visit to Normandy I was told that in the past French families didn’t move house very often so furniture tended to be stored in the attic or cellar when it wasn’t required.

Marchés aux puce, Paris

Marchés aux puces, Paris

Don’t forget there are also the marchés aux puces which are ‘flea markets’. So called because of the puces or fleas that were harboured in much of the old furniture stored for years before being taken to a market to be sold. Of course some of the most famous flea-markets are those in Paris.

There are also the larger second-hand markets called Foires or Braderies held once or twice a year in regional towns as well as Paris. These can include hundreds of stall owners and cover very large areas. One of the largest is the Braderie in Lille that claims to have 10,000 stall holders, runs for many days and attracts close to a million visitors and buyers. You can let your imagination run wild.

Vide-greniers literally mean ‘to empty the attic’ and are another feature of rural France. These are small local second-hand markets originally intended for locals but now you will find professional second-hand dealers also selling their goods. These tend to be small events and run only for a couple of hours on one day.

A fine collection of outdoor items at Foire de Chatou, Paris

A fine collection of outdoor items at Foire de Chatou, Paris

The origin of the word Brocante may come from the Dutch word ‘brok’ which means piece or fragment. The Victorians used the phrase ‘bric à brac’ to describe small ornaments and trinkets used to ornament their homes. The expression probably dates from about 1830 to 1840 and would also be applied to other decorative items for the home. An early 19th Century French word ‘bric’ meant small pieces and was used in the phrase ‘de bric et de broc’ for building with bits and pieces. This was a progression from a phrase ‘a` bric et a` brac’ which was also used in the early 1830s  to express the concept of  ‘any old how’.