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Historic Parisian antique market goes digital

Updated: Mar 6


The Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, the 134-year-old antique market in the north of Paris, is entering the digital age. It will soon be possible to buy vintage toys, rococo decor, mod fashion and other unimaginable curiosities on the market’s own website.

The marketplace – with 15 separate markets spread over seven hectares – is creating a website that will allow more than 1,000 vendors to retail their wares online.

While many Marché aux Puces vendors already sell online through their own sites or e-commerce outlets like eBay, Etsy or Proantic, the new website will allow customers to buy from multiple Puces vendors in one place.

“There are a lot of sites like this but we propose to do it ourselves. Why not?” said Albert Rodriguez, president of the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen association, who has been selling furniture, decor and light fixtures from multiple centuries out of his expansive warehouse for 47 years. “In addition to the income that can be gained, we can devote it to promoting our market.”

The site is a response to several threats to the market and its vendors. For most of the 20th century, the Marché aux Puces has been a bustling part of Paris, its vendors attracting a constant flow of customers looking for rare, one-of-a-kind items. The market usually has three to five million visitors annually, however, in the last five years, the number of vendors has dropped from 1,700 to 1,100.

Just outside the bounds of Paris, past the peripheral highway that separates the city from its suburbs, the flea market has had to fight for recognition so that it will not be pushed out by new development.

In 2012, the area was classified as a Zone Promoting Architecture and Heritage, the only urban site in France given this title solely for its cultural atmosphere. While this provides a level of protection for the market’s physical space, it is still being surrounded by new developments and apartment buildings.

Rodriguez said it has been his goal as the association’s president to prevent development from taking over the market. He remembers the local government closing down 20 shops to build social housing in the late 1980s. Now, development around the market is more luxury, high-rise buildings than affordable housing, but Rodriguez said the effects are the same.

“Antique and flea markets tend to disappear when there are conflicts of use between new residents,” Rodriguez said.

In 1990, Paris’ le Louvre des Antiquaires was an organization of more than 250 antique and jewelry stores offering specialties and collectible items on four floors in the center of Paris. But in 2015, it was closed; only a handful of its original shops are still in business. The historic building it occupied is being converted to a high-end shopping mall to be opened next year.

In order to avoid the same fate, Rodriguez is working on having the market dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but he hopes that in the meantime a website will contribute to both revenue and recognition.

“You must adapt to the modern world, you have to live with the times,” Rodriguez said.

Usually, keeping up with the times isn’t high on the list of priorities for Puces vendors, whose shops contain objects from various past decades. There are specialists in Scandinavian furniture from the 1950s, shops dedicated to 18th-century chandelier glass and collectors of American military fatigues from the world wars.

While the flea market as a whole has an annual revenue of 400 to 500 million euros – netting nearly double the annual revenue of Sotheby’s – individual vendors still struggle to make ends meet. Large antique dealers sell items that cost hundreds or thousands of euros, but some Puces vendors are hawking items like postcards from the 1920s for 1€ a piece or retro beads, buttons and patches for under 10€. For them, the website initiative is unlikely to make a large impact on sales.

While vendors are not required to sell their items on the new site, 200 have already signaled their support. One of these is Maison James, an antique store with 16th- to 19th-century furniture and decor. The store already sells its collection online through Proantic, a European e-commerce website that allows antiquarians to list their products with no commission, but will also list on the Puces site.

“When you have a new site like that, we always try to put some things on it to see how many customers we can get,” Didier James, owner of Maison James, said. “People have to make money after all.”

Rodriguez says ten to 15 percent of his sales comes from e-commerce while James says his online orders on Proantic have increased tenfold in the last year compared to in-person sales.

Many of the items at Maison James – like a chartreuse overstuffed Louis XVI armchair or a twisting, blue and gold, wood-topped table held up by painted mermaids – would not look out of place in the Versailles Palace. Nestled into a corner of the Vernaison sector of the market, the store spans three separate booths, its checkered tile floor barely visible under the arranged furniture.

On Proantic, however, the same furniture and objets d’art that are available for sale are presented one by one on a white background as objects to be scrolled through. It’s a stark contrast to the meandering, narrow alleyways of the market, where unimaginable artifacts seem to be stacked as far as the eye can see.

Despite the differences in online and in-person shopping experiences, James said he doesn’t think the culture of antique shopping has changed, and he doesn’t have reservations about selling online.

According to Rodriguez, the new website won’t replace in-person shopping at the Puces, it might encourage it. After all, the Puces is not only a place where people sell antiques, it is also home to specialists who repair and restore them.

“It encourages customers, when they are passionate or interested, to come see the objects on the spot,” Rodriguez said.

While the Puces website might contribute extra income to some vendors, its overall goal is to bring attention to the market and allow people to access its products from around the world. Nearly half of the Marché aux Puces yearly sales come from tourists.

Amy Fox is from Wisconsin and visited the Marché aux Puces while in Paris for the weekend. She said she would probably use the website now that she has seen the market herself.

Fox said, “I think after you experience it in person, you’re more likely to go on the website because if you see things you like, you can go back from home and look at them.”

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