I’m mad for markets. Antique ones that is. And I miss them terribly.
Travel for me is as much about seeing sites and exhibitions as it is about tracking down the best antique markets and shops. The friends and partners who have trailed behind me in markets in Paris, New York and across Canada can attest to my compulsion. I’m like a kind of truffle hound, hunting for the objects that enrich my home.
The pandemic and its seesaw of lockdowns and reopenings has placed many markets and the dealers who populate them in jeopardy. While some retailers have been able to shift to online, the antique world can be as old school as a business can get, and a lot is lost for both buyers and sellers when vintage wares are traded online.
I’ve tried to get my fix during this time by trolling auction sites and digging through the rarer corners of Etsy, eBay and 1stDibs. But herein lies the trouble: How do you search for things online when you don’t know what you’re looking for? A major allure of the market is the beauty of the chance encounter, the discovery of something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.
France’s Les Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen is the ne plus ultra for me. Founded in 1870, it is one of the five most visited sites in France and I plan travel dates to Paris around Saturdays, the best day for roaming the labyrinthine series of 12 covered markets and five shopping streets spanning more than seven hectares. The author André Breton, a leader of the French surrealist movement, wrote in 1928 that finding an object in the markets was like “admitting to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences and reflexes particular to each individuals of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of lights that would make you see, really see.” Sigh.
A day at Les Puces is a masterclass in the history of the decorative arts. Of course you can go to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and see sublime examples of Aubusson rugs and Sèvres porcelain, but at Les Puces, you can hold it all in your hands and, for the right price, even take it home.
“Les Puces was for me, from the first time I went there as a child, a dream place where anything is possible,” French interior designer Vincent Darré says. He heads to the market most weekends to stalk the stalls for delicious bits to bring back to his clients’ treasure-filled homes. “It’s kind of my country house,” he says. “I’m always surprised to find extraordinary objects and furniture.”
Before a strict lockdown swept across France, Darré begrudgingly bought a baroque bed from pictures provided by a dealer, a purchase made only because of a long-standing relationship with that seller. His purse strings have been otherwise pulled tight. “I cannot buy things on the Internet,” he says. “I like to see the objects in real life and to see the dealers in real life. That’s what makes all the charm.”
Here in Canada, the pandemic resulted in the cancellation of all the 2020 Heritage Antique Shows scheduled for the spring, summer and fall. The events are held indoors on most statutory holidays in shopping centres and event halls in the Toronto area and often draw thousands of shoppers. Run by David Zammit – and started in 1976 by his father, Paul – they serve up furniture, art, jewellery and tableware from dealers across Ontario. Many of them are now without a venue to sell their wares. “For some of the dealers, it’s their only source of income” says Zammit, who also operates his family’s store, Bernardi’s Antiques, on Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Road.
Zammit has pivoted by creating an online space for some of the vendors who aren’t able to set up virtual shops themselves. “It’s tough to start out a new online business, especially for the older generation,” he says. Sales have been few and far between.
The shift to selling antiques online started gaining momentum long before the pandemic, and some of those early digital adopters have fared better. Paul Mercer, who owns Smash Salvage, moved his business to more affordable Hamilton from Toronto two years ago because of an uptick in online sales through Instagram. Over the past year, Mercer has had more eyes on his wares than ever before, and pieces usually sell within a couple hours after being posted to Smash’s feed. “[Because of] COVID, it seems like everyone stares at their phone all day,” he says.
To maintain a personal connection with his customers, Mercer personally delivers the things he sells on social media, an act that gives him the opportunity to see where his stock ends up. “For those who have hustled and made an effort, the online thing seems to be working out well,” he says.
I hope Mercer’s hustle catches on so markets such as my beloved local go-to, the Sunday Antique Market, can come back strong. It has happened weekly at St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto for three decades, and is a magnificent melting pot where objects and ephemera sit patiently waiting to be adopted. My own home is punctuated by trophies that serve as memories of rainy mornings and sweltering afternoons spent wandering its aisles.
Antique markets – be they in Toronto, Paris or elsewhere – serve communities beyond being a spot to browse the latest bric-a-brac. As Darré puts it “a big city without its flea market loses its history. Objects are made to have several lives and to hunt in the markets is an adventure back in time.”