When Americans think of flea markets, they often think of, well, fleas--questionable vendors, questionable goods, and questionable surroundings. In the US, the flea markets are rarely regulated by law enforcement, and you take your chances.
How different it is in Paris! Their flea markets are like an endless treasure hunt, where you can find real treasures, if you know where, when, and how to look.
I have been fortunate enough to be able to go to Paris almost every year since I was a teenager. Now I often stay there, like a Parisian, for about 2 months each year in a perfectly placed apartment. Aside from the thrill of still uncovering new layers of my favorite city each time I visit, no stay would be complete without prowling the flea markets. It is so much more interesting than getting fleeced by the pricey boutiques!
An interesting fact is that most token visitors who think they have visited the largest flea market, Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, haven't actually done so. Not being familiar with the lay of the land (an absolute necessity in fleaing) often results in the flea market virgin making it only as far as the outlying and unregulated area of booths with cheap and questionable merchandise. You have to study a map of the actual Marche aux Puces, plan your strategy, and know what street to turn down to experience the real thing.
And, it is important to come prepared. Chances are overwhelming that you will find a treasure, so you need to prepare for that eventuality. This generally involves bringing a cart of some sort (there are great portable ones), cash (often more than you will plan to spend), and a whole day dedicated to the larger markets.
A visit to the fabled St. Ouen flea market is an undertaking, even for the most seasoned. It is open Saturdays and Sundays from about 9am-6pm, and Fridays and Mondays from about 10am-1pm, rain or shine. Saturday is probably the best day to go, when all the vendors are most likely to be open. The first few years I ventured out there, I never realized that I was missing the actual Marche aux Puces. I literally got waylaid by the hawkers and organized groupings of booths selling knock-offs and cheap goods, only to wonder what all the fuss was about--I could get cheap stuff anywhere.
First of all, no matter where you are in the city of Paris, it is likely a longish haul to Clignacourt in the 18th arrondissement, where the market is. You will have to end up on the Metro line 4 to Porte de Clignacourt to reach it (or you can take line 13). Paris is surrounded by a Periferique, a highway that encircles the city. Outside of the Periferique are the suburbs. Things can get a bit dicey when venturing out that way, especially if unsure of where you are going. Don't wear expensive clothes, handbags, or jewelry, just to be on the safe side. You will likely have to take at least two metro lines to reach Clignacourt.
When you emerge from the subway, you will not find signs pointing to the market. However, you will notice a large overpass, which is the Periferique. To reach the market, you must go under the overpass. Here you will find yourself plagued by shady characters hawking every type of designer knock-off imaginable. Don't acknowledge them or stop for any reason, as there are also pickpockets ready to relieve "lost" tourists of their wallets.
Beyond the hawkers and after passing under the Periferique, keep going for what seems miles. You will think you are finally there when you reach a huge area filled with stalls selling mostly cheap luggage, leather jackets and tee shirts. The real Marche is still beyond that entire area. The Marche aux Puces is quite large, so you should determine ahead of time which areas you want to visit. It is almost impossible to cover the entire market in a single day.
Unless you have an interior designer budget, you won't want to go first to the oddly oppulent refurbished antique furniture, chandelier, and bric a brac area. Although still good buys, and considerably less costly than antique shops in Paris, they are very pricey. Then there is the problem of shipping it home. There is a place for shipping on site at the Marche, but it, too is very expensive. We prefer to disassemble our treasures, such as chandeliers, clocks, candelabras and sconces, and mail them home via France's excellent mail system. We get the "collisimo" (extra large) prepaid box to the US for about $35. You have to brush up on the US Customs forms and restrictions, all found on the web, but, of the literally hundreds of these packages we have mailed home, none has been lost, damaged, or taken any more than about 7-10 days to arrive. Since you don't get detaxe back on "used" item purchases, mailing them will save on shipping and other fees.
For the best overall view of the Marche, and the easiest navigation, we like to keep walking until we can turn left onto Rue de Rosiers, which is really the heart of the market. This is almost the first long street of the Marche, and is filled with several sub-markets--it is almost a city itself. There are more or less permanent covered structures open all year, regardless of the weather. On the left side of the street are entire multi-story buildings containing many shops and some restaurants, such as Dauphine. Because of the large structures' overhead, these are unlikely to have the best bargains. One of my favorite markets within the huge Marche aux Puces is Vernaison. It is one of the first entrances you will come to on the right side of the street after turning down Rue de Rosiers. This is a maze of "allees" of structures selling everything from furniture, lighting, vintage clothing, vintage jewelry, and everything in between.
You may find that you can easily spend an entire day in just this one part of the Marche. Vernaison has something for everyone. Antique toys, vintage fabric, Napoleon era clocks, vintage designer clothing, shoes, and handbags, buttons, chandelier parts, tapestries, silverware, paintings and just about anything else you can think of. Some of my most treasured possessions and gifts for family and friends came from Vernaison.
Our first treasure was what eventually became a spectacular 200-year-old crystal chandelier. When we first spotted it, it was a pile of dirty crystal and dangling wiring in a box on the floor of someone's booth. We lifted it up and found most of the antique crystals intact and the stem and arms tarnished and filthy, but unbent. Naturally, the candle holders and retrofitted wiring would all have to be changed, and it would take a lot of work to clean off hundreds of years of grime. We (respectfully) bargained the vendor down to about $100. After a lot of work at home, it became comparable to those sold in the "expensive" refurbished part of the market selling for $8,000.
As to bargaining, they will generally entertain it, if done in the right way. It is best done in French, even just rudimental--shows you are trying. And it must be done respectfully--ask politely, don't demand. These people have no problem keeping their treasures indefinitely. Sometimes we see the same items from year to year. They never feel the need to fire-sale them. Always speak with the decision-maker. Often they will tell you they can't change the price because they are minding a friend's booth while he is at lunch, etc. Sometimes this is a ploy. Politely ask when the owner will be back, and tell them you will return if you have time. And do. If you return, it shows real interest, and respect for the item. Then, they are more likely to take you seriously.
Our "pile of rubble" chandelier was in need of a lot. There is a huge booth in Vernaison with every conceivable type of antique crystal. All antique crystals very different and distinctive, and it is important to put the correct crystal on your chandelier to preserve the appearance and vintage of the piece. Getting the box of precious rubble back on the metro was a chore, but a lot of fun--at least in retrospect! You have to remember that it is a very, very long walk back to the inevitably crowded metro, and you won't want to carry anything heavy or fragile. This is why it is important to bring a cart, one as large as possible.
Our other treasures from Vernaison have included Hermes vintage scarves, jewelry, handbags, fine vintage jewelry, vintage elegant fabric, tapestry vintage curtains, antique clocks and candelabras, and antique toys. There are military artifacts, antique and 50s era furniture, artwork, antique books, buttons, beads, and vintage china and silver. Vintage hats and clothing can be priceless. All these vendors are strictly regulated by the police, and they are required to accurately disclose the authenticity of the items they sell. We have never been "taken", but some bargains have been better than others. Because of this regulation by law enforcement, you won't find "fake" designer items at Marche aux Puces. I have never seen an unauthentic vintage designer item or piece of jewelry there, and I became an expert of sorts.
The most exciting bargains are those that are hiding in plain sight. The box of crystal rubble in the rear, the tarnished sterling designer bracelet in a box of worthless old costume jewelry, the antique toy that doesn't work, but can be fixed. If you are handy, have the imagination and time, you can find innumerable treasures.
As you work your way back into the Vernaison maze, you will probably hear and smell, before you see, Chez Louisette. It is a Paris institution, and has been around since 1967. They claim to be the last guinguette in Paris. Kind of kitschy and touristy now, it is still worth the mediocre food and crowded seating to imagine you are being entertained by Edith Piaf. The cafe is authentic, old, and thoroughly enjoyable. Try to get a seat where you can see the stage. The heavy-set "lady of a certain age" Manuela belts out spine-tingling versions of Piaf's famous songs. She is always there, although recently they have been supplementing with a younger singer, who has not yet achieved the voice projection of Manuela. After singing, the chanteuse personally passes a bowl for tips. And you'd better give her a tip.
The food is a bit overpriced and somewhat lacking in the nuances of good French cuisine, but all in all, very worthwhile. Also, dawdle with your food until the performance, as they serve you instantly and bustle you out as soon as you are finished eating. They don't tolerate "lingerers". Beware of using their "restroom". It is in fact a crude tiny building across the back alley from Chez Louisette, and requires a coin (which they will furnish customers when asked). However, be prepared for males using the urinal in the common area when you first enter or when are waiting for the lady's stall to be free. There are other restrooms in Vernaison which are better kept--mostly bordering Rue de Rosiers. This authentic, if very noisy and occasionally rowdy bistro/cafe, is the real deal, and one of the few places that gives you the flavor of music halls in old Paris. It has been used in countless movies, both American and French.
If you find you still have enough time to explore other parts of the Marche, you can walk farther down Rue de Rosiers and browse Marche Serpette and Marche Paul Bert. Some areas that far back in the Marche are a bit less organized, and you can find junk yards and street vendors. These street vendors can be excellent sources of bargains, as they don't have any overhead. However, they are not regulated, so be careful of what you buy. We have found several hidden treasures among the junk they offer.
If you can, follow the signs (or ask) to Le Passage, a covered area between two buildings that houses very eclectic and unique things. Exotic leathers, vintage fabric and curtains, vintage clothing and furniture can be found, most of which is in slightly rougher condition than in other parts of the Marche. However, it is an experience, and I don't go to the Marche without seeing what Le Passage has to offer. This area also houses a lot of specialty "junk" shops, like those that deal only in antique clock parts. You will have to search through their drawers of ancient, dusty parts yourself, but you can usually find exactly the right era, shape and size antique clock face, movement, hands or other part to make your antique clock purchase perfect. Many of the ancient clocks sold don't work, aren't accurate, or have broken crystals, etc. There, it is an adventure finding the right part for the right clock.
Be sure to leave plenty of time for your long walk back to the Metro, well before dark. It is really not an area where you want to be at night. In the summer, it stays light so very late that it is not a problem. However, in the non-daylight savings seasons, you can be caught off guard.
Paris' premiere flea market, Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, began centuries ago when the city was walled. The outcasts and poor were relegated to the outlying areas. These "rag and bone men" foraged in the garbage and cast-offs of the wealthy, and began selling the used articles to an eager audience. This outlying area was not regulated by the police at that time, so anything went. They soon built their own structures, their own little city of shabby booths, with great bargains which drew the Parisians. The booths and stalls are often passed down through generations, and their owners generally take great pride in their wares. They don't suffer fools or impolite tourists gladly. To them, it is an important business, with important reputations at stake. They literally scour the world in some cases for their wares, but most are vintage, authentic French.
If you do it right, visiting one of the world's largest and best flea markets is one of the most fascinating and rewarding things you can do in Paris. Long after you've forgotten the designer bag you bought at a pricey Paris boutique, you'll treasure the collectables you've mined from Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen.