Les Brocantes

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the folly of diverting Sweden’s labour pool to repairing bicycles instead of just letting white collar professionals buy replacements, I want to talk about the very French event called a brocante.

As the linked site says:

The flea markets, second hand markets and car boot sales are very popular in France especially in the summer and before Christmas, in fact, that’s an understatement – it seems to be the national pastime to spend weekends visiting the different types of second hand markets.

Some of these brocantes are permanent, but the ones I have seen are held periodically in each suburb perhaps once or twice per year.  The local municipality closes off a few streets and sets up collapsible tables and the local residents come out with all their old junk and spend the day trying to flog it.   These events are very popular and people pack the streets, but from my observation most of them are just nosing around and not buying anything.  They can also be a pain: I woke up one Sunday morning in June to find a brocante going on in my street; clearly I’d not bothered reading the signs that had been posted.  As such, I couldn’t get my car out of the underground car park to go anywhere.  The French expression governing what to do in such a situation is “toff sheet”.

A brocante is basically the French equivalent of the British car-boot sale or jumble sale, or the American yard/lawn sale.  They are also similar to the school fetes which used to go on in the 1980s when I was a kid, where parents would bring junk they wanted to sell.  I have no idea if this still happens.

It might be my memory playing tricks on me, but I seem to remember the jumble sales and school fetes of my childhood turning up some bargains for my various family members.  Decent books were a favourite, and I managed to snag myself a hardback second edition of The Lord of the Rings for 50p back in 1992 which I still have.  But you also stood a chance of finding a good piece of furniture, some tradesmen’s tools, gardening equipment, kitchenware, sports gear, and other items which were bargains in the sense that to buy them new would cost a lot more, assuming they were available.  I recall people used to get quite excited by what you could find, myself included (I was usually after piles of old Beano and Dandy comics).

By contrast, when I walked around the brocantes of Parisian suburbs I found there is little of any value and nothing that could be considered a bargain.  It is mostly toys, children’s clothes, shoes (I always wondered who bought second-hand shoes; that was the one item that was not hand-me-down when I was growing up), and obsolete rubbish like CDs, VHS cassettes, and mobile phone chargers.  You might find the occasional fishing rod or ski gear, but not much else.  Even the books seem to be junk, very little by way of early edition hardbacks and lots of Da Vinci Code.

I think the reason for this is that a lot of stuff is so cheap now that when it breaks it is simply thrown away and replaced:, e.g. tools, kitchenware, and furniture for example whereas before this stuff could stay in a family for generations before being packed up for a jumble sale after a clear-out.  Perhaps another reason is that nobody would buy items which can break, e.g. kettles, microwaves, lawnmowers, DVD players, bicycles, drills, flashlights, etc. when buying one brand new with a warranty is only marginally more expensive and people have more disposable income.  There’s also the effect of eBay: there is no need to trawl through jumble sales looking for an obscure item at a bargain price when you can do that sat on your sofa with an iPad.

In short, things getting cheaper and more readily available has killed the second-hand market for many items which would have appeared in jumble and car-boot sales a generation or two ago.  It’s the same reason why people are choosing to replace broken appliances and other items in Sweden rather than having people fix them.  It is nice to engage in a nice spot of nostalgia about going through a jumble sale and finding a set of vintage cast-iron kitchen scales for a fiver, but the very fact such an item was being traded second-hand shows they were expensive new and not within reach of everybody.  Cast-iron kitchen scales might look nice, but it is probably better that every household can now buy an electronic set for ten quid in Argos and there is no second-hand market any more.  It’s called progress, and it’s a sign we are all better off.

Perhaps the Swedes ought to have taken a wander through a brocante or two before meddling with their economy.

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21 thoughts on “Les Brocantes

  1. I think the reason for this is that a lot of stuff is so cheap now that when it breaks it is simply thrown away and replaced

    End of civilization as we knew it.

  2. “buy an electronic set for ten quid in Argos”: I’ve twice visited Argos, and retreated, defeated. I could make neither head nor tail of it. Rather like a fruit machine: I was entirely baffled the one time I tried one, but it rewarded me with a gusher of coins. Very mysterious.

  3. I repair stuff all the time.

    My wife has a factory and two shops, and we live in our home. Most recently we ran into a hard time with three bench mixers. One failed: all it needed was new brushes. A second failed and I replaced the electo-mechanical speed control (a contact set) plus the brushes. A third mixer was dropped and the chassis broken. All the replacement parts are available for trivial cost online (in the USA) and here (Japan) within a fortnight.

    I’ve also completely re-configured the electrics in the factory and one shop. I’ve put in power outlets where they are needed rather than where they were installed. That includes 3-phase supply to two floor mixers where I’ve run the outlets through the roof space so the power comes from the ceiling. I’ve eliminated all extension leads, and therefore trip- electrical- and health hazards.

    I have two science degrees. I prefer the actuality of re-wiring the factory and fixing the puncture in my sister-in-law’s bike than dreaming up fake research projects, shmoozing with potential sponsors and listening to the boss droning on in perpetual meetings.

  4. Ah, la brocante. When I was a lad in France lo these many moons ago it was already a byword for cheap useless crap, so I see things haven’t changed that much.

    I must admit that the conservative in me is a bit disappointed by the fact that we don’t fix things any more, we just throw them out, but of course we also don’t build them like they used to anymore either. I have a log splitter with an ancient side valve engine that probably dates back to the Eisenhower administration and that functions magnificently. Sort of like the VW Beetle in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” it starts with only a little bit of priming with starting fluid whenever I have to use it about every couple of years, and 60 years of neglect and deferred maintenance and crap gasoline with ethanol in it have not seemed to dent its usability. But the beautiful modern generator with a Honda V-twin engine has to be pampered and coaxed and maintained and filled with fuel stabilizer and even so it already has needed a complete carburetor rebuild even though it was presumably designed with the crap gasoline we have nowadays in mind to begin with.

    There is something to be said for older well-preserved items (that includes my wife and myself, I might add). If I break down with my 40-year-old Alfa Romeo, I have a fighting chance to fix it on the side of the road, but when one of my newer cars has a hiccup the only thing left to do is call AAA and wait for the flatbed truck.

  5. There is a very good reason why it is cheaper, and in fact better for ‘the environment’ to replace broken with new.

    We have these days, so much more variety of products and so many more people have them – consider how many owned a fridge or TV in the 1950s or 1960s. Not only that but new models are coming out all the time.

    Imagine then if the minimum lifespan of a good was expected to be 10 years and it should be repairable in its lifetime, the enormous growing inventory of spare parts that would have to be manufactured, transported and stocked to enable a viable, speedy, repair service.

    Similarly, in days gone by the thickness of metal and plastic used in the construction of goods was much greater than now, so imagine the amount of material, its cost, transport costs, etc to construct goods to be as durable as they once were.

    Then we come to electronic microcircuitry which because of its construction is just not repairable.

    And labour productivity has gone up considerably and consequently so have wages, so the labour cost of repairs, plus the high cost of spare parts would be higher than replacement.

    Of course given that the volume of sales of consumer goods would be so slow, cost of new goods would be high so fewer would be able to afford to buy them.

    So back to the 1950s it is.

  6. John B,

    Excellent points there, which brings obsolescence to mind. Is there much point in stocking 10 years of spares and/or designing something to last 10 years when it is likely a better design using better materials will be developed in 5 years?

    Take an example of washing machines: is it better to repair one 15 years old with a low efficiency rating or buy a new one with a high efficiency rating?

  7. Hedgehog,

    When I was a lad in France lo these many moons ago it was already a byword for cheap useless crap, so I see things haven’t changed that much.

    Heh!

  8. I prefer the actuality of re-wiring the factory and fixing the puncture in my sister-in-law’s bike than dreaming up fake research projects, shmoozing with potential sponsors and listening to the boss droning on in perpetual meetings.

    I hear you!

  9. When one of the boilers my grandparents installed around 1970 finally died a couple of years ago (the iron chamber split and it was not economic to repair it), my plumber told me he was replacing boilers in local schools which were being scrapped to “meet climate change targets”. Thus I acquired three 300,000 Btu/hr boilers all less than ten years old for nothing.

    My plumber has a handy sideline reselling perfectly good boilers than people replace because they fall for all the guff about modern energy-efficient equipment. New boilers may use slightly less oil but the savings will never cover the cost of replacing an old serviceable boiler, never mind the much higher maintenance costs and the fact that new condensing boilers are only designed to last around ten years. A bog-standard 20th century non-condensing boiler will last fifty years or longer with regular servicing.

  10. I acquired a significant amount of higher end furniture and the like during the Jakarta riots in 98 due to my massive purchasing power and the devaluation of the local currency, two shipping containers worth to be exact. All very high end and none of that tat that they also have up there. This furniture was my pride and joy and well suited to the type of houses that I lived in. Due to a major renovation it was no longer required and I reluctantly had to get rid of it.

    Being a private type of guy I wasn’t interested in web listings or garage sales and relied on word of mouth. Much to my surprise none of my network were interested, workmates, young families, relatives nor neighbours. In the end I needed to move it and got $300 from an antique furniture dealer from out of town with a labourer and a truck and trailer to shift it. I made a point of meeting with him when he picked it up and he knew fine well that he was on to a good one with this deal and good for him too as he well deserved it. One piece of that shipment alone would easily recover his costs to a discerning buyer.

  11. @Seth

    Good stuff there, reminds me of my father. He was a radar engineer and very popular in the community with his ability to fix record players, radio sideboards, TV’s and the like. The house always had a few repairs lying around the living room. I was quite handy in that regard as well but haven’t done anything like that since I left the house many years ago. So his skills transfer stopped with me as I haven’t exposed my teenage boys to this kind of thing, we dont fix cars together either, I dont even open the bonnets these days.

    Not saying that its a bad thing just an observation.

  12. @Hedgehog

    “If I break down with my 40-year-old Alfa Romeo, I have a fighting chance to fix it on the side of the road, but when one of my newer cars has a hiccup the only thing left to do is call AAA and wait for the flatbed truck.”

    I fist started my professional career as a surveyor just about when electronic distance measurement was starting in the construction surveying field. Nowadays surveying is mindbogglingly advanced with the advancement of positioning and guidance systems, its all about model dumps, data collection and real time data analysis.

    I still work in construction and am long gone off the tools these days but I did notice in the nineties that a lot of “new” surveyors were totally reliant on electronic equipment to the extent that they couldn’t troubleshoot based on first principles. If they forgot to charge their batteries they couldn’t survey, they didn’t know how to swing an arc, eye a square, use two tapes to position, spot and fix a gross error in the field or take a compass bearing of a land mark. I bluffed and set out many a major road and bridge construction in the UK by using my eye when the dot matrix print of construction tables didn’t make sense, or my polish notation HP calculator was a bit wonky, I doubt that a modern surveyor could do this in this day and age.

  13. @Bardon

    I was in the last year to use chains and do practical measurements at my Uni (94).

    As for car boot sales: they are depressing places, and lots of what’s there is shit being peddled by ‘dealers’- usually dole bludgers supplementing their benny by illicitly working 40 hours a week attending car boot sales swapping shit with other idiots for a fraction of the minimum wage.

    However- I take the kids to one every now and the, and keep an eye out for interesting stuff for me. It’s an interesting economic experiment, that’s for sure.

  14. Why do we call them boilers when they aren’t intended to boil the water?

    Good point, but then we also use the term “pair of knickers”.

  15. Wimmins shoes can be bargains second hand. Most women have dozens of pairs that get little use.
    You can’t hand down kiddies shoes because they wear them out so quickly.

    I used to do tons of diy and fixing, now being time poor and cash rich has changed that. Good economics but a shame on many levels.

  16. It’s so long since I built a radio that I don’t think I could solder now.
    I’ve not worked on a car in decades, and now my back wouldn’t allow me even to change a tyre. C’est la bleedin’.

  17. I currently have three motorbikes; two in my garage down here in the south and one parked under a bridge up in Taipei. That one must be nearly twenty years old now (I bought it second-hand about eight years ago for a few hundred quid), and since it has a carburetor rather than an electronic fuel injection pump, it can be left sitting there in Taipei for months at a time. Even with a flat battery I can just kick start it and get it up and running in no time. Other than changing a battery every three years or so, the only maintenance it needs is an oil change, air in the tyres and a readjusting of the chain and sprockets. I couldn’t possibly get away with that with either of the two new ones in my garage (and they’d almost certainly be stolen in any case).

    There are also the old gas-bottle delivery fellas here driving around on donkeys-years old Kawasaki B1s that look about as old as they are; dirty old two-stroke engines that just keep going forever.

  18. “I dont even open the bonnets these days”

    There’d be no point.

    All you would see would be a whole load of wires going into a black box that nobody understands. The service people can hook up their laptops and the system will tell which (expensive) part to throw away and renew, but repairs? Forget it.

    btw at the time of the moon landings we were not allowed television at my boarding school (we all crowded into the Housemaster’s sitting room once a week to watch “Match Of The Day”, and that was your lot as far as entertainment went). But we got to watch Armstrong doing his stuff anyway because a friend of mine put a TV together in his study, from “bits that were lying about” and it worked long enough for that. It had no case and was probably a major electrical hazard, but hey – those were the days, and those were good skills to have.

  19. But we got to watch Armstrong doing his stuff anyway because a friend of mine put a TV together in his study

    I built a radio from scratch when I was a kid. Well, I say “built a radio”, I assembled all the parts but it didn’t work. Never received so much as static. Looking back, I was too young: the diode was the wrong one, the earth was connected by crocodile clip to a radiator with a thick layer of paint, etc. It was never going to work. But I spent weeks figuring out how to build it, which was a great learning process. I don’t even remember being that bothered that it didn’t work, very few things I fiddled with did – especially after I’d fiddled with them.

  20. “But we got to watch Armstrong doing his stuff anyway because a friend of mine put a TV together in his study, from “bits that were lying about” and it worked long enough for that. It had no case and was probably a major electrical hazard”

    Those weer the days alright and your story reminds me of an old bloke that I worked with on the rigs in the eighties. Top bloke, ex-safe cracker and his claim to fame was that he watched England win the world cup on his colour TV and was the only one in his manor that had one. As for electrical hazards I have lost count of how many times I got a whack from the mains, I used to sit on the lounge and squeeze the Christmas light cable with my fingers on a bare section just for the tingle.

    PS do you still think Armstrong landed?

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