History of the Flea Market

Around 1870, Parisian rag-and-bone men moved in Saint-Ouen on the Malassis area, a land of approximately 300 meters wide around the Paris fortifications, from the Poissonniers to Montmartre.
The Gipsies who were already there for a long time saw new people coming including rag-and-bone men, second-hand clothes sellers, bargain-hunters who all became antique dealers afterwards. In French, they are called "biffins", "crocheteurs", "fripiers" and "chineurs".

They moved for three main reasons:
1) The decision taken by Eugène Poubelle (1884) the Préfet of Paris about the mandatory presence of dustbins in every building. This decision prevented the rag-and-bone men from earning their living in the gutters;
2) The nocturnal and noisy activity of the rag-and-bone men disturbing the cosy wellbeing of Parisians;
3) Malassis and its zero-rated lawless area, located beyond the Parisian toll-house.

This area –"appellation controlée" of this short grass plain with muddy huts- came to life as it grew: people were eating French fries, mussels, dry sausage, almost fresh sardines, waffles; people were drinking white wine as gypsies played their guitars cadenced by shooting galleries. Bars and musical places saw more and more rag-and-bone men establishing themselves. Even the "singe", these wholesalers providing dusters to the paper industry, settled there.

Gradually, the Malassis area, even though non buildable, were filled and grew. Huts were built and dismantled at the whim of friendship and enmity; the land belonged to those who took it and especially to those who knew how to keep it.

On the avenue Michelet, we could see the first signs of the market, near the Parisian toll-house around Saint-Denis (North-East Paris). In 1884, the city council understood then that it was necessary to control this place, but the rag-and-bone men were against any type of tax, in Paris as elsewhere, it’s cultural! So they decided to go back on the old military area protected from taxes and even try to tax illegally newcomers. Over the years, and with the construction in 1908 of the "Métropolitain" (the French underground called "metro"), antique dealers needed to stay at the same place. They were especially exhausted to unpack and pack their stuff every day. The concept of markets came to life to comply with this demand, each antique dealer wanting to have enclosed premises on its own site in the middle of the alleys to practice a better structured commercial activity.
In 1920, Romain-Jules VERNAISON created the first market on the 13 000m² of the "les 26 arpents" locality, on the street rue des Rosiers. He built it with the so-called "baraques Vilgrain", portacabin used to distribute food after the Great War. People say wrongly that the second market was built by Mr Malik. At that time, he ran the Picolo café and kept under his pillow the Louis d’or (old French money) earned thanks to Hungarian gypsies who paid their drinks with it. Nevertheless, what we called today the marché MALIK was, until 1942, his vegetable garden.
In 1925, the marché BIRON was created on the 7 000m² of the "Champ des Rosiers" land used by market gardeners. Close negotiations were done to compensate these farmers. This market complied with an express need of the antique dealers who’d become homeless after the demolition and the levelling of the old fortifications. In 1938, the marché Jules VALLES, on 1 500m², was the first covered market and it was created by a Venetian called Amadéo Césana.

In 1942, on a 3 000m² garden in front of the Picolo café, an exiled Albanian noble built the Marché MALIK. This garden belonged to Mr Bourdin who rented it for life to Mr Malik and honoured this commitment according to custom of that time. Malik used that place to grow his fruits, his vegetables and even a cow was bred to feed his grandson Gérard, a stunted child because of the war. As the streets were crowded full of rag-and-bone men, he saw a good business opportunity and decided to build up 15, then 30, then 110 stalls in this garden. After the Second World War, the Puces agreed on standard opening hours and days.

In 1946, Louis Poré rented to the antique dealers vine plots of his own from the rue Paul Bert to the rue des Rosiers, but the itinerary of the regular customer looked more like a Station of the Cross than a touristic tour: the land was muddy and impracticable. In 1949, thanks to the support and the authorisation of the city, the first permanent shop and the first tarmac driveways of the Puces were built in the marché PAUL BERT.

Between 1960 and 1970, the construction of the Ring road –called the "périphérique"- put a definite end to the area, the caravans and this singular romanticism. This concrete Ring road stigmatised, even more than the Parisian toll-house, the suburbs and created a geographical, sociological, economic and cultural breach. Due to its self-sustaining functioning and its nocturnal activity cadenced by dancing headlights, the Parisian Ring road is an enclosed and fascinating, but sometimes also glacial universe.

Serge Malik, grandson of the market founder, tells: "At that time, I thought Malassis was remaining my garden and I kept playing in the area under construction. One night, stuck by a pack of hungry rats because of the departure of caravans, a rag-and-bone man who looked like a bogeyman helped me get through this situation with its stick and its clodhoppers. I still have bite marks on my ankles and now I have a real rodent phobia. It is not a touching neither a pathetic memory, I’m rather pretty proud of it like a freed slave. From the age of 4 to 7, (from 1959 to 1962) I worked in the markets rue Jule Vallès on weekdays and during the weekends. I sold everything at the price of "100 Francs" (old French money), my life was beautiful, I admit I didn’t go to school but it was a wonderful, lively, fraternal and human life!"

In 1970, Alain Serpette, great collector of firearms and son of a jeweller of the street rue de Rosiers, bought the SIMCA garage of Louis Poré. He created the marché SERPETTE and its 120 stalls, then sold it and left France to go to Florida. In 1975, a huge warehouse, rue Lecuyer, was divided and the HALL of the BROCANTE could open. The same situation occurred in 1976 for the marché des ROSIERS. In 1979, Israël Elkembaum also divided his huge store of old copies in 60 stalls and created the marché CAMBO, restructured in 1992, after a violent fire, into 24 stores. At the end of the 80s, at the instigation of the real estate agent Patrick Duprez, two large markets emerged, giving a new international dimension to the St-Ouen Puces: on the one hand, in 1989, the marché MALASSIS (at last!) with its splendid rotunda and its huge glass roof created by the architect Giraud; and on the other, in 1991, the marché DAUPHINE with its inner courtyards, its iron staircases in an industrial style, its walkways and its wood pavements. Both of these splendid markets turned the Puces, without doubt, towards a new destination, preserving at the same time the memory. The list of the markets is not complete. Some of them appeared and disappeared like the one of the Cité de la Brocante, the Cité commerciale de l’occasion (second-hand market), the Village en bois, around 1920, and the Passage around 1970…

The History of the Puces puts together the short and the long stories, the bric and the brac, the fate and the chance. This wild unpacking shook up the great Paris -this exhibition without complex of the poverty, that wasn’t really poverty- bothered the bourgeois traditions. The administration was troubled as the rules were constantly changing. We came here to slum in with a deleterious even pernicious curiosity.

What about the singular melting pot of travellers, rag-and-bone men from everywhere, nonconformist artists, exiled nobles, committed workers? What’s left of this ancient Puces’ population?

  • The perennial success of a world famous market wildly visited each week-end and considered by the city as an important and precious point of our history.

  • Rag-and-bone men, still here, working on cardboards in Montmartre at Clignancourt, but now they have to run faster than the cops.

  • The Guardians of the Temple: Gypsies, fortune-tellers, second-hand clothes sellers, three-card Monte dealers, barmen and antique dealers live together in a singular but traditional way!

  • New clothes sellers, breaker from the 80s, which draws a youngest customer base and also draws some conflicts between old sellers and newcomers... Proof that the history of the Puces is an everlasting new beginning.

The strong identity of the Flea Market, anchored in its alleys and its memory, knew how to keep its soul and its imaginativeness, the popular success of the Jazz Musette Festival clearly proves it. So dear friends, revisit the Puces, but with a shrewd eye, wherever the fancy takes you, change you habits, dare to follow a new path, "be careful to your wallet and to the three-card Monte dealers in some districts and to flannel-mouths with crocodile shoes in others", take over the space of this wonderful mirror of our history.