Ever since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed perusing antiques shops, fairs, and flea markets. I’d hold up a tin cup, a ceramic figurine or monogrammed handkerchief and try to imagine the original owner, and what their life was like. One one of our trips to Paris we had the opportunity to explore the marché aux puces at Cligancourt, and I loved seeing the variety of items (from the sublime to the bizarre) in the various stalls and spaces. But how wonderful would it be to shop with someone who knows the vendors and merchandise, and can help navigate the brocantes to find the hidden treasures? Today I’m sharing an interview with Sharon Santoni, who not only pens the lovely blog My French Country Home, but also has a thriving business hosting brocante tours and private shopping excursions.
Can you give us an overview of the brocante shopping experience and services you provide? What does it entail?
I host two different types of buying tours here. On my group tours my clients are looking for treasure to take home, smaller items that will either fit into a suitcase or that can be posted home, they also love to discover Normandy, and we combine shopping every day with visiting gardens, learning to cook, visiting the landing beaches and generally having a well filled but relaxing week. The professional buyers are different, they enjoy the countryside as we drive around, but their time is really only taken up with shopping, and our days are quite long as we move from fair to antique dealer, and either fill up a truck, or arrange for purchases to be collected as we go. I love both options, the groups are fun because of the combined energy of people who come together from all over the world, and the professional buyers are fun because they have such a clear vision of the style they love to create.
How did you get started?
It really was supply and demand! I started talking about the fairs on the blog and readers wrote to ask if they could come too! A little bit of organisation and hey presto, the tours were put into action.
Are most of your clients serious antiques collectors, or do you also work with people who are new to brocante shopping and looking for more modest acquisitions?
The professional buyers are generally pretty experienced, and most importantly they know exactly what they like. Among my group tour clients there are some people who have already bought antiques regularly and others for whom it is a new experience. Everyone is looking for different styles and items, and there is a lot of fun in the group tours comparing purchases and admiring each others treasure.
For your clients from other parts of the world, how difficult is it to get larger purchases shipped to their home?
It’s not difficult, because we work with professional shippers who take care of everything, but it isn’t cheap either. People are often surprised at how much it costs to ship home furniture, that’s when they understand the price of european antique at stores in their home towns. Part of the service that I offer with my tours is to make sure that the whole shipping procedure runs smoothly. I work with a lot of the big shippers out of France, and can assist my clients for whom shipping is a new experience.
What is one of the more unusual, rare or valuable items you’ve found at a brocante?
I think the day I remember most clearly was when I stumbled over a big plastic bag on a fair. Nobody else was interested in it, but I opened it up to find dozens of pieces of beautiful antique clothing and house linen, all hand stitched and embroidered. The handwork was extraordinary. I purchased the whole bag, and later contacted a museum who was happy to receive much of the clothing for their costume collection.
What is your favorite part of the business?
Without a doubt the contacts I have made, the human element, and the doors that have been opened for me.
Are there certain times of the year that are better than others for brocante shopping?
The dealers are always open all year around, but there are no fairs to speak of here in the winter, it’s too cold!. The first fair of the season in this part of France is Chatou, in March, and the last big fair that I go to is in Normandy, at the beginning of November. Chatou remains a favourite because the atmosphere is so relaxed, and it lasts for ten days.
Thank you so much, Sharon for sharing your experiences! If you’re interested in one of Sharon’s brocante tours or a private excursion, more information is available here.
And do check out her book, My Stylish French Girlfriends, which will give you some serious decorating envy!
All photos are courtesy of Sharon Santoni.