Our Steep French-Buying-Trip Learning Curve

Posted on 02 November, 2015 by Penny Attiwill | 2 comments

Our first blog post. Let's do it.

Sometimes I'll write a post and other times it will be Matt. We both want to share stories with you in our own story-telling fashion, share some of the knowledge we’ve gained running La Brocante over the past few years, share some laughs that have happened along the way and invite you wholeheartedly to get involved and share your thoughts or experiences with us throughout this blogging diary.

Let’s start with our first buying trip back in September 2011 before we had even settled on where, when and how we were going to enter retail for the first time in our careers and open a store trading in European vintage and curiosities here in Australia.

We had done a bit of preliminary espionage on a family trip to France in March 2011 and after a few phone calls and a formal meeting or two we had secured the services of a reputable French shipping company. Armed with a carnet of carbon dockets, labels and stickers now all we had to do was cover most of France and Belgium during a three-week buying trip and fill a 20’ container with desirable French vintage pieces that would sell like just-out-of-the-oven pain au chocolat as soon as we opened.

It all sounded relatively straightforward and simple and given that we had only recently escaped the world of corporate briefs and staff and clients asking us to jump higher with tighter budgets and shorter deadlines we felt liberated and in control with our new venture. How wonderfully naïve we were.

We arrived early at our first déballage in Avignon firing on all fours and eager to play the necessary theatrics with the mostly western, some eastern European dealers to negotiate an agreeable “prix pour export”. A déballage is a huge event held every few months in various cities around France and you are literally buying from dealers out of the back of their trucks in open paddocks in all types of weather. We tend to head to France each year for the large fairs in Beziers, Avignon, Montpellier and Le Mans.

So there we were back in September 2011 along with a few hundred or so other buyers in Avignon for our first real experience buying at a déballage. We had our official papers ready to show and assumed we would go through the gates in an orderly manner, get the formal nod that we were allowed to be there and then have a lovely wander around over the next five hours while we contemplated if we should buy an armoire or two, how about some wonderful zinc, time for lunch yet?

Restaurant in Avignon

A gorgeous restaurant in Avignon that I have always admired but never visited. Next time!

The gates opened at 8am sharp and after a round of applause it was game on. And you run! And you keep running! And because it was our first time we ran and ran but had absolutely no idea where we were heading. A few hundred metres in and the crowd started to disperse off to the left and to the right and into one of several massive undercover warehouses that house the more fragile or expensive pieces.

I think it took us until 10am to figure out the lay of the land and how on earth this whole déballage buying thing was supposed to work. So in a nutshell the dealers who are selling open the back doors of their trucks just as the gates open. They are not allowed to unpack or set up beforehand and we assume this is so that the dealers don’t all start intermingling and begin buying from and selling to each other before the fair opens.

As each truck is unloaded (slowly as the dealer tosses back un café and puffs on a Gauloises) you start to get a feel for their goods and whether they are selling your type of thing. If yes then you stand there trying to attract their attention without waving your arms around in a “hey I’m new to this and just got off a 24-hour flight and perhaps have a little too much adrenalin coursing through my veins right now” kind of way and start asking for their best export price in a tone that you hope sounds as though you’ve been doing this for years. Their first price is always outrageously high – you respond and offer very politely up to 30% less with a bit of a twinkle in your eye that you hope comes across as “remember me, I’ve bought from you before”. If they decide you’re being rude, unfair with your price or just acting like a weird foreigner you may very well end up being ignored.

Bartering has to happen quickly and playfully with both parties knowing that the other is speaking un petit peu of crap. “But this wood has the worms in it.” “But of course, why not, it is old.” “How old?” “Je sais pas exactement but 19th century it is possible.” Surprising how the vast majority of pieces are 19th century – quite a broad time range really in the scheme of things. Other buyers are constantly breathing down your neck and gatecrashing your negotiations; we have been gazumped numerous times on wonderful pieces that we would have loved to have bought but just weren’t fast enough in the final stages of agreeing on ‘best price’.

We ended buying very well and sensibly on that first day without ‘too much excitement’ as the French say but it was the knowledge we acquired that we thought was the most valuable gain. So after the Avignon déballage closed at 1pm we jumped in our diesel-grunting rental Dacia that we had nicknamed BJ Duster and took off through the Camargue region with its pink flamingoes and wild white horses and drove as fast as we could to spend the night in Montpellier before the biggest and most competitive déballage of them all.

Deserted house in the Camarge area

We drive past this deserted house in the Camargue area often. What's its story?

The last thing we needed that afternoon after a very early start and a full day was for the sat nav to take us through the historical centre of Montpellier with its narrow one-way streets and exit us onto the main, roughly-cobbled and stepped shopping mall loudly signposted for pedestrians only. The gendarme looked horrified and told us the only way to get out of the area was to drive very, very slowly with our hazard lights on along the tram tracks. Mortifyingly embarrassing.

We arrived early the next morning at the huge Montpellier Parc des Expositions armed with dockets, labels, stickers, comfy shoes, water bottles and confident we now knew how it all worked. At 7.45am Matt turned to me and whispered: “So this time when the gates open and people start running, run as fast as you can to the far side of the déballage. That way we can start buying quickly and quietly while everyone else is still covering the first half like a group of antique-hungry locusts and we can then make our way back towards the entrance through rows of untouched trucks.” Brilliant idea Matt. So we ran like scatty French hares for a few hundred metres only to be met by a moving wall of buyers running from the entrance gates on the other side of the stadium area. Yep. Two gates to this one. Double whammy. Crushed. Mentally and physically. Back to square one with déballage-buying confidence.

A deballage in full swing

A déballage in full swing. Big characters, great finds and stuff you wouldn't take home for free.

Despite the appalling start we ended up making great connections that day – people we still buy from years later and we now know where their truck is located and where to run ... bonus!

Chocolate scales from L'Isle sur la Sorgue

Gorgeous scales out of an old chocolate shop in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

In the end and after four big days buying at déballages in Avignon, Montpellier and Beziers and a short but expensive visit to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue we had the start of a fabulous looking inventory of French vintage pieces: a stunning sideboard with 36 drawers out of an old epicerie; a wonderful set of scales originally from a chocolate shop (think Chocolat); a pair of toleware tulip wall sconces; a superb 1920s Louis Vuitton trunk; a huge stand-alone 1950s green and gilt mirror that looked like it should have been on the set of Alice in Wonderland; a crazy church seat with numerous pigeonholes from the 1700s, as well as the usual paraphernalia such as French bread boards, zinc tubs, grape baskets and wine bottle carriers among numerous other things.

Our vision for our business was finally becoming tangible and our confidence grew. After sorting road freight it was time to head east to Marseille. I had read that a small brocante market is held regularly on the outskirts of this slightly grungy but wonderfully intriguing old fishing city, a city that we love but still scares us each time we visit. Little did we know what we would discover when we got there.

Until my next post …

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2 Responses


14 November, 2015

Thanks Carole, I’ve put off writing a blog for years but actually really enjoyed doing it. Glad to hear you enjoyed reading it and there will be many more to come – we have a lot of stories we want to share!

Carole Fitzgerald
Carole Fitzgerald

13 November, 2015

Hi Penny loved your first blog , got a laugh when you were racing across one way and met shoppers coming towards you the other way , two entrances tricked you that day ! I look forward to seeing Matt,s blog next. It captured the atmosphere of driving into unknown territory and the thrill of the chase a bientot

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