I drove up to Arnage, on the outskirts of Le Mans, a foggy drive through the deepening evening. I found the chambre d’hote and was shown to my attic room in a large house with high ceilings and polished wood floors, sitting neatly behind tall railings. Dinner was just down the road at La Vieille Cloche – a genial little restaurant, with at least three tables of good humoured dealers. We would all be at the Déballage, the dealer’s fair, at 8am the following morning. I was content to sit quietly over dinner with an agreeable half bottle of St Nicolas de Bourgeuil, a local Loire wine, and my brocante magazines.
At 7.30 next morning I drove in through the back entrance of the Parc des Expositions, a ruse a dealer had shown me last time to avoid the long queue at the main gate. A flutter of excitement in my stomach at seeing the car park already a mass of white vans, everyone waiting for the 8am opening. I came across Therese, the lovely dealer from Normandy, in time for a quick coffee together at a counter then, “hop”, it was 8am and time to go to work. Men were rushing up and down the aisles with great intensity and focus. I preferred a more reserved approach and took my time, mindful of the capacity of Sylvie and of the stock I already held.
There were three very large hangars with dealers unpacking their vans directly onto their pitches inside, and then there were the outside pitches. As Therese said, here was where the negotiating could be “plus spontanée,” more spontaneous. I bought two lovely small oil paintings – a portrait of a girl, and a primitive oil painting of the quaies in Paris all greys and creams, with bare, black tree branches.
A second coffee with Therese at 10am, this time in a vast, functional cafeteria. As I queued to get the coffee Francis, a dealer I’d contacted and had bought from often, came over. “We’re not selling today, but my wife brought some things for you. Shall we meet in le parking afterwards?” Inside we found Nathalie who had laid out a beautiful stand, and stopped to talk and admire.
I always value getting to know people better, hearing their stories and their plans, so I was glad for the time with Therese, who I had also been buying from for a handful of years. A growing sense of connection all round. We continued a foray of the outside pitches and I bought a lovely pair of weathered stone urns and a marvellous carved wood, gilded and painted, coat of arms from a Belgian dealer.
A price was agreed with another dealer for a large cupboard. As we talked a small plane took off from the nearby airport. “Tenez,” he said, “you will remember where my stall is, I am just beneath the aeroplane!” He later kindly helped me get the cupboard back to the van and, seeing the English number plate, he said, “Ah, that explains the petit accent exotique.” Exotic, English, well.
Martine was in the back of her van handing out bundles of linen to me. Ten minutes later I’d bought a large collection of beautiful white linen monogrammed napkins and an armful of lovely linen tea towels with characteristic red stripes. Always admiring of the skill and fine work of the countless women who spent so many hours with needle and thread.
The car park slowly emptied by lunchtime, the last people still loading up wardrobes and buffets as I drove off. I’d make a couple of quick visits en route and be at Ouistreham in good time for dinner and the ferry home.