I spied an unusual black hat, flat on top with velvet trim. Its tufted silk had a familiar look, but I couldn't place it. "Combien?" I asked the shopwoman.
"Deux cents francs," she replied, which I calculated as roughly $28.
"Nice, but a little expensive," I countered, replacing it deliberately on the pile.
"It's a judge's hat," she said cheerfully in French. I was sunk. As a lawyer, I had to have it. We danced around the price pleasantly until the prized chapeau was doubly irresistible.
This was the marche aux puces de Saint-Ouen, to the north of Paris, which some call the largest flea market in the world.
No American flea market experience had prepared me for its magnitude, more like a densely packed village with specialty neighborhoods.
The merchandise ranged from inexpensive souvenirs on the outskirts of the market to veritable antiques, many older than America itself.
There are other flea markets in Paris - at Montreuil and Vanves - but this is the oldest and most popular. It is estimated that more people visit Saint-Ouen flea market than go to the Eiffel Tower.
Saint-Ouen is actually a dozen different markets, spread over 15 acres, open primarily on the weekends. It has evolved at this spot for over a hundred years, and it is the place for browsers as well as connoisseurs.
Interior decorators come here for period furnishings, and Hollywood stars such as Sharon Stone have been seen shopping for their mansions.
There is also a cross-section of vendors: everyone from recent immigrants selling African artifacts to elegantly coiffed women presiding over precious antiques.
We started our explorations early on Saturday morning at Marche Vernaison, the oldest market. Stalls spilled exciting goods into the open-air aisles: antique silverware, beads, tapestries, antique postcards.
My friend was interested in religious vestments, and we asked until we found Stand 33, run by Didier Schuler. The proprietor spoke excellent English, and asked which century we were especially interested in, 16th or 17th? He brought out exquisite, heavily embroidered sets for her, some laden with gold metal accents and fringe.
Meanwhile, I tried on black, full-brimmed, turn-of-the century hats. Tapestries and other textiles lined the walls of the stand and filled the tables. My friend settled on a beautiful black stole with gold embroidery, a bit of history for less than a new one would have cost her.
At the Marche Biron next door, a stall specialized in detailed silver Russian icons, with a few older ones painted on wood. The chic proprietress assured us that the items were of museum quality - they had prices that matched.
We passed leather-bound books, embroidered linens, a stall with old dolls, fountain pens, toy French railroad trains, and then were back at the street.
At Marche Serpette we hunted down antique Louis Vuitton and Hermes luggage, and found a stall that featured large steamer trunks with wooden frames as well as small handbags in excellent condition.
A nearby merchant had similar old luggage and a collection of classic French millinery.
By then it was time for lunch. We stopped at popular Cafe Paul Bert, attracted by the huge salads the sidewalk diners were eating.
Inexpensive dining - in the form of crepes and sandwiches - was available on the edges of the market from stands, but the ambience of the cafe was inviting, and we longed to rest at a comfortable table.
I opted for a delicious Salade Nicoise and my friend had a Salade aux Quatre Fromages. We topped them off with a couple of espressos, and were restored sufficiently to resume our explorations.
Many vendors had set up at simple tables or even directly on the sidewalk, offering everything from old passports and toys to household goods. At one small table, a woman was selling old printer's stamps. We pressed the stamps from stamp pads onto the paper she had provided, and magically, dogs, letters, and zebras appeared. The small stamps were beautiful in their own right: wooden handles with delicate metal faces; several were bought and added to our shopping bags.
Outside a shop at the corner, lacy dresses from the 1920s hung alongside silk slips. Inside the tiny shop, was a veritable costume museum.
Hanging from the ceiling were dozens of charming hats and handbags, and boxes filled with ribbons and trims lined walls. An odd black taffeta confection of multiple layered leaves - meant perhaps to grace the shoulder of a jacket or the top of a hat - caught my eye. A serious French couple appeared to be shopping for historically accurate accessories, perhaps for a theater production.
Marche Malassis, the newest market, is a pleasant two-story building with its own restaurant. Opposite the fountain in the enclosed central plaza is a large store with bins of old graphics, postcards, beaded flowers.
There, ancient liturgical music filled sheets of parchment. Inside the shop was a collection of umbrellas and walking sticks, and unique metal irons used for making silk flowers.
On the fringe of the market, are stalls and markets that cater to a younger crowd, with CDs, newer recycled clothes, military surplus, incense, Eiffel tower key chains, and inexpensive scarves. The strains of a live accordion wafted from a nearby cafe.
As I left the market, I felt judicious with my new black hat, and mused about the history I witnessed in this spot.
If you go to the Saint-Ouen flea market
What: Marche aux Puces is open Saturday and Sunday, roughly from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Some vendors are also open on Monday.
How to get there
By Metro: Line 4, ending at Porte de Clignancourt. Exit at the final stop and follow the crowds, passing under the overhead Peripherique Road to rue des Rosiers.
By Bus: Line 85 runs from the Luxembourg gardens on left bank of Paris, across the Seine with great views of Notre Dame and the river, through the Marais and Montmartre, with a sighting of Sacre Coeur, and has a couple of stops in the heart of the flea market (Marche aux Puces and rue des Rosiers). The bus is not only a sightseeing treat on its own, I find it more convenient because it puts you much closer to the markets than the Metro.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor