The Outdoor Louvre for Bargain Hunters

parismarketsmapFrom the NY Times, a quick study of the best Parisien flea markets.

Over the past two years, the giant Marché aux Puces de Paris/St.-Ouen has become cool again. Here’s some guidance for conquering the sprawling stalls.

St.-Ouen is the vast set of flea markets just north of the Paris city line. Getting to the Marché aux Puces de Paris/St.-Ouen was exhausting. It meant a ride on the No. 4 Métro line to the Porte de Clignancourt in the 18th Arrondissement and 15 minutes of jostling through a bazaar of cheap clothing, fabrics, leather goods, trinkets, cellphone covers, pots and pans.

St.-Ouen is so big (1,700 dealers in 14 markets spread over 750,000 square feet) that the only way to get around is with a map. There was a time when St.-Ouen was a place where tourists could hope to outwit the dealers. Decades ago, the columnist Art Buchwald wrote that it was a “hodgepodge of taste” where “one may find some precious thing the rest have overlooked, or he may have his pocket picked.”

The part about finding some precious thing (cheap, that is) became much harder as rents soared, the dollar sank, dealers catered to wealthy foreigners and the antiques market turned digital. Having your pocket picked, however, was never a challenge.

Over the last two years, St.-Ouen has become cool again, as a go-to weekend destination for young Parisians as well as foreign tourists. And not only for treasure-hunting.

 Woody Allen’s 2011 crowd-pleaser, “Midnight in Paris” made the flea market sparkle. (In case you don’t remember, Inez dips in and out of the stalls of Marché Paul-Bert-Serpette Puces de Paris St.-Ouen, the largest of the markets; Gil wanders off and makes the acquaintance of a French antiques dealer named Gabrielle who shares his passion for the Lost Generation. The message is clear: Anyone can go to Paris and find serendipity, beautiful objects and a soul mate.)

The perfect scarf: vintage Hermès scarves, many of them decades-old and in the softest of silks, start at 160 euros at Le Monde du Voyage in Marché Serpette. Helen and Alain Zisul also offer a selection of perfectly preserved Louis Vuitton trunks.

Old kitchenware: Call on François Bachelier at Bachelier Antiquités at Marché Paul Bert for enamel scales, heavy copper pots, enameled metal animal prize medallions, tin molds, advertising signs, kitchen utensils, southwestern French pottery jugs and pitchers and winemaking paraphernalia. At 350 euros, the three-foot-high, cast-iron apparatus in fire-engine red to cork wine bottles was a steal.

Old paper: Take a detour to Paul Maurel in Marché Vernaison at St.-Ouen. For 35 years, the shop has offered old travel posters, maps and flower and animal prints.

Costume jewelry: If you’re longing for native English speakers, also in the Marché Vernaison is Au Grenier de Lucie. Jason and Heidi Ellis gave up their jobs as sports coaches, sold their London home to move to Paris and opened up a vintage jewelry and accessories shop five years ago. If you’re not tempted by the alligator handbags, try a rhinestone tiara.

Old postcards and photographs: Take another detour up an escalator to the Marché Dauphine and call on Philippe Rault just inside the entrance. Try out his stereoscopes for a look at early 3-D. And at 15 euros apiece, you might walk away with the perfect gift: a 60-year-old aerial photo of a Paris neighborhood. If you’re not worn out, head into the main Dauphine area for some of the market’s best bargains.

But if such a singular adventure sounds exhausting, hire a guide to do all the work — and price-negotiating — for you. Henry Personnaz, a French interior designer, has made a hobby of giving small private tours of St.-Ouen. He can customize them to suit your tempo and your taste for any object — from a 19th-century oil painting to an Art Deco silver table setting.

If you want a brasher, nonstop, more American approach, contact Rachel Kaplan. She loves to show you what she calls “the deals”; she hates being interrupted.

“You know what I call the flea market?” she told a mother, daughter and grandmother on a private tour. “The Louvre — except you can go shopping.”

Some may call that the perfect Paris outing.