This month Ruth Wood is full of second-hand information
Buying second-hand furniture
Extreme sports are not really my thing but I do enjoy the little adrenaline rush I get when we visit our favourite brocante shop in Brittany. It has this patch of floor where the boards sag and creak and feel treacherously thin. Stepping on them feels like a game of Breton roulette. Will this be the day I fall to my doom or will I successfully cross into the main showroom? Place your bets. Place your bets.
Happily, it’s a game we’re willing to play because the shop is brilliant. It would be a lazy cliché to say it’s a treasure trove and Aladdin’s cave, but it’s a treasure trove and Aladdin’s cave. For starters, the long shop window is filled with rows of beautiful chipped enamel coffee pots. Inside there are three cavernous rooms, populated with a mishmash of heavy furniture and random stuff – butcher’s blocks and blanket boxes, pizza ovens and postcards, 1960s coffee tables and 1980s vinyl. Formidable hulks of wardrobe line one wall like portals into Narnia and at one time there was an old caravan inside selling crêpes and coffee.
I’ve only ever bought one piece of furniture from the shop, a gorgeous honey-coloured dresser. But Mabel, my daughter, always comes away with something, be it a miniature porcelain pig or an ancient key to nowhere. “C’est combien?” she’ll ask the owner, proffering her loose change and, more often than not, he waves her off, saying it’s “un petit cadeau”.
We’ve been browsing brocante shops (I can’t help pronouncing it the Italian way so that it rhymes with Chianti) for years and years. Yet the moment we bought a French property and actually needed to furnish it, suddenly we couldn’t find anything. We’d walk into a shop determined to buy a chest of drawers and come out an hour later with a soapdish.
I’d always imagined relaxed afternoons pottering around vide-greniers in various villages. But in all my years in France I’ve never actually seen one of these legendary attic clear-out sales. This puzzles me because in the summer it seems every inch of municipal surface in Brittany is plastered in posters advertising either attic sales or a circus that’s coming to town. You’d think it would be difficult to move for junk and jugglers, but no.
So, I’m indebted to the local expat builder who told me about Emmaüs and the Croix Rouge. These charities have fantastic shops all over France selling old furniture at rock-bottom prices. At the Red Cross shop in Ploërmel we snapped up a bedside cabinet, a chair and a shoe rack for €30; at the Emmaüs store in Pontivy I got some lace curtains for €3.
Then my neighbour Virginie introduced me to the cash-andcarry shop Happy Cash and also to leboncoin.fr, France’s answer to Gumtree. What a great website! You can buy anything from a pram to a property. The only problem is that you often have to talk to someone on the phone and be good at taking down addresses in French. One morning I called a lady to arrange picking up a kids’ bike. She was about to go out for the day and suggested we rendezvous in a village called Trehorenteuc.
Treo what tuck? I’d never heard of the place and began to panic. I made the lady spell it out twice the long way – “T comme Thomas, R comme Raphaël, E comme elle, H comme hibou, O comme orange, R comme Raphaël, E comme elle, N comme non, T comme Thomas, E comme elle, U comme Ursule, C comme chat.” By this time it was getting dark (only joking) and I wondered if we really needed the bike. But when I put the name into satnav, there it was. Trehorenteuc. And you know what? It’s a lovely village and a perfect base for exploring the famous Forest of Brocéliande. I guess that sometimes a bargain hunt really can lead you to treasure.