When market becomes museum

The St. Michel Flea Market offers more than just vintage goods

Critics of contemporary consumer culture often claim that there is little intellectual stimulation to be found in shopping. What this perspective fails to take into account, however, is those few unique places where a shopping trip can lead to something decidedly different. The St. Michel Flea Market is such a place.

Entering the market is like creeping up the cobweb-ridden stairs of a grandparent’s attic, into a world that is somewhat foreign and utterly fascinating. The two-storey warehouse is packed with intriguing merchandise, which you can discover by strolling through the labyrinthine passages that snake their way between various vendors. The St. Michel Flea Market isn’t just about shopping, it’s about discovering. Everything for sale is vintage and secondhand, spanning an incredible range from vintage clothing and old books, to antique art and furniture, in a variety of price ranges.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” said one shopper, who was browsing the aisles, keeping an eye out for vintage games. The thrill of the unexpected seems to be one of the things that surprises first-time visitors, and undoubtedly keeps them coming back.

The market attracts a range of people as wide as its stock, from thrifty students – “a lot of people like you!” laughed one vendor – to middle-aged couples on weekend dates, and even to industry professionals.  Frances, who runs the market with her partner Steve, pointed out that people from the film industry “rent all kinds of stuff [that they] would not be able to find in stores.”

Perhaps even more charming than the treasures for sale are the people doing the selling, most of whom are exceedingly friendly and more than willing to indulge in conversation with a curious shopper. The overarching attitude of the vendors was that selling at the St. Michel Flea Market is much more than a mere business venture.  “It started out as a hobby, and it turned into a job,” one vendor remembered, speaking from within a stall crammed with a startling selection of vinyl records, as well as vintage audio equipment.

After speaking with several vendors, it also became clear that there was no single path that led them to the market. One vendor attributed it to sheer necessity – “I have all this stuff, and I have to get rid of it.” Another described his entry into the flea market world as “an accident,” which turned out to be so much fun, he kept on going. Encountering people with such enthusiasm for the idiosyncrasies of vintage goods is one of the many things that makes a trip to St. Michel far more of a cultural experience than a commercial one.

Originally, while under different management, the market sold only new merchandise. This strategy was less than successful; the market started with over one hundred kiosks, but “within three months, the whole thing went down to almost zero,” Frances explained over the phone. “That’s when Steve and I took over” she continued,  “and we built it on antique, collectible, and used merchandise, and we’ve been working on it for twenty years.”  With overheads significantly lower than those on permanent stores, commercial space comes at an attainable cost.

This notion permeates the market, where it is apparent that creativity and curiosity oust commerce as the go-to business model. This is not a place to quickly pick up a needed item, but rather one to while away the hours poring over peculiar knick-knacks that evoke a time and a place all their own.