The best car boot sale on the planet, in my experienced view, is in the Rhone-Alps region of France, in a little village called Leyment, and is held in early September. Actually, the permanent village is the centre of the event. However, the actual car boot sale, brocante or Vide Grenier, to give it its full, French names, stretches out from the village and fills the fields around it. The village becomes a town overnight. As this is the largest event like this in Europe, there are about 1500 stalls. The vendors move in on the Friday evening and stay until the Sunday night or Monday morning.
The weather is nearly always hot. The cereals in the fields have been harvested, the grass in the paddocks is bleached and straw like, so inviting thousands of people to come and pitch up for the weekend is a great way to use farm land in between seasons. Buyers turn up at first light on Saturday morning and most turn up with their shopping trolleys so that they can wheel their purchased treasures around. Shopping trolleys in France are used by everyone. If we’re being UK-stereotypical, the only people that use them in Blighty’ (UK) are old ladies with tartan versions. Over the Channel, its a whole different way of thinking. There are the old vintage trolleys, made of basket ware. There are the plastic versions, and for most people, its not a fashion thing. Its a work thing. This means that you’ll see a large man in a motorcycle jacket and big boots, hauling around what looks like his Grandma’s trolley, except its full of motorcycle parts or ‘men’s stuff’.
The buyers car park is equally big and very well organised. If you arrive at 10am, at least 4 hours after the first wave, its a bit of a walk from the car park fields to the shopping fields. The paths are well cordoned off to prevent accidents and local French Police are wandering around, chatting to people and generally just ‘being present’. On reaching the first fields of vendors, there is the first decision point. Do you walk around with your partner/spouse/friend/etc and hope that you’ll be interested in the same stuff and have fun together or agree to split up and meet at the church, in the centre of the village in 3 hours time for a ‘progress check’, which also means sharing out the remaining cash if someone has already spent up. For me and my wife, the latter is preferable. Shopping in this environment is a personal thing. Anyway, if you see something that needs a quick consultation, a quick call on the mobile works well. My wife and I agree to this approach on this day, so we head off in different directions.
The vendors are set up for the weekend with food, wine, chairs, tables, the dog, kids etc and there are adequate facilities for that many people in one place, all eating and drinking.
France is a cycling country, so if you’re into cycling stuff, you’re not going to be short of temptation with the sheer amount of stuff to look at. Bikes from every era and every type. Components, clothing, tools, old cycle shop signs, its all there. Take the biggest car you can get your hands on to get there, and one with preferably a roof rack, because you’re likely to need it. The vendors, like the buyers are interesting characters, so if you’re into people watching, you won’t be bored either.
At our last visit, I won the contest for buying the biggest, single item. A tandem.
I was on my first recce of the south side of the village when I’d noticed it, but carried on looking further at the many stalls. Time just goes so fast when you’re focussed on finding a gem. After meeting up for some lunch with my wife, we split up again and I got lost and ended up by mistake, where I’d seen the tandem earlier in the day. It was still there, although I noticed that a few of the other bikes that had been on the same stall, had been sold. Energised with a full stomach of lunch and with some post-beer-courage, I wander over casually to give it a closer look.
The tandem had been made by one of France’s greatest cycle manaufactures, Mercier, who had been based in Saint-Etienne in the south-west of France. This tandem I was looking at hadn’t travelled far from where it was made to where I was looking at it now. Mercier started making cycle components in 1919 and eventually moved onto to full bikes in 1930. In 1933, they started, and sponsored a professional cycling team, which they maintained up until 1983, which was 2 years before the company went bankrupt.
The vendor who was selling the tandem was an interesting character. He had brought all of his stuff to sell in a big, old and very yellow, Mercedes van. The back and side doors where open and its contents spread around it on the bleached grass. The man was selling stuff ranging from a stone fountain to an old china tea set, and everything else in between. He was medium height, about 50 years old, with a thatch of dark hair which was like a compass, in that it went in every direction from his head. His clothes were a bit grubby and he was chain smoking cigarettes. He had a straggly moustache, which was yellowed from years of nicotine. He had sharp eyes and I could feel him looking me over and coming to an unconscious bias driven opinion of me.
I spent some time looking at the tandem, fascinated by it components and condition. It was original in every way and complete, right down to tools in the leather pouches and an original bell, which had the shops name stamped on the top of it. I estimated that it was made just after the war, when production and cycling technology took off again in France. My first thought was a dangerous one, which was, will it go in the car?
The man came over to me casually and told me in French, that it was a rare machine. Un velo ancien! He went onto say that, with a little oil and a clean, it would ride like new. Hmmmm…..apart from needing a few parts like new tyres, some cables and brakes pads. The chrome had left the majority of its parts many years ago, but the whole thing was solid looking. The gears were very early types, and what must have been quite advanced for the day, was a big drum brake on the rear wheel which was operated by a lever on the handlebars. It was used as a drag brake when the fully loaded tandem would be going down hills, fast.
He told me that several people had been interested in the bike. I asked him in French, how much he wanted for the bike. This is the second level of commitment after working out that it would actually go in the car. He said he wanted €300 for it as it was special. I walked around the bike with my best ‘pondering expression’ on my face and with the beer courage coming to a crescendo, I offered him €180.
He was obviously offended by this offer and with much facial expressions and dismissive arm waving, he said he’d do €250. I’m starting to feel like I’ll take it for my price or leave it behind. I communicate this to him. More face pouting goes on and he’s down to €220. I say that we obviously arn’t making much headway in an agreement and I decide to leave it and walk away. He relents at this and says ok to my price, but he isn’t happy about it. I put my hand out to shake on the deal and he gives me a lacklustre handshake. He talks about being bartered down too much and talks such crap about not being able to eat tonight etc. He says the I mustn’t tell anyone on the site how much I actually paid for it because it would compromise his pricing and he wouldn’t be able to afford to eat tomorrow night either, or something like that anyway. By this time, I had hold of my new bike and started to head off in the direction of the car, although I didn’t actually know which direction the car was in to be absolutely honest.
The tyres had air in them, so it was easy to push along. It couldn’t be ridden at this point as the crowds were too dense (!). After a few minutes of weaving through the crowd,
I saw daylight ahead and jumped on my new acquisition and started riding. The bell worked well and was key to clearing my path ahead. With only me on a bicycle made for two, the French sense of humour was coming out. People were shouting things like ‘ you’ve lost your wife’ & ‘taxi! can I have a lift back to my car’. Fortunately, I couldn’t ride too fast because of the crowd, which was a good job, because none of the brakes worked very well as brakes, but as a laxative, they were great, and a few near misses (as we call potential accidents at work), took place.
I got back to the car, folded the back seats down and hauled my new prize into our estate car. It fitted. Phew! I walked back to the site in the mid-afternoon hot sun and phoned my wife to see where she was. No answer. I decide to continue browsing and get another hour in before I call my wife again. When she eventually answers the phone, I’m greeted with the ‘where are you?’. I explain and we agree to meet up somewhere. I do not declare the tandem at this stage.
My wife has bought a Swiss made, vintage Bernina sewing machine and is standing in the hot sun, frowning and looking like she’s had enough of hauling around a heavy sewing machine. She has as it turns out, so we both decide a grand day out has been had, and head off back to the car. We arrive at the car and I open the boot of the car with a proud smirk, and my wife peers in at the very long bicycle which is lying in the car. She’s intrigued and asks me ‘what are you going to do with it?’, because she’s not going on the back with me piloting it. Fact! I explain that it’s a restoration project and one which will reap a big(-ish) return when I sell it. She’s too tired to dispute this statement, for now anyway, and we have a cold drink before we drive back home.
True to my word, the tandem is restored and mechanically, but not cosmetically, as it looks very French-shabby-cool. After some research using the serial number on the frame, it turns out that my tandem has been made in 1939, at the outbreak of the war, so probably one of the last leisure bicycles to come out of the factory until after the war. I also find an original Cycles Mercier brochure for the year of 1939 and hurrah! it has my tandem in it. So, apart from some test runs, post restoration, and with only me on it again, it sits in my shed, ready to be sold………
‘Basket’ and ‘bell’ photos by the author
Both Tandem & car photos by Rodrigo Macip