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All the fun of the foire

Foires and vide-greniers are part of the fabric of life in every town, village and hamlet in France. Connexion's Sally Ann Voak ran a stall for the first time at the September Foire-a-Tout in Neufchatel-en-Bray, Seine-Maritime, and discovered that there can be a few challenges: including but not restricted to the weather, pushy dealers, parking, ubiquitous French forms ... and the early start. She explains all here, and offers a few hints for anyone thinking of taking a stall in future. 

Registering as a stallholder was the first test. Despite the low cost of space (€3 per metre), standard forms must be filled in, copies of passports sent, declaration of good intent completed and signed. 

Novice Sally shared a 3m space with neighbour Nenette Lasnel, who was a relative old-hand, with one previous foire on her CV - “Pas bon, Sally. Cinq euros de profit!” 

Our 'virgin vendeuse' did her research: "I consulted my pal Sheila Birkeshaw who buys and sells regularly in Charente," she said. "She told me to label items carefully, not to drop prices for the dealers, and, if necessary, attract the attention of the laid-back French customers by putting on a Cockney-style show." 

But Sheila added a worrying note of caution: "Be prepared for the inevitable lunchtime lull. As the Foire is on a Sunday, you’ll find interest from stallholders and customers goes downhill between ll.30am and 4pm, while they picnic or go off for lunch! 

"You will have to generate attention so be willing to be laughed at. If in doubt, grovel, but don’t hug people unless you know them well. This is France, not Petticoat Lane." 

Despite those sobering words, Sally and Nenette were confident: “With my Peckham market trader heritage, I thought I could wing it,” said Sally. 

“I dug out a couple of ‘80s glitzy evening numbers added jackets, belts, unwanted china and occasional tables, jewellery and my prize collection of Jimmy Choo shoes. 

"Nenette selected charming old Rouen pottery, toys and baby clothes from her niece, and a few new handbags which she had also acquired. 

"I persuaded my husband Pat to put on his Maurice Chevalier boater and warble away. We even held a rehearsal with plenty of vin to lubricate our vocal cords and polished up a few choice sales patter phrases. We couldn’t fail. 

“At 5am the next day, as we loaded up the car it was still pitch black. 

“We arrived in town, unloaded, started to get set up - and then the dealers pounced with their little torches quivering in the dark like frantic glow-worms. 

"I tried to pass off two garish vases as art deco to a dour-looking dealer, but no luck (no sense of humour, either). I should have accepted €3 for a ping-pong set as I later sold it for €2, but you live and learn.” 

At 8am, she said, with dawn breaking, the Foire officially opened with over 200 stalls in place. The customers started drifting in at 9.30am. So, why do they start these things so early in France? 

Sally said: “We booked a prominent pitch by the beautiful Notre Dame church, where the fish stall usually stands. This proved to be a mistake as the nearby Grande Rue was better for passing trade with locals en route to the bar for a Sunday tipple. 

“The wind picked up and we spent the next hour covering and uncovering the stall and my dresses as our collapsible clothes rail tumbled repeatedly. By 10am, it was raining hard. 

“However, my Singing in the Rain performance attracted custom and Maurice Chevalier’s rendering of Thank Heaven for Little Girls was well-received. 

"The vases sold quickly to a charming arty-looking lady, for €5, the jewellery went well and, hurrah, two ball gowns and a can-can number were snapped up by our doctor’s wife who runs a theatre group. A pretty grey off-the-shoulder jacket also went, and an elegant woman bought my size 8 blue silk skirt which she will wear at this year’s Reveillon. 

“I couldn’t persuade Sylvie, the Office de Tourism manager to invest in a shocking pink jacket, but Nenette shifted some pottery, a handbag, baby clothes and toys.” 

Sally’s other non-sellers: those occasional tables and the Jimmy Choo shoes (no-one had heard of him). 

“Not a great profit," she confessed. “We took about €60 between us which will go into the Ancien Combattants’ Christmas party fund. However, whole event was great fun and very, very challenging!” 

Foires are held regularly thoughout the year in Neufchatel-en-Bray. The next sale: October 3 to October 5, Salle des Fêtes, Vente-Echange d’Automne. Off-load clothes, shoes etc, or pick up bargains. For upcoming events in the town: www.ot-pays-neufchatelois.fr 

Tips for foire and vide-greniers novices 

  • Go for a pitch near a bar or restaurant. Wine and good food grease French wallets! 
  • Know your market: country people aren’t interested in Jimmy Choos (all that mud!) but love scarves, belts, jewellery, china and glass
  • Unload your goods, and then park outside the non-parking zone. Otherwise, if it rains, you will be stuck until the strict regulations say you can move. At Neufchatel-en-Bray, it was 6pm 
  • Make sure clothes rails and paste tables are stable enough to withstand high winds. Plastic sheeting is essential to cover goods during downpours
  • Polish up your singing, wear a waterproof hat, and find a Maurice Chevalier-type to croon and look after the money
  • Never buy from other stalls. You will have to carry it all back to the car

Readers with more tips and experiences, please advise Sally as she now has Foire fever

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