Why second hand doesn’t mean second rate at French jumble sales

Bridget Jones’ fans will recognise that “vg” stands for ‘very good’… unless they live in our French neck of the woods. Here, any handwritten sign stuck up by the road with the letters ‘VG’ followed by a date and location means only one thing: it’s bargain-hunting time!

Yes, in south-west France, spring means a return of warm, dry weather, and the start of the ‘vide grenier’ season. It literally means ‘empty attic’, and it offers a chance to get your hands on some serious bargains, from clothes and shoes, to toys, small electricals and heaven knows what else.

As an Englishwoman, and a long-time fan of charity shops and jumble sales, I thought I had the French variation all worked out. I’d been to plenty of table-top sales in my time, and quickly immersed myself in memories of stuffy church halls, crammed with fold-out Formica tables  groaning under the weight of mountains of stuff.

For some reason, and I’m not sure why – maybe it’s because it I was born in the Seventies – the clothes piled high in my memory are always woolly and a particularly icky shade of brown.

That oddity aside, I remember with alarming clarity the people who would flock to these events: little old women who might look like a stiff wind would blow them over, but god help you if you went up against them in a fight for a floral-print curtain. I swear they sharpened their elbows, so that when they really got stuck in, they could break a rib or two in the melee. Rugby scrums had nothing on this.

There was no namby-pambying about either. If you spotted a flash of fabric or a pattern that took your fancy, there was no point in trying to be polite about it.

Pleas of “excuse me” went unbidden as the redoubtable army of pensioners on the buying side dug through to the items they wanted. Meanwhile, sellers confused matters by giving everything a good turn every five minutes.

And I adored them.

I loved the smells – that faintly unwashed, slightly dodgy whiff of stale sweat and unidentifiable body odour that is unmistakably jumble-saley. I relished the thrill of getting a fingertip on something that promised much, but would turn out to be something you wouldn’t wear even if you had a gun to your head.

Then, there was the profound glee of finally finding something that didn’t look as though someone had died in it, was the right size and cost only a few pence – oh the joy, the unmitigated pleasure of clutching it tightly in one hand while handing over a few shaken-out coins.

Maybe this is how those New Year sales in posh cities feels.

So, you can imagine how much excitement I felt approaching a similar event in my adopted home country. There were warning signs that things here – as always – are very different.

As a parent, I’m automatically entered into that wonderful, strangely random circle of people who hand-on old clothes for the children (those which, of course, aren’t saved for a vide grenier). While our cast-offs are most definitely clean and presentable, they are usually shovelled into a bin liner and hurled somewhere in the general direction of the attic.

However, when French friends were generous enough to pass on clothes, they were immaculate. Ironed to perfection, folded without a seam out of place. Not a stain or tear to be seen (and believe me, I looked). I began to wonder why I hadn’t seen any of our friends’ children wearing any of the clothes we had passed on, eventually embarrassedly asking myself if they had rejected them for, well, having looked like they had been worn.

I found out why last summer, when a friend asked me if I was interested in going to a vide grenier with her – not to buy, but to sell.

I had plenty of bags of stuff in the attic that wasn’t going anywhere, so I agreed. “There’s not much time to prepare” she advised me, before I looked at the calendar and frowned, thinking: “She’s mad, I’ve got two months.”

Spool forward six weeks or so later, and there I was, ironing until the wee small hours and pinning size labels on babygros, trousers, tops and skirts – and feeling quite pleased with myself for being so organised.

The morning of the vide grenier dawned bright and clear, and I set off to my friend’s house, before we all dutifully trooped off to a small town 40 or so kilometres away.

To this day, I’m staggered by what I experienced.

Much was the same: tables were laid out and preparations were well under way – some people had bent the rules and brought other items other than clothes for sale (I was told children’s clothes only), but as I laid out my carefullly ironed and labelled clothes, my friend set up what looked like an outdoor designer boutique, with racks and rails, saving the tables for shoes, toys and baby equipment.

What followed was a lesson in how to approach a vide grenier.

I was welcoming and let the customer browse unmolested. My friend was there with helpful advice and comments about how her daughter had loved such-and-such pair of shoes, and could she show the outfit that matched them perfectly? That’ll be 60 euros please…

During a hectic morning, my friend’s stall was by far and away the busiest of them all – and I’m not surprised.

She had spent literally months mending and sewing, putting on new buttons and polishing shoes. She had kept the original boxes for all her kids’ shoes, so she could show her customers the price she paid, and prove why six euros really wasn’t all that much to ask.

My friend had sweated blood over her stall, laying it out clearly and easily, with everything on hangers so people could look through them comfortably, rather than sorting through piles and piles of things. She even had a box of items that were a bit roughed up, selling for 50 cents each. She refilled it three times, to my knowledge.

While I watched in admiration, I also quickly learned the average French buyer is nothing like those feisty old English women of my memory. They are far, far worse.

It doesn’t matter that the clothes they are looking through are second hand, maybe even third. They expect perfection, and if they don’t find it, then they expect the price to come tumbling down.

I did my best to be confident, but every time I heard muttered comments such as “there’s a small stain there”, or “that’s got a hole in”, even though I knew both stain and hole to be tiny, I would be covered in shame. No, this was a very different world. But my consolation was that other stallholders were getting the same rough justice.

A woman on my left, who had seven times as much stuff as me to sell, cast a tired eye over her mountains of greying, velour baby clothes, and I felt a moment’s solidarity.

I ended up wishing I’d made more of an effort to present my wares better and filter out the bits and pieces that weren’t up to snuff. That said, I came away with a decent profit of about 75 euros – which I really wasn’t expecting. As for my friend? She made enough to cover most of the cost of her family’s summer holiday.

I don’t begrudge my friend the money she made, nor did I walk away from the vide grenier experience with a heavy heart. It was still a thrill – though this time it was the slightly different frisson of possibility and hope: that someone might come over and take away armfuls of clothes and leave my cash tin bulging.

I went with my family to a vide grenier last weekend at a local community centre. There was no stale smell, and it was midi (better known as lunchtime), so all was calm and quiet, but the racks and racks of clothes laid out with almost military precision made me smile. It was almost as I remembered English jumble sales to be, just with added French flair.