Tucked away in a forgotten passageway, between the upmarket fashion boutiques of Place des Abbesses and the fall from grace to the seedy strip of Pigalle, you’ll stumble upon one of the most unusual and captivating spaces in Paris: Tombées du Camion. It will seem like you stumbled upon this mystery shop even if you set out intent on going there. From the métro Abbesses, one of the deepest in Paris, you face a dizzying 36m climb up a brightly decorated spiral staircase. The first thing that comes into view when you emerge is an antique carousel, the white whale of the Sacre Coeur looming beyond. Just a five-minute cobblestoned stroll away, hidden treasure awaits.
I pass hour after happy hour behind the counter — miraculously, gainfully employed in France — but never know quite how to sum up what we sell there. To step inside this bizarre bazaar for the first time is to step out of synch with the rest of the modern world. Time stops; I feel a little dirty checking the clock on my iPhone4, by far the newest thing in the store.
So don’t be surprised if it takes a moment to recalibrate as you contemplate this concrete cave of vintage ephemera, illuminated by industrial lamps and lined with old wooden boxes and oversized specimen jars — everything in its right place. Lots of things. Strange things, hoarded from the cobwebbiest corners of factories in secret locations around France. Unused wooden bar tokens, bicycle-shaped sunglasses from the Tour de France, packets of toilet paper circa 1950s, now objets d’art repurposed to have no purpose. Most items are fabrication française, like the Gauloises issued to French troops in World War II (consumption not advisable), a cloud of nostalgia now that everyone in the smoking capital of the world puffs on electronic cigarettes.
Sift through postcards that play an old song when you place them on a turntable; plunge your hand into a beaker of miniature plastic babies. And if you feel hundreds of eyes on you, don’t be alarmed. The eyes are an idée fixe: beady taxidermy eyes, disembodied dolls’ eyes that wink inscrutably from under thick lashes; round ones in delicate blown glass, perennially surprised. And that’s not all. Once you’ve had you’re fill of eyes, you can move on to all manner of mismatched body parts: heads, arms and legs and even white plastic femurs, the oldest items in this macabre catalogue dating from 1900.
You would have to come to the conclusion that Charles Mas, the procurer of this vast array of bibelots, bits and bobs, is a grown man who plays with dolls. When we met for my job interview I was expecting an elderly miser with a pipe. But the guy who drives the camion of Tombées du Camion — enigmatic and intense, never glimpsed without his leather biker jacket — embodies a new breed of brocanteur.
“Je suis un peu maniac,” he warned me at the beginning of my trial. No shit. Looking around the store, improbable combinations of knickknacks in meticulous patterns along the walls, it would be hard to disagree. But it’s also immediately clear that there’s a sense of humour behind the way they are brought together, in harmony or discord, anachronistically, sometimes in poor taste. Like the naked rubber belly dancer (my favourite item to demonstrate) next to glinting crucifixes priced at 33 euros.
Charles is the kind of man who will look you straight in the face and tell you that there’s poetry in a ping-pong ball — a stretch even for a Frenchman. And the strange charm of his concept store is, it’s completely believable. He’s not afraid to get all literary about it either, likening the way people respond to these unassuming artifacts to the madeleine de Proust; how a trinket worth almost nothing (represented by the French ‘madeleine’ sponge-cake) can impart profound joy and trigger memories.
For me, it’s a bit like working in a surrealist supermarket, or in an Escher painting, where every item could repeat ad infinitum. Even though it’s a bit magic as far as first jobs in France go, it’s still a job like any other. There’s a first time for everything, even the banal: cashing my first French cheque, washing French piss off the sidewalk etc.
But excursions outside the ordinary are frequent. A typical day will likely bring a woman who buys a brooch in the shape of a sexy stilettoed leg for her amputee friend. Or a Brazilian artist inflating female condoms in-store after squeezing some delicate celluloid babies inside. An elderly man enquiring if we have doorknobs, poignées de portes, disappointed to learn we only carry coffin handles, poignées de cercueils. (I’ve amassed a pretty strange vocab list.) A surprise visit from the boss, who will breeze in for as long as it takes to explain the function of a WTF item (that metal rod is actually for crushing sugar cubes) and assign a task I’ve never been asked to perform elsewhere (polish these rusted antique keys with steel wool — but not too much, or they won’t look authentic).
It’s fun here. The eyes wink at me. And I wink back.
Tombées du Camion has just opened its second stunning boutique at the Marché aux Puces, Marché Vernaison, allée 1, stand 29. Du samedi au lundi, de 10h à 18h. Venez voir!
Photos of Tombées du Camion Abbesses by Louise Carrasco