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A button bonanza on Paris’ fringe

Baum is a Times staff writer.

Her fingers ran over the smooth red buttons with flecks of gold and the wavy sea-green buttons and the black buttons with ridges that made them look like miniature fans. Yoshini Kondo admired them all -- buttons sewn in lots of 12 on yellowing cards, buttons in every color and size, buttons in Bakelite, casein, ceramic, shell, wood, even silk thread.

But did she need old buttons in her life?

Does anybody need old buttons, or, for that matter, rusted old keys or 1930s posters advertising butter or tarnished brass cheese knives lined up in threadbare velvet boxes?

Kondo, a 40-year-old tourist from Japan, had come to the puces (literally, “fleas”) on the edge of Paris to poke around for old vases for her florist shop outside Tokyo, but she was distracted by the treasure-trove of the Button Man of France.

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And yes, she had a purpose: “I’m making a dress, so I need some,” said Kondo.

Eric Hebert has accumulated more old buttons than anyone in a country where people like to accumulate old things, and every weekend he sells them from his stall at the Puces de Vanves on the southern edge of the city.

It’s one of the many flea markets on Paris’ periphery, where they were born more than 100 years ago after ragpickers and junkmen were exiled for tax reasons beyond the city limits. Today, the most famous is the immense market in Saint-Ouen on the northern edge of Paris.

Saint-Ouen has everything. Except the Button Man, who prefers the more welcoming weekend market at Vanves.

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Really, don’t ask Hebert how many buttons he has boxed up in his basement, in a separate storage space and in a famous old button store in central Paris that just went out of business.

“Oh, please, no, don’t ask me how many I have,” Hebert said, closing his eyes and blowing air through his lips the way the French do when, really, there is just no answer.

As a boy, Hebert, who is now 42, collected stamps -- and other things. His mother was never allowed into his room because he was always dragging in new discoveries.

He grew up to be a businessman, but his passion was finding and selling all variety of treasures at flea markets.

Then one day he bought a carton of 1940s buttons from another brocanteur -- a person who earns a living selling at the puces and itinerant fairs that are an abiding habit of the French.

“It was the product that chose me,” Hebert said.

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In just about every French city and village, especially on warm weekends, vendors turn up with their folding tables in central squares and arrange the detritus of the ages, varying from the wildly expensive (antique jewelry and chandeliers) to broken toys and scratched vinyl records.

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Not quite the dustbin of French history, this universe has been going through difficult times. Over the last several years, a combination of Internet auctions, slower tourism caused by a weak dollar and the skyrocketing prices of some antiques have meant that a bargain is harder to find at the puces.

“I used to have American customers here every weekend, but now it’s once a month,” said Francois Bachelier, one of 1,800 merchants at the daunting Saint-Ouen.

And instead of buying a dozen items at a time without asking the prices, customers “fill out an order for one item, ask the price and then complain about how expensive it is.” Bachelier said his business had decreased by half.

But the Button Man thrives.

After that first carton of buttons, Hebert bought the entire stock of a sewing supplies shop (the first of many) that had been in the same family for three generations, and by 2003 he had a stand at the Vanves market.

With 350 sidewalk stalls in a slightly humdrum part of the 14th arrondissement, Vanves has more of a neighborhood feel than Saint-Ouen, which is so large it’s divided into its own neighborhoods.

Getting into the business during the leaner, more competitive times has given Hebert lower expectations than vendors such as Bachelier and others used to high profits at Saint-Ouen.

Plus, he said, there’s always a little cash for a $4 button.

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Some weekends, Hebert makes $400, but occasionally his sales go as high as $3,000.

His customers are antiques dealers, serious collectors (he once sold an 18th century metal button for $500) and tourists who are drawn to the colors and curiosity of his stall.

Unlike at most of the stalls at Vanves, where the customer keeps to one side of the display and the proprietor to the other, Hebert’s patrons roam freely all around the half-dozen large metal tables he piles high with stacks of button-covered cards.

The brimming display also attracts fashion designers, vintage clothing collectors, jewelers, people who customize shirts, shoes and bags and who run websites that sell his buttons. Several Japanese sewing stores rely on him for their vintage stock.

After articles about Hebert appeared a few years ago in Tokyo magazines, he ended up with so many Asian customers that he has learned Japanese and traveled to Kyoto to visit clients.

Tall, fair and redheaded, Hebert practically beckons in customers with his big smile and eagerness to explain his quasi-obsolete world of antiquated ornaments.

Talking with Kondo and her friend Sakiko Nagata as they paid for several lots of shell buttons, he offered details about how the fasteners were made, and he advised the women to visit a museum in Meru, a town 30 miles to the northwest of Paris that’s known for flat objects such as dominoes, buttons and slivers of mother of pearl.

“When farmers plowed the fields in Meru, where the buttons you bought come from, they would turn up shells in the dirt with their plows,” Hebert explained.

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Indeed, the puces speak to France’s appetite for history -- what the French would call patrimoine, a celebration of their heritage as a 1,000-year-old country.

At Vanves, the vendors on warm summer afternoons can’t be bothered to make the hard sell, especially around lunchtime as they gather at enticing tables of cheese, pate, fresh bread and, of course, red wine.

Yet, if you’ll listen, you’ll hear them expound at length on the provenance of their treasures. The more complicated and arcane the pedigree, the better.

After contemplating the Button Man’s display for the better part of a morning, Herve Salaun, a computer expert who lives nearby, described a lifetime of such flea market dalliances.

As a teenager in the 1960s and ‘70s, he went to Saint-Ouen to buy Fruit of the Loom T-shirts because they weren’t yet sold in French stores. Now he likes to discover things at Vanves, like buttons for old shirts with detachable collars.

“You find authentic things here that you don’t find elsewhere,” Salaun said. “It’s deeply painful, actually, because you don’t have enough room in your apartment for everything you want to buy.”

And much of it isn’t terribly useful. But given the choice between beauty and utility, the French go for form -- and are willing to create space even in their national budget for things that are old and extraordinary but have no relation to modern life.

Alain Dubet, a 73-year-old retired Air France executive, found himself buying 29 Bakelite buttons, many oversized and oddly shaped, from the Button Man for $177. He planned to give them to his niece, who makes belts and watchbands in her spare time.

As Dubet pays, the Button Man explains that he has a large stock of buttons at home just like the ones Dubet bought. In case he needs more.

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz and special correspondent Rebecca Ruquist contributed to this report.


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