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April 2003 - The Old Tool Fair at Bievres

May 1 is Labor Day in France, the only holiday for which a day of rest is legally required. What better way to celebrate this day than to ponder the labor of artisans of old at a fair devoted to antique tools? Those visiting Paris at this time of year will have the opportunity to do just that in the nearby town of Bièvres.

Bièvres (population roughly 4,000) is located just 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) south of Paris. By train, one can make the journey in approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. In the United States, antique tool collecting has a large following, and old tool fairs there attract large crowds. France holds only three such fairs a year with the biggest in Bièvres. Last year the town hosted between 90 and 100 tool dealers and attracted about 10,000 collectors and browsers, in spite of cloudy skies and intermittent showers.

To get to the center of town (the location of the fair) from the train station, turn left on rue de la Gare, then right on rue du Petit Bièvres. The road slopes steeply upwards, but soon you will see the tool dealers displaying their wares at the top of the hill. Some simply spread lengths of canvas on the sidewalk and lay out the tools neatly. Others set up makeshift tables perched on sawhorses or stacks of boxes along the street.

The displays of tools stretches from the top of rue du Petit Bièvres down to place de l'Eglise and beyond, lining both sides of the street. Old hand tools of all sorts, bearing the patina of age, are on display - implements for pounding, gouging, prying, twisting, drilling, and shaping abound. Many of the tools once used for working wood - planes, hatchets, squares, compasses, and saws - have served craftsmen in barrel making, clog making and wheel making, among other trades.

Thierry, one of the dealers at last year's fair, enjoyed a brisk business from his cluttered display. He told Entrée to Black Paris that interest in ancient tools was piqued when North American tool collectors began buying old tools in France about 50 years ago. A resurgent interest in old trades occurred in France about 10 years ago, and has further stimulated the appeal of old tools.

A furniture restorer by trade, Thierry started selling old tools to leather workers, stone carvers, cobblers and craftsmen in the woodworking trades. He observed that the steel in old tools is of better quality than the steel in new ones. Old tools were built to last for two or three generations of workers. He indicated that the most avid tool collectors, including traders from England and other countries, arrive in the morning to buy up the rare pieces, and are gone by noon.

Both professionals and amateurs can participate in the fair, but they must be screened for the authenticity and quality of the tools that they plan to display. Among the more unique participants joining the ranks of the exhibitors and traders this year will be a group of lacemakers. The day's activities traditionally include demonstrations by artisans of various trades.

Once the effort of perusing the tool stands works up your appetite, you will certainly want to turn your attention to the food stands on place de l'Eglise, in front of the church. You will see several men cooking sausages over a long barbecue grill. Don't attempt to resist the enticing aroma of grilled merguez (cooked sausage) slathered with mustard and cradled in a demi-bagette (bread that is roughly the same shape as a hot dog bun). In exchange for a ticket, which you purchase from the person managing the cash box, you will receive the hot sausage sandwich. Then you can sit down at the tables provided and enjoy the barrel organ music played by the man in the square.

Bièvres also boasts a museum devoted to old tools. A visit here is a special treat, especially for youngsters. Run by a nonprofit organization called Les Amis de l'Outil (Friends of the Tool) or L.A.D.O., it is the tangible expression of the group's goal to preserve the patrimony of artisanal labor. L.A.D.O. collects tools used by craftsmen of all trades, from the watchmaker to the barrel maker. The museum, which was inaugurated in 1996, is only open on Saturdays and Sundays during the second and fourth weeks of the month.

The museum will not be open on May Day this year, as the holiday falls on a Tuesday. But the collections that it houses are so unique and wide-ranging that it merits a return visit.

The old tool fair at Bièvres is a wonderful, homey experience, with its hurdy-gurdy music, village atmosphere and down-home food. But more significantly, it is also a marvelous emporium for tool lovers.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2003