In truth, my legendary fleamarket is not what it was. Recently there have been only slim pickings, whether because we keep arriving too late – not being able to get up on time on a cosy Sunday morning in winter – or perhaps because some wily Black Narcissus reader or other living in the Tokyo region has cottoned on to this occasional Babylon of perfume heaven, pips me to the post, and does a wide sweep of the goodies while I am still fast asleep I don’t know, but it certainly is not quite what it used to be.
Or maybe it is simply that society itself I am living in is progressing and ageing and there just aren’t quite as many cast off vintage perfumes as there once were; perhaps granny’s closet is bare. What a shame if that is true, though. Although part of me really does think that it is time to start saving for my future quite seriously rather than just acquiring and accumulating scent, some of the bargains that I have picked up over the years at that place have been so cheap, and yet so thrilling, that in reality I wouldn’t change any of it for anything. It has been a wonderful ride.
I don’t know what has happened to those women who would sometimes be there, though, just selling vintage perfumes, those whose concessions I would approach saying to myself oh no, oh my god, what is that I see, dreading the effect on my wallet (these type of sellers were more canny about what they were selling – they were never dirt cheap like some other things you can find sometimes – a Calandre parfum or Miss Dior parfum de toilette might set you back thirty or forty dollars – but the fact that you had to be selective about what you were going to buy, that you couldn’t have everything there even though you did want it, gave a pleasurably agonizing tweak to the proceedings that tightened things up a bit and made things even more breathless.
I haven’t seen anyone like that recently. Usually now there will be just the odd perfume or two, nothing exciting, just tossed down in a box among other things (but then these are often worth having a look at in any case; I have a thing for Leonard vintage ties and got a great one yesterday (for a dollar): very seventies tropical, turquoise and black striped, of slightly questionable taste, but just to the right degree; there are still kimonos and oddities and the unexpected objet and stacks of clothes, so it’s worth a look, it’s just that in the last year or so it hasn’t been a bonanza: regular readers will know that in the past I have had plastic shopping bags full of perfume and not been able to buy anymore, as my inner shame was burning too bright; that I would then see one more wantable perfume standing there on some table or blanket or other and have to just.say. no.
My writing can be quixotic, so I can imagine that reading the concentrated version of events at my weekend ramblings might have sometimes given a slightly unrealistic and exaggerated impression of what the flea market was actually like. Readers have contacted me asking me where the place was, and whether I thought they would be able to pick up a Chamade parfum, (“will there be vintage Diorama?”) or a Caron Farnesiana. In your dreams. It has never been like that. Even in the most bountiful of times, ten years ago or so, there were weeks when there was no perfume at all. I think some readers imagined that this was a place for perfume, a ‘perfume flea market’ (perish the thought: I would be destitute), some gorgeous paradise for the perfume collector where cherished collectibles could just be picked up for a few hundred yen or so, but it was never like that, of course not, except for the very first time I went there and was given unrealistic expectations for all future visits when I came across one lady, Israeli but married to a Japanese man, who was selling off her mother-in-law’s collection of perfumes – all unused, all boxed, Guerlain and Caron extraits and the like, and I was practically having a brain haemorrhage racking my brain to see if I could afford it all.
I could. And I did (and even hoovering up practically her entire collection cost less, in total, than your average high end niche perfume now). But that was long ago, and these last few times I have been to the flea market, I can usually go round the whole thing in about ten minutes just to make sure I haven’t missed anything scent-wise, and not really find anything I want (except for the odd soap or two), and then just comb through it all again at leisure, afterwards, to look for other non-perfumed things that might catch my eye in any case. Still enjoyable, in other words – because I love the ambling, gentle mindlessness of it all – that lovely Sunday feeling where you feel delightfully detached from the week – just not exhilarating.
Yesterday was like that. Scant. The woman who always used to have gleaming, cellophane-wrapped parfums for my perusal still only had the tired bottle of Folli Follie she had from a few weeks ago. Other than that, there was hardly anything for the perfume hunter to get his hands on except for the lovely, always smiling and friendly necktie man who always has a few random obscure perfumes lying around as well (and always gives you discounts when you don’t even ask for them – I picked up the intriguing Nontiscordardime, or Forget Me Not, by Speziali Fiorentini, for 500 yen, or five dollars, from him at his bustling corner, as well as the aforementioned ties, and then, later, at another of those bargain bin type stalls, a Rochas Mystere parfum for three (now that is a bargain: Mystere is one of the most distinctive perfumes of all time: the earthy, peculiar ambered masterpiece really conferring on its wearer the quality of its name), so, in truth, I was happy. Two lovely perfumes for eight dollars, plus some plum blossom incense, and two ties. It was enough.
And then as we sat on the way to our friend’s birthday party later, negotiating the labyrinthine Tokyo metropolitan railway systems as the endless city sped past, I noticed that we were about to approach Jiyugaoka station, with its old fashioned arcade, and the one shop there that is always packed with vintage perfumes: if you are looking for Chanel or vintage Mitsouko, you are guaranteed to find one if you are willing to sort through the stack; and the greedy part of me, not entirely sated, wanted to get off at the station and have a quick look (addict!) before we went to our required destination: but I restrained myself (never easy, but it would have made us late), but I did, and anyway, I was really rather enjoying sniffing the Italian curiosity I had bought – (unbelievably, I had passed on this two weeks ago, practicing self-severity) – now realising that I had definitely made the right decision in buying this scent, as there is nothing else that quite smells like it – floral but woody, almost incensey; hazy but fresh – in my collection.
Speziali Fiorentini is one of the many artisan, Italian profumerie that exist across the Italian landscape simply to create rich and pleasing nice-smelling products you can enjoy wearing on your body, rather than the pretentious, verbose and over concept-heavy world of many independent niche perfumes. Another scent of theirs – Melagrana E Uva, a grape and pomegranate scent that Duncan has worn on quite heavy rotation, to the extent that I now definitely associate it with him – is a very rich and enveloping fruited amber that on a man smells quite baroque and plush, dressed up and replete. Nontiscordardime has the same, velveted base, reminding one of the smoke from scented hookah pipes, in this case possibly with a touch of sandalwood and other woods, something velutinous and tactile in the heart (which also has something of the distancing, almost marine ‘blueness’ of Eau De Givenchy) , while up top and sharp in the headnotes is a very enjoyably tart accord of what smells like green-touched violets singing with raspberries on a summer’s day (probably nothing like the smell of the flowers, incidentally, if they even have one – it’s so long since I have seen these little flowers from my childhood gardens in England that don’t grow here, and I remember them being scentless) – but it was this accord that I was dreamily enjoying yesterday, as we went on way our way to our next destination. Nothing dramatically exquisite or melancholic, true, just a really nice smell. But for an easy Sunday afternoon, just chilling in the capital with friends, for me that will definitely do.