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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Flea-market crate digging with Bert & Philip

The early bird catches the worm!

Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Koen Galle

It’s 6 in the morning on some sunny Sunday in August. While everyone is still snoozing, the small Walloon village of Bossut-Gottechain is buzzing with preparations for the yearly flea market. Along a lengthy stretch of asphalt hugging the railroad tracks, 650 merchants are setting up shop. The atmosphere is easy-going, despite the early rendez-vous and the many cars criss-crossing on their way to their appointed rectangle of pavement.

I’m here to meet with Bert and Philip, two gentlemen from Limburg who have made a routine out of these day-break scavenging trips. They’ve planned their route, covering three markets in the area, for these men mean business. With an unrelenting gait and all-seeing hawk’s eye, they inspect the goods in the blink of an eye. It’s my first time digging for gold with this pair and I just can’t keep up.

Both dig their way through a crate at breakneck speed, show each other their loot, make swift decisions, produce a few coins and are on their way. I’m lured into the foray myself, crouched over a stash and reeling in my first catch of the day: an old single by The Zodiacs, a Walloon New Beat band, from 1989 — thanks to Philips tips.

MEET THE PRO’S


Philip got hooked on hip-hop somewhere halfway through the 90s. His quest for the originals sampled in those records led him to black music from the 60s and 70s, including funk, soul, jazz, psych and latin. He’s sometimes seen selecting tunes in small cafes, but he wouldn’t call himself a real dj.

Bert on the other hand has a passion for disco. He used to roam the night as a dj and organised parties like Cocadisco and Walk The Night in his home town Sint-Truiden. Lately, those DJ activities have had to give in to his record-hunting habits, though. “Getting up early in the week-ends doesn’t mix well with staying up all night to spin records. But I’m still at it and I’m not intending to stop. I have so much good music I want to share.”

You’d think the gals at home might like a good croissant and fresh press juiced by the bedside on Sunday mornings, though. “They respect our passion”, Philip says. “They know we live for this stuff. It’s important to balance it all, though, not to just buy anything but to clean out the shelves every once in a while too. Sometimes my girlfriend joins me on a vinyl-foraging trip and we have a nice day out.” Bert agrees: “Sometimes my girl picks a few records out of the stack and listens to them. I love it when she does that.”

NEXT STOP: MORE DIGGING

Meanwhile, it’s 8 in the morning and our booty bag is growing heavy. No rest for the wicked, though, we have a second date to make. A half hour drive finds us in Limette, where the whole village is already out and about. Clearly, the few hours after sunrise are the best. “The early bird catches the worm”, Philip yells. And so we go back to the task at hand, with concentration and without looking back. “It’s hard work, you know”, Bert says. “We’re not here to promenade. We get up early and walk quite a few kilometres. Plus, you need some luck, you don’t always find anything good.”

“Mostly”, Philip explains, “we’re looking for obscure tracks. We don’t really care about The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. In Belgium, there have been thousands of releases by bands that are by now completely forgotten. And thanks to our central location in Europe, a lot of material from neighbouring countries, but also Northern Africa and other parts of the world has ended up here. Attics here are still real treasure troves.”

Clearly, there are regional differences between these kinds of flea markets. Bert elaborates: “In a city like Liège, people would listen a lot more to jazz than they would in Limburg. I often go to Wallonia to unearth Walloon disco, while Philip prefers Antwerp, Flemish Brabant and Limburg. The smaller the market, the better. That’s where it’s still authentic.”

COFFEE-INSPIRED PRO TIPS


It’s around 11 o’clock when we’re done in Limette and ready for coffee. I’m impressed with my companion’s finds, but quite proud of my own as well. While sipping a nice cup o’ joe, I pick Philip and Bert’s brains in order to distill the ten ultimate tips for successful crate-digging at flea markets.

1. Go early: the first few hours yield the most material. That’s when the connoisseurs, collectors, merchants and diggers are around. You’ll sometimes recognise them by the fold-up bike they use to go around faster.

2. Check the condition of a record: often, they come from attics and basements. Mould, cat piss and mice droppings can be dealt with, but scratches are the real problem. A minor smudge is acceptable, but a clearly felt groove is a no go.

3. Listen: you’re looking for things you don’t know yet, so it helps if you can listen to what you’ve found. It’s easily done with a portable pick-up, like those made by Soundburger or Fisher Price. A smartphone with Youtube works as well, but you won’t find everything there. The more obscure, the harder it is to find online.

4. Read the small print on the record and learn: who’s the producer? Who was in the band? Which label released the record? You always learn something and expand your knowledge.

5. Negotiate: it’s standard practice at flea markets, so not doing it would be strange. First ask for the price, then counter with a much lower but still acceptable proposal. The seller will add a few euro to that price and you can close the deal. If the asking price is 30 euro, propose 18 and you’ll end up paying 22. The more records you buy, the more you can haggle. Usually you’ll pay around 1 or 2 euro for a 12-inch and 50 cents for a 7-inch. Larger markets and famous bands often spike prices, as does the recent surge in the vinyl market. Small markets are the place to be.

6. Carefully pack up your finds: a small backpack or shoulder bag should do the trick. If you’re on the lookout for expensive 7-inches, a small case can come in handy. Don’t leave your records in your car on a hot, sunny day.

7. Listen to the sellers and talk to them: sometimes, they have a lot more gold at home.

8. Size matters: alternate between larger and smaller markets. The smaller ones have a better atmosphere and you might run into a nice bakery with real croissants.

9. Go for it: don’t be afraid, don’t hesitate. Be determined. A good poker face will get you a lot further than one shaped like a giant question mark. You’re not here to saunter, you’re here to score records.

10. Wet wipes are not just for babies: flea market records are always dust-covered. After digging through a few crates, your hands will be black and you’ll be happy to have something to clean them with. 

Thank you Bert Du Buisson & Philip Roosen for sharing your passion and experience! 
A calendar of flea-markets in Belgium can be found on http://www.rommelmarkten.be/
Pictures taken with a single-use camera.