There is still no end of tat - rusty tools and battered magazines blowing in the wind on Brick Lane's open-air fly pitches. But, hurrying past the browsers with only pennies to spend is a new kind of buyer, with a wad of notes in his pocket, on his way to dealers with lock-up shops who offer a certain "look" for stylish interiors. In London's markets, you can now buy French provincial furniture, tribal art, rare scientific instruments, even designer tiaras. Will we soon see a world of interiors where there were once landscapes of old iron?
Rupert Thomas is deputy editor of World of Interiors. In his spare time he has co-authored Antique and Flea Markets of London and Paris, the product of six months of traipsing round markets, camera in hand. Now 32, he has been addicted to antique and junk markets since coming to London at the age of 12, and has dealt from his own stalls in Camden Lock, Portobello Road and Bermondsey.
His book does skirt round the tat (Brick Lane's bleak open-air yards get short shrift), highlighting instead committed dealers whose permanent shops and gallery stalls have an individuality, an interior world, of their own.
These are people who, he says, "push style in a certain direction - they are trying to break out of Grosvenor House and hit on a fairly affluent, youngish crowd. They have a clever eye. They are doing what people who work for interiors magazines are trying to do - mix together stylish curios in a fresh way. They are attempting to create a `look', to convey a lifestyle."
See whether your eye is attuned to the "look" of fashion designer Andreas Schmid's Sixties and Seventies gear in Spitalfields' Centre Market, or that of the Roughneck and Thug shop nearby, with its period quilts and curtains, men's and women's clothes, and eccentric selection of Scottish Highland jackets.
The kitchen is the easiest place to create a look. Old kitchenalia - stoneware jars, glazed jelly moulds - always look as if they have been in the family for generations. Kim Sinclair in Westbourne Grove, Portobello, heaps kitchenalia together with the odd quilt or pine chair. Hers is one of the most photographed shops in the market.
The French provincial look has been "in" for four or five years. Thomas puts a grey blob - indicating a favourite of his - against Tracey White's Corner Room in Camden Passage's Georgian Galleries. It is crammed with faded beigy, creamy painted furniture with dragged surfaces, chandeliers with enamel flowers, tickings and toile de Jouy.
Carved tribal figures look stunning when illuminated in a spare loft space. Try David Lewin in Portobello Road's Geoffrey Van Arcade. He also has English folk carving and textiles. But do not expect his tiny, crowded space to emulate the spare look.
A vintage slot machine for the hall? Ask Nic Costa in Camden Passage. Eighteenth-century pistol-grip knives for your carnivorous dinner guests? Visit Bill Brown in Portobello Road. These two have no equal on the high street; to find some things, you have to visit a market.
The book summarises the wares of specialist market dealers and has indexes of what to buy and where to buy it. It lists more than 650 dealers in London and Paris. Paris? If you thought Brick Lane was never-ending, you will be overwhelmed by the 15 acres of Saint-Ouen, containing 2,500 stalls along more than nine miles of aisles. And that's just one of the city's markets. Thomas's French co-author, Egle Salvy, a style journalist, provides sparser notes, which is not surprising. Junk fatigue must have set in.
Much of the French provincial gear on sale in London comes from Paris. To buy wisely, you had better know the French dealers' argot and dress properly. The same applies to London. Thomas relates that he found market traders here unaccountably tight-lipped when he approached them wearing a long "flasher-style" mac. It was not the hint of indecency that shut them up. They thought he was a tax man.
`Antique and Flea Markets of London and Paris' by Rupert Thomas and Egle Salvy (Thames & Hudson, pounds 12.95)
Three to Visit
Work by young designers and contemporary makers. A good place to look for popular and rare records, second-hand books and period fashion.
Primarily a trade market, but good for silver ware, period flatware and wrought silver items such as sugar bowls.
Junk and bric-a-brac. Don't expect to find any rare Rembrandts, says writer Rupert Thomas, but it's great fun and good rummaging, especially if you're looking for rusty old tools.