Head for Boston's Newbury Street

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

Ask Bostonians to point out the city's best shopping street and they'll send you off in the direction of Back Bay, to Newbury Street, the strip bordered by Arlington Street (and the Boston Common) at one end and Massachusetts Avenue at the other.

Newbury Street has a distinctive Boston personality. The stores occupy first and second floors of elegant 19th-Century Boston bay and bowfront town houses, many of which still have residential dwellings on the upper stories.

The storefronts, with their handsomely outfitted windows, have not displaced the neighborhood ambiance, augmented by the presence of several schools and a church. At the same time, Newbury Street boasts its own outdoor Louise Nevelson sculpture, solidly bolted to the sidewalk.

Shopping Newbury Street is convenient. The street is eight blocks long. Call them alphabet blocks; their cross streets are named in alphabetical order--Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester and Hereford, before you get to Massachusetts Avenue. Some shops are located by the block letter.

Family-Owned Shops

Newbury Street has a good selection of name-brand shops (Burberry's, Laura Ashley, Guy Laroche, the Coach Shop, Brook's Brothers, to name a few) and department stores (Bonwit Teller's and Ann Taylor), but most attractive and distinctive are the small, family-owned shops, some of which have served stylish Bostonians for generations. These specialize in personalized service and live by the traditional shopkeepers' virtues: getting to know their customers, providing top quality merchandise and honest value.

Each of Newbury Street's fashion boutiques has a distinct style and a roster of devoted clients. Settebello (8) imports elegant silks, woolens and leathers from Italy under its own Vaccaro label, and other labels, and specializes in fine turtleneck shirts (they began their business with these) for $38. Stuart's (10) has a colorful collection of fashion standards. Charles Sumner (16) features a series of small boutiques carrying the fashions of Valentino, Escada, Louis Feraud and others, and accessories to match.

Boston's best known home-grown designer, Alfred Fiandaca, has his showroom upstairs at 18. His clients range from Joan Kennedy to Raquel Welch. He takes orders during road shows, but the best customized service is at the Boston atelier. Some current styles: a white-on-white nubbly wool ankle-length coat, with fox trim ($2,800), stunning checkered suits with short jackets and straight skirts ($2,900), and spectacular silk cocktail dresses and evening gowns.

Newbury Street's newest designer label is manufactured and available at Gazelle (110). The moderately priced line is comfortable, contemporary and only sold in this Boston shop. Outfits are built from coordinates, including a silk camisole ($52), an open-weave cotton knit tunic ($84), cotton crop tops ($48), long straight or gored skirts ($42-$86) and blazers ($92). It's a nice look and the company's small production (so far) means you won't be sharing the style with all of your neighbors.

Daring Sense of Style

Alan Bilzarian (34) has been described as Boston's Bijan. He has a classy and daring sense of style, using unusual combinations of fabrics and patterns to create a look on the cutting edge of fashion. Men's fashions, on the first floor, include a vast selection of jackets, for example, ranging from a well-tailored and conservative pin stripe ($400) to a dashing and silky burnt sienna suede ($650). Look for his signature watch; it has faded, time-worn numerals. The women's department, second floor, offers the latest Europeans, plus exclusive designs by Be Khanh, Bilzarian's wife and sister of Emanuelle Khanh.

Many of the boutiques sell shoes to match their style. Settebello shows supple leather pumps from Italy; Ricardi offers horsehair oxfords ($98). But Newbury Street's best boot-ique is El Paso (154), with fancy footwear in stitching leather ($150), lizard, anteater, elephant and ostrich ($570).

Several of Newberry Street's blocks are saturated with specialty shops offering one type of service or merchandise. Between Clarendon and Dartmouth streets (Block C) is the bridal block, with three nationally known bridal boutiques. Most famous is Priscilla of Boston (129), a shop that has outfitted many celebrity brides, including the daughters of American Presidents. Next door, Georgette Bridal (131) specializes in gowns of antique lace, suitable for dress occasions as well as weddings. Across the street, Pronuptia of Paris (138) completes the bouquet with a French accent.

A Benefit for Shoppers

The B Block, between Berkeley and Clarendon streets, boasts three of Boston's finest furriers: Roberts/Newstadter (69), Duitshfurs (71) and Kakas Furs (93) coexist in peaceful competition. The proximity benefits shoppers who can easily compare for most appealing styles and friendly service.

Also in the realm of luxury, Newbury Street jewelers offer everything from traditional elegance to trendy innovations. Dorfman's (24) ambiance is that of a fine European jewel box. Antique burled wood cabinets display fine diamonds and colored gems in 18-karat gold settings. Heavy pieces with onyx and diamonds in 18-karat gold are a speciality, with about 70% of the designs Dorfman's own. The store also carries fine watches, lovely antique clocks and a great collection of key chains. Prices are high, but value is excellent. Body Sculpture (127) is at the opposite end of the jewelry spectrum, providing splendid contemporary and avant-garde costume pieces of varied materials, including precious and base metals, semiprecious stones and synthetics. Unusual, eye-catching pieces for people with flare.

Accessories for the home are also abundant. In Scandia (166) you'll find fluffy down quilts, pillows and bed linens. Then walk across the street to Monhegan (173) for soft woolen blankets of all sizes and colors. Floor and wall coverings of all descriptions and dimensions are found at the Rug Gallery (112), which imports from around the world. Prices are reasonable (Dhurries from $79) and the shop ships to your home free of charge.

Antique to Ultramodern

The Bath and Closet Shop (139A) sells all sorts of bath and closet stuff, ranging from antique to ultramodern--heated towel racks, imported English face cloths ($3.50), antique wicker furniture, shaving mirrors. Owner Billie Brenner is a true Newbury Street personality, and promises customers clever advice on closet reorganization for greater space and efficiency.

The Boston branch of Conran's, the reasonably priced chain featuring furnishings for home and office, is in Newbury Street's 100-year-old Spiritualist Church. Standard Conran's items stock the store, but a browse is worthwhile, just to see how the church's interior has been converted.

Beyond boutiques and specialty shops, Newbury Street is noted for its concentration of fine art and antique galleries. The street's lovely town-house storefronts are ideal showcases for museum-quality impressionist and contemporary paintings, Colonial and English antiques. The galleries are another dimension of the elegance, charm and sophistication that distinguish Newbury Street.

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