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Status, Elegance Embellish London’s Mayfair

<i> Merin is a New York City free-lance writer. </i>

London’s Mayfair has been elegant and ultra-rich since the 16th Century, when St. James’s Palace was built and changed the area’s landscape and ambiance.

Bounded by Regent Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly and Park Lane, the streets of Mayfair, once lined with aristocratic residences, are now lined with modern offices and the city’s most fashionable and expensive boutiques. The shopper will find designer names on Bond Street, South Moulton Street and Burlington Arcade.

In style and status, Mayfair’s contemporary shops can’t be beat. But the area also has excellent traditional shops, some established centuries ago, providing products that are a way of life for Londoners and that easily make devotees of foreign shoppers.

Nothing is more traditionally English than the umbrella. You’ll find an amazing array of men’s and women’s “brollies” at Swaine, Adeney, Briggs & Sons at 185 Piccadilly.

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Variety is not the only thing that distinguishes the umbrella stock. It is of unusual quality, sturdy because special ribs funnel rain off the dome, which is deeply rounded to resist strong winds that turn weaker umbrellas inside out.

Golf Umbrellas

Men’s umbrellas sell in three sizes, those for women in one standard size. There are extra-large golf umbrellas. Coverings include strong and long-lasting nylon and silk--more elegant, expensive and requiring more care (they cannot be closed until they are completely dry).

The shop will repair or recover any umbrella it has sold, no matter how old the frame. Colors include standard black, a full palette of solids and a selection of lively stripes.

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Umbrellas are made to order or customized (most commonly with name, crest or logo engraved on the umbrella collar, a gold, silver or brass band wrapped around the handle).

Umbrellas start at about $70. That would buy a woman’s nylon umbrella with Malacca wood handle. Special features cost more.

On the dagger umbrella, press a silver button and a foot-long engraved steel blade, attached to the maple wood handle, is released. The umbrella, with silver collar and black nylon covering, is lightweight, well balanced and costs about $825.

The umbrella seat, especially designed for long hikes or golf games on gray days, has a handle that divides into two sections, with a strong leather strap slung between them. The strong tip is poked into the ground and a metal ring helps the sitter balance. This large-sized awning of red, green, yellow and blue costs about $135.

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In the United States

The shop’s umbrellas are sold in the United States, but prices are higher and selection limited. Savings are enhanced by the tax refund on all items for export, without minimum bill or service charge.

Umbrellas and walking sticks (including some exceptional antiques, ranging from $200 to $2,000) are also found at Asprey’s, established in 1781 and at its present location at 165 New Bond St. since 1841. This is one of London’s most prestigious gift shops, where socialites buy royal wedding gifts.

Asprey’s is a rabbit warren of 15 departments. It claims to have something for everyone. Prices range from $15 to millions. Once an item has been ticketed, the price is never changed, so it is not unusual for two identical items to have different prices because one of them came in on reorder.

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Workshops above the store can produce virtually anything, or the shop will scour the earth to find whatever you request. Some less extravagant items make nice souvenirs; Asprey lighters and pens, in standard purple and green, sell for about $25.

$3,000 Picnic Hamper

A steamer-trunk-size picnic hamper, complete with Royal Worcester plates and sterling silver service, sells for about $3,000.

Asprey also sells finely bound and rare books.

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Another fine bookseller is Maggs Bros., in the book business since Uriah Maggs began renting newspapers and magazines to customers in 1853. The shop moved from Bond Street to 50 Berkeley Square in 1939.

Maggs Bros. has had extensive dealings with the Huntington Library near Los Angeles. The Maggs collection, distributed throughout five floors of a lovely old house, contains no science, medicine or academic books and not much on architecture or art reference. But it has everything else.

The fourth and fifth generations of the family say the shop is particularly strong in Capt. James Cook memorabilia, including several printings of Cook’s accounts of his voyages, and a set of four Cevelee original prints depicting the death of Cook (about $11,000).

The most expensive book in the collection is a late 15th-Century “Book of Hours” (about $68,000). Less old and less expensive are first editions of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and others.

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Rare and New Books

Heywood Hill Ltd. at 10 Curzon St. is a relative newcomer, established in 1936, but has a fine reputation for selling rare books and a large selection of new titles. Areas of specialization include literature, history, gardening, architecture and illustrated books, including childrens’ books.

Their most glamorous item at the moment is Mark Catesby’s “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Island” (Volume I dated 1741, Volume II dated 1743; the price is more than $65,000). But you’ll also find John le Carre’s “A Perfect Spy,” one of the shop’s best sellers. Heywood Hill sales personnel are helpful and offer good suggestions to customers.

You’ll find diaries of all sorts at Smythson’s, London’s finest stationer, at 54 New Bond St. The shop celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. Diaries are bound in blue or red morocco leather; titles include “Wine Notes,” “Golf,” “Theatre,” “Ski” and “Blonds, Brunettes and Redheads,” among others ($10-$15).

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Phone directories have sections for London, Paris and New York, or other cities. There are also leather-bound photo albums and exclusive desk sets, complete with cases for filing papers, letters, clips and other necessaries.

Oldest Storefront

Down the road at 27 New Bond St., Tessier has been selling fine jewels and objects of silver since 1852. The shop is one of the oldest storefronts in New Bond Street; its original gas lamps still work in case of power failure.

Tessier sells Victorian and Georgian estate jewelry and beautiful old silver pieces. The oldest is an engraved, hallmarked Elizabethan silver chalice and cover, dated 1574.

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There is also a two-handled silver bowl dated 1685, and a Cromwellian wine taster dated 1659 (very rare, because most silver from that period was melted down) for about $3,800.

Tessier also carries modern pieces. Miniature sterling silver animals are sculpted with great detail, and include a tiny pig ($38) and life-size pheasants ($16,000 the pair).

Floris (89 Jermyn St.), founded in 1730, specializes in scents and toiletries for women and men. Walking into the wood-paneled shop with gleaming glass cases, counters and mirrors is like entering an atmosphere of perpetual springtime.

In addition to “Florissa” and other perfumes, Floris manufactures and sells fine all-bristle brushes for hair (about $70 to $300) and teeth ($100 and up), with bone or ivory handles. Tortoise-shell mustache combs cost about $35, decorative hair combs about $55 per pair.

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Culpepper the Herbalist (21 Bruton St.) opened after the turn of the century, but it’s as old-fashioned as they come. Behind the selling counter, large white drawers with green trim and lettering contain all sorts of medicinal herbs and teas.

The shop’s purely natural cosmetics, essential oils and shampoos are reasonably priced and popular. Scented sachets and pillows sell for $10 to $15. Old-fashioned apothecary jars of white porcelain with gold, black and red lettering cost $8 to $20. Blends of herbs and seasoning salts promise flavorful roasts, pizzas and soups ($1.50 each, gift pack of eight for $10). Twelve types of honey come from Australia, Mexico, England, Tasmania, Greece, Spain ($1.50 to $4 each, or samplers from $3.50).

Prices in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing; taxes refunded upon export are not deducted.


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