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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.