Although it’s easier for me to get to Kathmandu than to Oxford Street, sometimes a shopkeeper’s gotta do what a shopkeeper’s gotta do. When Mary, Queen of Shops, intrepid foot soldier in the battle against the multiples, opens a shop of her own, it’s a journey you have to make, even if it means going to the third floor of the House of Fraser on Oxford Street.
But first, a confession. I’m not remotely objective about Mary Portas. She’s one of those straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip geniuses of common sense Ruth Watson is another-that you wish ran the country or at least a bigger patch of it than shops, country houses or high streets. But what am I saying? According to the economists plotting our way out of this recession, the high street and shops are the world, and spending is our only hope of salvation.
In her ‘Shop!’ columns in the Telegraph Magazine, Mary has exposed the appalling service in the nation’s shops. In her television series, she did her damnedest to shake up small shopkeepers sleepwalking into bankruptcy. She then transformed a handful of charity shops, changing their look, their name ‘Living and Giving’ and their smell. It now seems so obvious, but in the complacent world of charity shops, it was a revolution.
So, I’m not objective, but like a bride on honeymoon, longing not to be disappointed. And once I emerged from the special Mary & House of Fraser lift-orange lacquer would be better I liked it all: mannequins with carrot-coloured bobs like Mary’s; her own Pret-a-Portas collection; the brands she likes Barbour, Whistles, MaxMara, Clarks shoes and Radley handbags; and the absence of high-price designer clothes. Her ethos is the Good Life for Every Woman, and it works.
There’s also a section of her personal essentials for that Good Life: good wine, Italian olive oils and balsamic vinegars, her own blend of coffee beans, True Grace candles with her own ‘Catholic girlhood’ incense-and-nuns scent, and a vertical shelf of second-hand books from her charity shops, the proceeds going to Save the Children. And, in the midst of it all, the sassy red-haired Queen herself. I tried not to stare as I watched her trying not to stare at her customers, her eyes taking in their every move. This is a shopkeeper who takes feedback seriously-there’s even a red Moan Phone on which you can record complaints and get a reply from the Queen herself.
So, all wonderful. Great labels. Great bags. Great taste. A shopper’s dream. Vaux le voyage. As Gertrude Stein would put it: Peaceful and Exciting. And my hesitations? None with the shop. Still a work in progress, it will evolve into a place of pilgrimage for shoppers and shopkeepers alike. My anxieties are global, gargantuan, vague. I don’t know if we can spend our way out of this recession. Great shops, quirky and personal shops, are disappearing faster than songbirds. But my fingers are crossed for Mary & House of Fraser, which is: Good for Clothes and the small things that make life worth living. Bad for Rocky economic times.
The windows Exposing the store’s original 1930s windows gives light, air and hope. Shopability Still a little chaotic, with a lot of ‘Coming Soon’ rails. Was I being served? A great relief not to have the monotone ‘Do you need some help?’ pecking away at you. Staff are natural, attractive, plentiful and fluent in English.
Did I buy? Bottles of organic balsamic vinegar, olive oil and Vieilles Vignes Maçon Blanc; two bags of Mary Whole Bean coffee. Second-hand book (Jonathan Raban’s For Love and Money). On the waiting list for: silk scarf designed by art students. Verdict If the gutsy Mary Portas can’t make it work, our small nation of shopkeepers is doomed.
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