Last Friday I was in Jermyn Street earlier than usual because, rather than arriving in time for the late afternoon tours of the street I have recently started giving, I had an appointment to take a tour with the archivist of Fortnum and Mason, Dr. Andrea Tanner. I wound up learning more than I expected from this tour, not just about Fortnum and Mason, but about a commitment to retail that verges on an inspiring love.
After covering the store’s three hundred years of history, Dr. Tanner proceeded to show me around every floor and demonstrate an astonishing knowledge of the latest products on offer along with histories of most departments. Her passion for retail was inspiring largely because it was very much based in human stories, in individual designers who were creating Fortnum and Mason’s hats or particular groups of mothers who loved Fortnum and Mason’s tea-tasting parties. When I awkwardly asked what she thought about the fact that some of the enticing foods were rather expensive, she did not disagree but pointed out that the jam near us was selling for under £4.
In turn, I couldn’t disagree that there was something for everyone on most of those floors, even if that something might be simply soaking up the atmosphere. That afternoon, I was left with a lot of longing, and not just for some rare China tea and vodka-flavoured marmalade to be tasted while wearing a black and white feathered hat tilted winningly. I longed more than ever to know more about the exquisite products on sale in so many of Jermyn Street’s shops. Indeed, I now think I feel the need to acquire this better appreciation almost as a duty to the street that gives our theatre a home.
As Jermyn Street Theatre’s representative, I have been hoping for over a year to find many means to unite the history of the street’s inhabitants with the individual histories that surround its shops, restaurants, art galleries and beautiful church. My tour is a start, and it, of course, has required that something or other be said about what type of goat cheese is on sale at Paxton and Whitfield or what fedoras at Bates. Yet last Friday, as I found myself lingering in Floris in the midst of giving the tour, I felt a certain weight of responsibility added to the urge to pick up one of the beautifully wrapped perfumes and explain its ingredients, trace its origins to the European monarch who paid for its creation and name the bygone celebrities who loved it. The spray of one scent calls forth all of these very human stories just as it elicits desire itself. For the deep past tangibly lives in so many of the products we can smell, taste or hold in our hands on Jermyn Street.
There are people, as we know, who never think of walking down the street because they imagine its products on sale to be all too pricey or, perhaps, just too male. Yet those same people might happily admire the objets d’art in the British Museum or V&A. Would that they understood the wealth on offer to hungering eyes and ears in a retail atmosphere that is welcoming, personal and, above all, kind. These are stories of craftsmanship and its highest ideals, as one visit to the shoe workshop above Foster and Son makes plain. The street’s salesmen and women are doing much more than selling, and their presence demonstrates a concern for values that can never be easily measured on a spreadsheet. In some sense, they are all the best archivists, selling a living past in the form of products whose high currency needs no apologies for its price tag.