Having grown up with the various shops dotted around St James's, I think I can afford to be grumpy when they close down, or get 'made-over', which seems to happen at an alarming rate these days.
Sullivan Powell (where I used to buy little boxes of unfiltered Turkish Sobranie Cigarettes rolled, apparently, on the thighs of hearty Balkan peasant girls). Gone. Maitland's the Chemist (until very recently, a corner shop at the top end of Piccadilly Arcade, where perfumed soap gathered dust and the clock stopped in 1914). Gone. Hawes & Curtis (once purveyors of fine shirts to King Edward VIII, Lord Mountbatten and Cary Grant). Completely, Utterly Ruined. Bates the Hatter (most famous resident Binks the Cat, stuffed and boxed, jaunty topper and cigar in his mouth). Demolished. That one really hurt. One of the last, original, authenticly preserved, genuine 1920's shop interiors, unnecessarily knocked down to make way for a parade of bland, slick 'international' units. Where Bates traded for almost a hundred years, can now be found Sunspel, the Y-Front shop, which looks, frankly, if it could be found in any city where rich people cluster: New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Geneva, or failing that Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport.
And there are several others I could mention. I'm currently worried about D.R. Harris, chemist and perfumers, established 1790, which has recently closed for re-furbishment and re-development. I'm praying that this is going to be nothing more than a lick of paint and that the old atmosphere of the Victorian shop, with its apothecarist's bottles and mahogany shelving, will be preserved. Modernisation for Modernisation's Sake. The relentless creep of Internationalism. I don't like it.
But I'm not a complete curmudgeon. I do realise that times change, and if shops are gong to survive, they need to move with the times. The trick, I think, is balance; to keep somehow, the ethos of the old place: a daunting task for designers who may often have been raised on distant shores.
Budd, the shirt and pajama makers in Piccadilly Arcade, recently bought up by Huntsman, has re-fitted the shop brilliantly, improving things here and there, but keeping the atmosphere of the old, rather discreet shop, known to the lucky few. This is the antithesis of global brands such as Ralph Lauren, where cricket bats are displayed as props and portraits on the walls are still wet to the touch. Long may it thrive. Budd, not Ralph Lauren.
Fortnum's is another example. The recent re-fit has been a triumph. Every Christmas I make a quick trawl, primarily to buy presents on my way to Hatchards, but also as an excuse to breath in 'that' honeyed smell which hits you as you push your way through the swing doors: a mixture of rich wool carpet, glass, crystallised fruit, liquers and plastic. It's very hard to describe. They've managed to keep all the essential elements that make Fortnum's so special, the fitted carpets are still cerise, the woodwork is still painted in eau de nil, the staff still wear morning dress, often a size too small, or a size too big. It's a shame that the old St James's restaurant is now kaput, as for many Londoners, this place held special memories: the carving trolley (I can see my grandfather discreetly tipping the carver), the poe-faced waitresses in their 1920's starched linen headbands, the naff Montague Dawsons in their heavily gilded Impressionist frames. Full riggers in stormy seas. Still.
I love the new range of tea caddies that F & M have just brought out. Guard's Blend in particular. Brilliant, evocative packaging. They remind me of Edward Bawden's sumptious designs for Fortnum's Christmas catalogues.