Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Umbrella nirvana; WHERE ELSE BUT IN LONDON?

MOST London shopkeepers bewail the London rain, which in almost every season seems to wrap the city in an immovable gray fog. But not Robert Harvey of James Smith & Sons Ltd., an establishment that has been doing a brisk business because of the precipitation for 152 years. ''When it rains, we open the doors wide and everyone comes pouring in,'' says the 37-year-old owner and manager cheerfully. '' 'It's a lovely day out, isn't it?' we exclaim.''

One glimpse at the store, at 53 New Oxford Street at the intersection with Shaftesbury Avenue, and the shopper can understand Mr. Harvey's sentiments perfectly. Through the curved glass Victorian storefront, embellished with fine old wood, polished brass, and painted lettering, a thick yet orderly forest of umbrellas extends row upon row, ripe for the plucking. Not only is the magic word ''umbrellas'' emblazoned profusely on the glass, but neon red letters, hanging down the length of the three-story building, shine the word out, leaving rain-pelted wayfarers in no doubt that umbrella heaven is right here on earth.

About these ads

An umbrella fancier myself, I felt especially lucky to happen upon Harvey's store one soggy winter day, strolling near the British Museum. For what better place to buy an umbrella than London? One is armed not only with a sensible excuse for splurging - namely the wretched weather - but also with the knowledge that a British umbrella is bound to be the quintessential item: an Englishman seems hardly himself without one.

Inside the small, cozy shop, I was not disappointed. The only problem in paradise, I found, was the burden of choice. There were black, brown, gray, blue , green, red, and multicolored umbrellas; umbrellas with shafts made of steel, malacca cane, root bamboo, cherry, birch, ash, maple, hickory, applewood, and black thorn; golf umbrellas, folding umbrellas, sword umbrellas, African ceremonial umbrellas; and umbrellas with handles fashioned from plastic, from pigskin and silver, from snakeskin and staghorn, from crocodile and ivory, from lizard and ebony, from elephant hide and gold . . . the possibilities were dizzying, to say the least.

Fortunately, Mr. Harvey himself was on hand to simplify matters, and also George White. Mr. Harvey is not only the current manager; having married the boss's daughter, a direct descendant of the original James Smith, he is the inheritor of a family tradition and the possessor of its history. Now Mr. White too shares in Smith family memories. He has worked at the store for 19 years and recalls coming to it when he was five years old for ''Bible lessons and three lemonades'' dispensed by Harvey's wife's grandmother. ''She would be cutting out an umbrella with the baby beside her on the counter,'' he remembers.

White explains that though collapsible umbrellas are now the store's hottest sellers, ranging in price from (STR)11 to (STR)20 (about $19 to $36), James Smith & Sons prides itself on its ''standard men's umbrella,'' the sturdy no-nonsense English classic that most customers prefer in black, ''because it doesn't show the dirt. . . . We don't do many ladies' fashion umbrellas,'' he says. ''We're known more as a gentleman's store.'' This standard umbrella is made from the famous ''Fox frames'' that have been manufactured in Sheffield for over a century and consists of steel ribs and shaft covered with nylon. Depending on what handle is put on, its price ranges from about (STR)6 to (STR) 18.

A slightly fancier model has its fittings all hand-sewn and hand-attached. Its handle is invariably some type of leather rather than plastic, and it costs anywhere from (STR)20 to (STR)45, depending on the amount of special attention it requires.

Back in the 19th century, Mr. Harvey says, when the first Mr. Smith started out by offering umbrellas as a sideline in his barbershop, the store manufactured all its merchandise right on the premises. Today, although it is primarily a retailer, the store still has a very active workshop in the basement. Here Norman Drew presides over a small staff, as he has done for the past 27 years, fitting handles on and overseeing some 20,000 repairs annually.

One of his staff, Mary O'Sullivan, left school at 14 to join the umbrella trade and has worked at the shop for 18 years. As the ''tipper,'' she whips the covers onto the handmade umbrellas with a few deft stitches, barely having to look, since she has performed the task so many times.

About these ads

Mr. Drew's and Mrs. O'Sullivan's skills are crucial when a customer comes in wanting one of the shop's rare custom-made umbrellas. Although Harvey says that only half a dozen of these are sold each year, the fact remains that a shopper can walk in with his own personal vision of an elegant umbrella and the store will do its best to make it up for him, even if it takes months. What normally distinguishes these umbrellas -- in addition to astronomical prices -- is their unusual handles, each one unique.

The day I visited the shop, a few were on display in a special glass case. The least expensive, one with a pigskin and silver handle, cost (STR)75. The most expensive had a beautifully carved ivory handle and cost (STR)300 (more than $500). The staggering prices result from these umbrellas' irreplaceability. ''A lot of the handlemakers here in England have died in the last 10 years or so ,'' Mr. White explains.

Harvey adds that an ivory handle ''might take months to make and it's hard to find someone who'll take on the job . . . they're afraid they'll botch it up.''

If you don't want to buy an umbrella, browsing at James Smith & Sons has other rewards: The history of umbrellas unfolds if you carefully peruse the many framed etchings, portraits, cartoons, and newspaper clippings on the walls behind the counter. Jonas Hanway, who bears the distinction of being the first Englishman to carry an umbrella regularly, is featured in one of the more prominent portraits, a white-wigged gentleman in velvet knee breeches. Hanway, who was an early 19th-century philanthropist and all-round eccentric, was apparently ''well pelted by coachmen and chairmen'' for his umbrella-carrying. ''They saw in his new craze a danger to their own means of livelihood,'' reads the inscription beneath his name.

James Smith himself, a mild-featured man with a cat watching him, gazes out from another portrait, a watercolor, busily occupied in making an umbrella by hand.

A late 19th-century framed advertisement offers umbrellas and walking sticks for ''Indian and colonial markets.'' According to Mr. Harvey, both umbrellas and sticks were at their height of popularity in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.A large black-and-white photograph of a peace rally in Hyde Park just after World War I leaves no doubt that umbrella popularity had waned by 1920. The photo shows a vast crowd canopied by an equally vast sea of umbrellas. ''Umbrellas were sold in those days,'' White murmurs wistfully, catching sight of the photo.

Despite the fact that James Smith & Sons sells some 8,000 umbrellas each year , business -- even with all the rain -- isn't what it used to be. ''The umbrella trade in Britain has deteriorated since the war,'' says Harvey. ''There's better transport in London, and most people drive around instead of walk.''

But the store isn't solely dependent on umbrellas -- or annual precipitation -- for its livelihood. It sells as many walking sticks as umbrellas, and they come in just as many styles. Ranging in price from (STR)3.50 to (STR)400, they include everything from rustic shepherd's crooks to manila canes (''for keeping naughty boys down,'' says Mr. Harvey), to thumb sticks (useful for walking downhill), to exotic ceremonial wands for Nigerian chieftains. All the custom-made sticks are mounted on the premises, and their knobs cover as dizzying a range of materials as the umbrella handles: a carved ebony head adorns one cane; a French porcelain knob with cupids painted on it adorns another. The most valuable cane of all had a Japanese bone knob atop it, carved to show a bird being seized by a snake. To remind customers of the ancient uses of sticks, a war club from Fiji, a coconut-wood spear from the South Seas, and a monster shillelagh from Ireland are all on display.

My first love, umbrellas, drew me into the shop. But upon parting I wanted to know, was there any item on sale that magically summed up the virtues of sticks and umbrellas -- a small reminder of the whole experience? Indeed there was.

Mr. Harvey produced a lovely gray ''solid umbrella'' -- an umbrella whose shaft was actually a gnarled ash cane. James Smith & Sons is umbrella nirvana.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.