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VM Choice: James Smith, the oldest umbrella retailer in town

Founded in 1830 James Smith, with its distinctive yellow store exterior near the east end of London’s Oxford Street, is almost unique in specialising in virtually a single product. It sells only umbrellas, walking sticks and a few shooting sticks.

The store remains family-owned, and owes its unique interior to Mr Mesger, the great grandson of the original founder, who owned a further five retail businesses. He remained convinced that the umbrella business would not survive and therefore refused to spend any money on new store fixtures and fittings. Therefore the corner site exterior retains a classic example of a Victorian storefront, with paneled glass, elaborate fonts, and angled brass surround.

The fixtures and fittings of the interior form a visual record of Mesger’s seemingly undue caution (given the often inclement British weather), with the original fittings overlaid with an occasional accretion of relatively newer fixtures.

The ladies’ umbrella display showcases this perfectly, with the original mirror-backed shelving above shallow drawers and more recent fixtures, perhaps dating from the 1940s and late 1950s, displaying the umbrellas in a then-fashionable fan. The central fixture, with its arched mass and brass label holders, suggests the 1930s or 1950s. The spotlights are, of course, a more recent addition.

Directly above the display space was an original manager’s office, accessed from the sales floor via a short flight of steps. The widespread Victorian practice of placing the manager’s office in the store has been broadly discontinued, and here the office itself has been demolished.

Originally built as two stores, the office in the corner part of the store survives and is still in use in this Grade II listed building. Constructed as Oxford Street expanded towards the east and the pastureland of nearby London Fields was developed, the adjacent store’s original function was as a dairy.

The business now focuses on umbrellas rather than walking sticks and canes, which were a ‘must-have’ for well-dressed Victorian and Edwardian men. With retail prices from £49.95 for a collapsible umbrella to £2,500 for a horn, gilt and snakewood handled classic furling model, the merchandise is securely displayed behind glass. Reducing product laborious dusting in periods of drier weather and subsequently slower sales this locked cabinet, with its curved glass face, is an elegant panoply of men’s traditional umbrella styles.

Strategies to increase light levels in the store, which would once have been lit by lamps burning coal gas, included mirror-facing the shallow mahogany drawers below the glass-topped service counter, which displayed more valuable merchandise.

The oak fixture filling the end wall is a delight, with ladies’ umbrellas standing in serried rows across a mirrored backdrop. Tall cane baskets filled with walking sticks are placed formally either side.

Today, James Smith is perfectly positioned between Covent Garden and the British Museum, both ‘must sees’ for international tourists, and offers a wide range of umbrellas, many of which it makes in the basement of the New Oxford Street premises. In addition, some ranges are bought in, and most can be repaired should they meet any eventual misfortune.