About the Author

Marie is an instructor of English at Sacred Heart University and recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children and her faithful English Springer Spaniel, "the artful" Dodger.
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Black and Howell

Arrange whatever pieces come your way.

 -          Virginia Woolf

They leave each morning at about eight-thirty for what they affectionately, and vaguely, call “the countryside” in search of treasure; they are, after all, “purveyors of fine antiques” as clearly stated in gilded paint above the door of 781 Fulham Road and suppliers to the finest dealers in Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Peter Black and Richard Howell are the unlikeliest of partners in many ways. One, six feet tall with an accent that my roommate Sarah assures me is “plumy with knobs on” – apparently attesting to it being of an upper class pedigree; the other, a bit taller than my five foot three inches with the build of a former college rugby player and a hybrid accent blending his New Jersey roots with his current life in London – a bit more rough around the edges you would have to say. They are, together, a powerhouse in the London antiques world, adept at picking hidden gems out from under years of dust and neglect. They are my employers. I am their shop girl.

As an American ex-patriot in London, the childhood friend of a second cousin counts as family, and so Richard Howell is the closest thing I have to a connection with home. He had grown up in the same New Jersey small town as my father’s cousin and her large Irish Catholic brood of twelve children. Richard, however, left New Jersey during high school when his father was transferred to London with a large international conglomerate and never returned. My cousin Sheila made the introductions and upon hearing that I was looking for work Richard immediately made me the very appealing offer of fifty pounds a day to “mind the shop”. I keep Black and Howell open and tidy while Peter and Richard spend their days scouring old musty estates for just the right marble statuary or mahogany side table for their impressive London clientele.         

One of the little known perks of being a shop girl in an antique shop, and perhaps a wholly undervalued one, is the inordinate amount of time one has to contemplate whatever it is that one wishes to contemplate. Front and center, and by nature of the business, is the question of value. The question, for me, extends beyond stone and wood.  What is it that I value in my life versus what someone else might? Is it money, time, friends, love, adventure, a sense of purpose?  What or who is transient in one’s life and what or who is permanent? How do we decide, or, if the decision is made for us, how do we react? Looking around the room at centuries old pieces of art and furniture, the question of what has lasting value is something I think about quite a bit. What makes for authenticity – in antiques, and, in a life?

            “Where are the lads today?” I hear from my quiet corner in the back room where I’ve just put on the electric kettle.

            “Oh, good morning Mr. Littleton,” I reply. “You know, here and there, as usual.”

            As usual, I haven’t a clue which village or even county my “lads” are ravaging through today.

    “Is there a message?”                         

            “No, no. Just thought I’d pop in and see what they’ve turned up. Tell them to call me about the pair of stone dogs in the window. I’ve got a client who’s just moved out to her family home near Cambridge - lovely girl – and she needs something for her gardens. Had to step in, you see or, sadly, the house would have had to be put up for sale – family money running out you know. Didn’t really want to leave London, but…” His voice trails off, leaving me to wonder about his client and the circumstances of her need for garden statuary.

Lionel Littleton is one of Mayfair’s most successful antique dealers with a client base that includes all those “little royals” who are always making a splash in Hello! Magazine or turning up at Ascot and Wimbledon on the “off days” when the Royal Boxes aren’t being occupied by the “top tier” royals. I imagine his “lovely girl” probably socializes in that circle.

            “Yes, indeed, those dogs might do just brilliantly for her. Anyway, tell them to call me and, don’t let them go to anyone else in the meantime!”And with that, he was off and his red and blue print Liberty scarf just a flourish behind him.

I count that as selling the dogs today. Not a hard sell, I admit, but the “lads” will be well pleased to know that the window space has opened up for whatever new, large, antiquated stone somethings they’ve found today. If I take just a little bit of credit for convincing Lionel Littleton that they would be absolutely fabulous in the garden of a stately country home, now is there really any harm in that? I feel I have to justify my fifty pounds salary.

Time is another thing I think quite a lot about these days. I think about how people choose to spend theirs, most especially about how I choose to spend mine. Up until a few short months ago, I had spent most of my days in a corner office thirty stories above Sixth Avenue in New York with an enviable view of Central Park, a world away – in every way – from Black and Howell. Sometimes, when I’m mopping up the black and white tiled floor just before closing, I think about the satisfaction of simple manual labor, of a job visibly well done, of feeling physically tired at the end of a work day yet mentally stimulated by the time spent in the company of one’s own thoughts or books. I never enjoyed that satisfaction in New York; never physically tired at the end of a work day, I was instead mentally exhausted by the politics of the corporate chess game that kept workers strategizing for positions or control over others.  I think about how valuable one’s time is and how often we neglect each moment for some imagined time in the far off future of our lives, squirreling away monies for a  day in retirement from what we spend most of our life doing. While my professional life may be “on hold” as I find out what I want to do with myself, my life as a whole is much more satisfying than it was in New York. I take time to observe my surroundings and to interact with everyone I encounter. It has made my time in London feel much more intentional than my life in New York which could feel, at times, like I was swept up in other people’s plans or choices.

I think about what brought me here – not to Black and Howell specifically, but rather to London in general. Getting ill has the wonderful, if unanticipated, benefit of putting time into perspective; at least it did for me. As it turned out, not having a diagnosis of why I suddenly couldn’t walk and having to lie in a hospital bed for three weeks contemplating my life and what I was doing with it, was the greatest gift in the disguise of a disaster that I could have ever hoped for. Now, fully recovered, I am much more aware of time passing and much more discerning about how I wish to spend it. Leaving the hospital, I had an epiphany; in that moment I knew I wanted to live abroad, to live in the shadows of all my literary heroes and heroines, to leave behind all that was familiar for the possibilities that awaited me in the guise of the unfamiliar; so, here I am doing whatever I have to do, including mopping up an antique shop floor, to live in London....(continued)