London's antiques shops

London's antiques markets are crammed with a kaleidoscope of vintage treasures. But many traders are facing pressures that could force them to close. Show your support by rediscovering these historic shopping enclaves

  • London's antique shops are under threat, protect them here

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    Old hat: Alfie's vintage headwear

    Alfie’s Antiques Market

    A short walk up Marylebone’s scruffy Lisson Grove onto bustling and slightly shambolic Church Street you’ll find the looming art deco presence of Alfie’s Antique Market. The building, formerly Edwardian department store Jordan’s, closed in the 1960s and fell into disrepair until it was bought and re-opened by the charismatic entrepreneur and property developer Bennie Gray (of Gray’s Antiques Market) in 1976. Even then it was only the ground floor – it has since expanded downwards, upwards and sideways into neighbouring buildings and has six main staircases (not counting the little ones to the mezzanine levels). The result is that it feels a lot like Escher’s ‘Relativity’, although here the labyrinthine layout is conducive to unearthing wordly treasures.

    While Alfie’s is well known among the trade cognoscenti and fashion celebrities, it seems, unfathomably, to have slipped under the radar somewhat of all but the most savvy Londoners. Just outside the congestion zone, the market has nevertheless felt its impact – deserted during the week and inundated at weekends.

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    'The Girl Can't Help It'

    The stalls at Alfie’s are varied, specialist and unpredictable. You can buy everything from silver salt spoons at a thrifty £5 to a vast 1960s Macassar Ebony desk at a credit-card-stretching £5,000. For 1940s-1950s fashion, and lifestyle inflected with more than a little kitsch, there’s the fabulously named The Girl Can’t Help It on the ground floor, owned by the exuberant Sparkle Moore and Cad Van Swankster. Loved by vintage-style addicts including Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer, 1950s freaks and serious collectors, here you will find a wonderful range of quality clothing and accessories. There are slinky bias-cut screen goddess dresses, flirty floral prom skirts and 1950s bikinis – as well as retro cocktail glasses. We recently found a pair of 1950s Parisian shoes with interchangeable heels (a plain set for day and two sets encrusted with crystals for nights). Not cheap at £295 but as good as unique.

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    Antique compacts at Alfie's Antiques Market

    Further into the maze is Goldsmith and Parris, which ironically sells silver and not gold, and one of Alfie’s veterans, Gloria. Having been at the market for 34 years, she’s seen the place evolve from selling purely traditional antiques to its current retro flavour. One of the newer features is The Quad which brings together a huge collection of iconic twentieth-century furniture, lighting, paintings, glass, and jewellery in one space. Look out for Andreas (who specialises in Scandinavian and Berlin industrial design) polishing glass to the strains of Roberta Flack.

    Moving along you’ll find Marie, who specialises in Victorian jewellery, selling beautiful pieces which quicken the pulse. A heart-shaped pendant inset with diamonds and emerald stopped us in our tracks, though at £2,877 would require some exceptionally good behaviour. A sign by the stall reads ‘You may use your phone to book a table at a good restaurant for us both, or to get your husband here quick with his cheque book,’ followed by ‘You may not use your mobile to discuss “Big Brother”/“EastEnders”/ Coronation Street” while fiddling and smudging my jewellery with your fat sweaty fingers.’

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    Modern vintage: furniture at Lorna Lee Leslie

    As you climb up towards the Rooftop Restaurant you find Italian-born Iaia, who sells 1920s-1940s Bakelite. Her attitude sums up Alfie’s: ‘I cater for people who are like me – collectors not dealers. I love the enthusiasm of the new collector.’ When asked what’s her most treasured item, she passes over large, flashy pieces and tenderly produces a tiny figure of a gentleman standing on a powder-puff box. ‘It’s 1920s celluloid – remarkable it has survived this long in perfect condition!’

    While the stock itself is lovely, it’s the dealers who bring these objects to life – though it’s not always obvious which dealer belongs to what collection. Traders tend to congregate in each other’s shops, parading recent acquisitions with the pride of a new parent. ‘

    The internet auction house is a sore subject for many of the dealers. People valuing their items by finding similar examples on eBay have made it increasingly difficult for them to pick up stock cheap enough to sell at a profit. In typical Alfie’s fashion, one dealer blusters, ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but they don’t even care to find out what the history of the piece is!’ At Alfie’s that’s one thing you can almost guarantee. Hannah Kane

    Alfie’s Antiques Market, 13-25 Church St, NW8 (020 7723 6066/ Marylebone tube/rail. Open Tue-Sat 10am-6pm.

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    Twentieth-century furniture and fancy 1950s frocks.London's antique shops are under threat, protect them here

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