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After Work: A Whiff Of The Past

…That was my first encounter with Mr. Shelley of Shelley-Marks. I never really knew if his last name was Shelley or if it were his first. His perfumery was one of those small treasures of Manhattan, one when you discovered it felt special, very special, as if it had just sprung up for your delight and yours alone…

Writing with appropriate grace and style, Dona Gibbs tells of a tiny jewel box of a perfume shop tucked just off the lobby of an office block midst New York’s towers.

It was the end of the sixties and the streets of Manhattan were awash in bell-bottoms, tie-dye, micro minis and street sweeping skirts. I was out shopping.

“Ah, you’ve come here because of that little hippy newspaper,” he peered at me through narrow half glasses.

‘Here” was a tiny jewel box perfume shop tucked just off the lobby of a midtown office building.

“Yes, all the young things come in here now. They buy my cologne and not just one bottle. They’re so skinny, these beautiful boys and girls, I just want to fold their money back into their hands and say,” Please, please, go buy yourself a steak.”

That was my first encounter with Mr. Shelley of Shelley-Marks. I never really knew if his last name was Shelley or if it were his first. His perfumery was one of those small treasures of Manhattan, one when you discovered it felt special, very special, as if it had just sprung up for your delight and yours alone.

I never could quite pinpoint his age. He was tall, crane-like. He wore his grey hair pulled back into a little queue, more 1760’s than 1960’s. His eyes sparkled. His movements were quick and his personality filled every corner on his small shop.

“Here, here’s one you should have—Carnation.” He sprayed the fragrance on a slip of blotting paper.

“Ah,” he inhaled deeply as if he himself were smelling it for the first time. “Isn’t that deliciously spicy?”

Mr. Shelley was one part of the partnership of Shelley-Marks. Mr. Marks, he explained was his partner and they shared an apartment in the northern reaches of the upper Eastside of Manhattan. Their upstairs neighbors’ children were, he sighed, “frightfully noisy, but I suppose children are necessary. Without them the human race wouldn’t be around for long, would it?”

“May I try Heliotrope?” I asked.

“Of course, my dear, but it’s not for you. It’s too sweet. It's a little cloying. Not for you,” he looked me up and down.”

“What about Amber?’

“No, no, that’s for ladies who wear mink, and you’re too young to wear mink

“What about Potpourri?”

“All right, if you must,” he replied, throwing up his hand in resignation, “But it’s a blend, and some people think it smells like old socks.”

Mr. Marks, I was to understand, was the chemist of the two. Just where they brewed up their small batches I never knew—perhaps in the apartment. They had begun their business, if one could use such a crass word, as an outgrowth of a hobby of theirs: they collected antique perfume bottle, the older, better.

The bottles, even though empty, often had a few lingering molecules of scent. The scents
were primarily one-note fragrances: one flower dominating. They were the opposite of modern scents, which are complex chemical blends of top notes and base notes.
So, Mr. Shelley and Mr. Marks set out set out to reproduce what they found.

Back in the sixties it wasn’t possible to analyze the exact components of a fragrance the way it can be done now so they just used the scientific instruments they had: their noses. They bottled their creations in old-fashioned, slope-shouldered flasks, tied a little ribbon around the neck, stuck on a charming label they created and called it marketing.

No million-dollar advertising budgets for them. No billboards on Times Square. Not even a tiny ad in the New Yorker.

People, intrigued by the display in the tiny shop window, stopped in and were delighted. Fashion editors caught the whiff of something good, stopped in, bought and then wrote about their discovery.

More people, both men and women, came. The rich. The socialites. And those merely curious.

‘I have one customer,” confided Mr. Marks, “She—and here he named a famous singer for he was not above dropping a name or two if it helped his story--, she buys twenty-four bottles at a time. “

He raised his eyebrows, “Well I certainly hope she’s giving them to her friends as gifts or else she must reek, absolutely reek.”

Then came the day when the representative of a large cosmetic company came calling.

“They wanted to buy us out. They would have given us millions for the name,” Mr. Shelley wrung his hands.

“But what would we have done? They would have wrecked it. My clientele would feel betrayed—and I, and I wouldn’t see them anymore. What would Mr. Marks and I do—move out to the country. The country’s so boring,” he wailed.

Years passed and I moved to the suburbs and I rarely went into the city, but when I did, I stopped to see Mr. Shelley.

“I’m always so happy to see you. You’re always so cheerful. I see some of my customers rushing into the building, looking so distressed. One stopped the other day and I asked her why she looked so down. She said she was on her way to the dentist and that there are a lot of dentists in the building. I guess that’s why they look so pained and out of sorts.”

I would buy a bottle of Carnation or Potpourri, we would catch up, he would drop a name or three and I would leave him humming a show tune.

Then one day I stopped by and saw what I knew was inevitable. The shop was dark and mail was filled in the doorway. The building guard didn’t seem to know anything about Mr. Shelley.

Six months, a year past and the shop remained dark. Then finally another shop, this time a jewelry store, took over the space.

Ten years passed. Then recently, drawn in by a display of interesting, hard-to-find lotions and potions, I stopped in an apothecary. I, the only customer in the store, was browsing the shelves and I spied a familiar looking bottle. It was Potpourri.

“Is this Shelley-Marks Potpourri? I asked the druggist.

“Well,” he laughed, “Close enough.” I had a little of Shelley’s left and I had it analyzed and started having it made. I’d wanted to buy their formulas but they wouldn’t sell. They wouldn’t sell to the big guys and they wouldn’t sell to me.

“This is the only scent I’ve gotten halfway right. The others I tried just didn’t hold up more than a month.

“Guess I got this one close enough though. Mrs. B. (Here he named the wife of a prominent late retailing czar) came in and I had her sample it.

“That’s Alfred, that’s Alfred,” she said.

“Seems like he’d always worn Potpourri. She bought two bottles.”

He shook his head. “Yeah, it’s too bad about Shelley and his friend Marks. They’re both dead. They could have been rich but I guess they still would have been dead.”


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