Perfumes of the Past

Last Saturday as Cal and I waited outside of the barber shop for David, I spotted a curious little shop across the street called Perfumes of the Past. Even though I used to live in the area, and rode down this street most days on my way to university with my friend Amy, I had never noticed the little storefront with its blue awning and neon sign, which is strange because this kind of curiosity/vintage shop is right up my alley. 
Perfumes of the Past, Amsterdam
It felt kind of spooky the way it suddenly revealed itself to me, open and inviting in the broad sunlight. Cal and I crossed the street and were met at the door by the owner, a tall man with a greying afro and Bill Cosby jumper. 
"Have you always been here?" I asked as I carried Cal into the store.
"Not always," he laughed, "Just for the last eight years." That's exactly how long I've been living here, so the shop would have opened right around the time I was living in the area. <insert spooky music>. 
As I glanced around the tiny shop with its floor to ceiling glass cabinets, bursting with perfume bottles of every size and shape - some instantly recognizable like Gaultier's busty bottle, and others less so, I remembered that a few years ago I had made a half hearted effort to find my grandmother's perfume. My Granny and I were very close. She died about four years ago and some time after after I was in a lift when an elderly lady got in smelling of her. The fragrance stung. Its sweet scent sucked me through space and time back to a childhood summer holiday with Granny. Through tears I asked the woman what she was wearing. She smiled and touched her neck. "I hardly ever wear this. It's an old fragrance. Georgio Beverly Hills." I said the name over and over in my mind so as not to forget it.
In the store I told the man this story. He smiled like he had heard it before. He probably had. Why else do people go hunting for old fragrances for any other reason than to try and buy back a fleeting sense of someone they once loved?
Forgotten perfumes at Perfumes of the Past in Amsterdam
"I know which one it is," he said with certainty. He took a bottle down from the shelf behind me and squirted a little on a slim piece of card. He waved it in front of my nose. The sickly alcohol made me wince. It wasn't her. He took another off the shelf, also by the same name. The same thing happened. Had I gotten the name wrong? Perhaps I'd been mistaken when I smelt that perfume in the lift that day. But I doubted it. Olfactory triggers are potent. He turned away and I could see that he had lost confidence - perhaps in my memory, perhaps in his own ability to make a convincing sale. I thanked him and carried Cal back across the street to the bench out the front of the barber shop. I tried to tell him about Granny, as I have before on occasion, but the words always come out sounding so false. My son will never really know how out-of-this-world special that woman was, only just how much she meant to his mother. 

A few minutes later the man from the shop crossed the street holding a yellow and white striped box. "This is it. I'm certain," he said. "Try it on your skin." He sprayed a fine mist of it onto the inside of my wrist and before I could even hold my wrist up to my nose, there she was. Cool, papery skin which I used to take delight in pinching and then letting go, to see the difference between the speed at which my skin snapped back, and the stately ease at which hers returned to its place. And in the same instant, a flash of her gently curled hair and coral lipstick, two things which intrigued me as a little girl, and which Granny always paid attention to even when flipping pancakes below deck on my parents' boat during bad weather. We always spoke about style and fashion. I loved that she was the supposedly the first woman in the English town of Torquay to wear trousers and get divorced. In one of my favorite photos of her she's leaning against a car, her arms around my dad and his brother, wearing loose fitting chinos rolled at the cuffs, canvas boat shoes and a simple sweater. She's knotted a striped scarf at her neck - the picture of real yachting chic. Nothing deliberately preppy, just elegant and practical for a day of racing. 
As long as I knew her she was always dressed as though she'd just come back from the boat. Loose singlet tops, men's oxford shirts, wafting maxi skirts, slip on boat shoes and bits and pieces of jewelry that she'd been given by that fellow, or another. Granny was married twice and had a couple of "special friends" as my parents called them throughout the years. Just before I moved overseas, and long before she died, she gave me a big manilla envelope full of love letters, post-cards, photos and other ephemera she had collected from a lifetime of lovers. "I can't bear to throw them out myself. You keep them and get rid of it one day." Of course I could never. That's a task my grand-daughter will have to do one day if she can bear it.

I paid for the perfume and wore it around all day. David agreed that it definitely smelled of old lady, but not in a bad way. It's definitely strong - when I Googled it I read that in the 80s it was even banned from some restaurants due to its intensity. It's not an everyday fragrance, also I wouldn't want to overwrite the memory, or dull its olfactory punch, so I think I'll wear it sparingly, as a treat for when I need a shot of Granny.
Granny, 1952


  1. Lovely story!
    Would it be possible to have the address of this shop please.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts