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I was walking in thin drizzle through Village Saint Paul, a small and ancient cluster of antiques shops in the Marais in Paris. They were housed in a crumbling set of pale stone passageways arranged around a courtyard where there used to be, in the seventh century, a convent. I was looking for a birthday present for myself, dimly aware that I am said to be hard to please. Coming up with your own birthday presents seems to be the way of things these days. It never used to be the case. People did not use to make the solving of what to give you for your birthday the birthday girl’s problem. Times have changed.
I tried that clever thing that rarely works: imagining the sort of shop of my dreams. Suddenly, there it was. The shop was called Cassiopée. It specialised in arts de la table. But what arts! And what tables! I went inside straight away. I had that invigorated feeling that goes hand in hand with a crisis of the best sort.
The interior of the shop suggested the anteroom or service chambers of a grand palace. I just stood there breathing heavily, taking it all in. It was such a charming place to exist, the smallish room crammed with cutlery, glasses, august or sentimental-looking dinner services, candelabra and silver and gold serving dishes, all representing something very solid from the past. The room was set with two round tables laid as for a feast with sparkling crystal, monogrammed gleaming cutlery, and pink and gold-rimmed plates hand-painted with roses, which in a highly abstemious household could almost pass, empty, as the dessert course itself.
There were four-branch Baccarat crystal candelabra situated on side tables, all of them fluffy with polished, multifaceted droplets that would probably create the most flattering light known to woman. There were vast engraved silver tureens big enough for baptising twins. The glasses arranged on the wall of shelves couldn’t help but make you think of celebrating, champagne fountains and high romance. The whole atmosphere was very much of a party about to happen, a stage set for the most dazzling merriment.
The shop made me think for a second of the works of literature I most admire that feature feasting – “The Eve of St Agnes” by Keats and The Dead by James Joyce – works that present such a completely realised atmosphere and texture they scarcely seem to depend on the real world for anything.
I thought of a wonderful Broadway production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, where the silverware and the dishes performed an extended production number to welcome the potential princess: “Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test,” they sang, with dancers in spoon costumes pirouetting across the stage. I do like hospitality designed to stun.
If you wanted to start an empire or found a dynasty, you could do worse than to begin here. An acquaintance who is a high-end decorator in New York says her clients often ask her to buy books for their libraries and cutlery for their dining rooms as they are anxious about making a mistake and looking foolish, or of betraying the exquisite environments she creates for them. I picked up a silver carousel on which six silver egg cups were suspended next to six silver teaspoons. I do like a boiled egg for lunch.
A strange Upstairs, Downstairs battle started up in me, and it was quite vertiginous. One moment I imagined myself in lilac taffeta (after John Singer Sargent) bidding adieu to 400 guests at my turn-of-the-century New York mansion (including, perhaps, the man I loved who was not my husband, and whom I had vowed not to see again for 30 years); the next moment I was rolling up my sleeves for all the dusting and the polishing, the skin between my fingers cracked from boiling water and detergent, diagnosing the pain in my leg as housemaid’s knee.
One difficult thing about this gem of a shop: there weren’t what anyone would call bargains. If you bought something there and someone asked you what you paid, you might find yourself lying. Another difficult thing: instead of a tinkling piano the sound system quietly played that supremely unsuitable anthem: “Wrecking Ball,” by Miley Cyrus. “A ball in a china shop,” I murmured. An hour had passed. For some reason it was just not possible to leave.
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