Monday, 17 November 2014

Unexpectedly reprising my 'Mata Hari' moniker on a visit to House of Minster gift shop & perfumery, Lichfield

Source: Wikimedia Commons
As I mentioned in my last post in reference to the reviewing of samples, the wheels on Bonkers grind very slowly. So much so that I am only now getting round to writing up a day trip to the jewel in Staffordshire's crown that is the cathedral city of Lichfield. Um...the day out in question was last May in fact, when a colleague D, who was similarly at a loose end workwise, invited me to join her for lunch and a mooch round the shops. Our tour was to include Lichfield's upmarket gift shop-cum-perfumery, House of Minster, of which I had read good reports in those local coffee table magazines you find lying about in dentists, but which in the past nearly seven years of my hobby, I had conspicuously failed to visit.

In anticipation of the very real prospect of a glass of wine or two with lunch - my colleague is a bit of an oenophile - I decided to use public transport. The route takes about an hour compared with 35-40 minutes in the car. Unfortunately, I added an additional hour to the travel time by waiting patiently for the bus on the wrong side of the street. As someone who has found a specific Nissen hut at the top of a mountain in the Mojave desert without the help of GPS or a map, and located a factory in Croatia purely on the basis of the wordless semaphore directions of an elderly lady selling tomatoes by the roadside, I felt extremely foolish to have failed to clock the correct bus stop not 200 yards from my house.


Eventually, I made it to the terminus at Lichfield where D was there to greet me, seemingly unfazed by my spectacular navigational gaffe. We decided to repair without ado to House of Minster, where, after a quick shufty at the gift section - full of noble looking teddies, trays, trinkets, kitchen accessories and what it used to please Mr Bonkers generically to call 'stuff' - I 'hit' the perfume counter. The array of brands was impressive for a perfumery in the provinces, including Creed, Balmain, Atkinsons, Lubin, Trussardi, Miller Harris, Boucheron, Bvlgari, Cartier and many others. A really surprise inclusion was the range from Absolument Parfumeur, which I featured in my most recent post about Woodforde Perfumery in Sidmouth.

Sadly there were no samples available of the first scent to catch my eye, Miller Harris Le Petit Grain, though the sales assistant kindly scurried upstairs at one point to see if she might have one knocking around in a drawer. Obviously, any recollections of how a particular scent smelt are going to be woefully historic now, but Le Petit Grain was a bracing citrus I would have liked to have enjoyed at more leisure. Even now, there is a trace of something zesty on the blotter I kept... Other perfumes I tested on card at least were Trussardi Delicate Rose, Boucheron Place Vendôme, Bvlgari Omnia Indian Garnet, D & G Dolce, Balmain Extatic and Mercedes-Benz Perfume (the men's one)! I do remember that the Daimler number was a little bit like Puredistance M, so not my cup of tea really. In truth I was not wowed by anything I tried - and the spelling of the Balmain scent additionally troubled me - until I broached the Atkinsons range.

It was hard to miss really, as there was a stonking great factice on the counter as well as a prominent display with all the scents perched on it. I didn't dislike any of them, but the standouts on the day were 24 Old Bond Street (a crisp, G & T-style cologne featuring declared notes of juniper, rose, whisky and tea), and The Oddfellow's Bouquet, a spicy oriental. Pleasantly haunted by these two, I managed to buy a sample of the former on a visit to Roullier White with Sabine of Iridescents in July. And I have just caught up with The Oddfellow's Bouquet again when Sabine kindly sent me a little package of samples the other day.

I am sorry to report that subsequent trials with The Oddfellow's Bouquet have not lived up to my memory of the scent on that first testing - possibly because of the card / skin distinction. There was something 'oddly' mismatched about the combination of notes and something specific I didn't care for, though I couldn't put my finger on it. Having since clocked the notes, I am pretty sure now that it will have been the heliotrope.

Notes: heliotrope, tobacco, ginger, pepper, labdanum, benzoin

In fact I would align myself with this review by Kevin on Now Smell This. Like him, I feel that Volutes is a more successful fragrance by the perfumer, Fabrice Pellegrin. Persolaise also finds The Odd Fellow's Bouquet odd - but strangely compelling - and invites readers to picture 'a bow-tie-wearing gent wielding a cigar in one hand whilst sprinkling pine needles onto a child's chemistry set with the other'. The rest of his review is pretty off the wall and amusing, and I am further reassured that it isn't just me who finds the composition a bit peculiar. Sabine herself had more luck with it, and found it well blended - her only issue was with the undue manliness of the name.

Okay, so what's with this Mata Hari moniker malarkey, I hear you interject? Well, to continue my ongoing theme of the work-related 'spying missions' I used to carry out, I once acquitted myself very well on an acquisition project in the stair parts sector, prompting the Chairman of the client company to dub me 'The Mata Hari of the spindle world'. As for the relevance of this moniker to the post in hand, well it concerns the practice of taking photographs of respondents and their buildings, which was another aspect of the job - sometimes also on a covert basis, as explained here

Source: Wikipedia

And it was for this same reason that the visit to House of Minster started to unravel. As ever, when I think I might wish to blog about somewhere I have visited, I like to take a few photographs, so I asked the sales assistant's permission and she said to go right ahead. Because of the position of the Atkinsons display I needed to crouch down to take some of the shots, and this squatting pose immediately attracted the suspicious attention of not one but two of her colleagues in quick succession. They didn't stop to ascertain if I was legitimately snapping away, but just weighed in with their rather pointed questions. The first lady said snippily: 'May I ask what you are doing?', while the second actually squatted down beside me and inquired, with heavy sarcasm: 'May I help you?' I quickly explained that I had asked their colleague if it was okay to take pictures, and told them about the blog post I was thinking of writing, and how the photos would bring it to life. D chipped in by kindly bigging up Bonkers, and reiterating that my intentions were honourable, and that a blog post can surely only be good for retailers and potential customers alike. Well, except for the fact that the staff of House of Minster seemed to think that my perfume bottle 'papping' was at best unorthodox, and at worst the unmistakable MO of a spy - which on this occasion was categorically not the case.

So at that point we made a sharp exit and adjourned for lunch. Alcohol was indeed involved as predicted, together with a fine view of Lichfield cathedral (though you can't quite see it in this shot!). Somewhat more lubricated than is customary at that time of day, we ambled round the shops, where I made a purchase of a pair of very tight cropped trousers - know rather fittingly as 'bistro' trousers - or not fittingly known, more like.

Have you ever come a cropper in a perfumery trying to take photographs - with or without permission? Do spill the beans about the perils of the perfume paparazzi!


  1. What is it with the suspician over photographing perfumeries? It's so strange. Are they worried someone will copy their unique display? Very odd.

    Anyway, it does sound like they have a nice little range, especially considering their location. I wondered if you'd like Odd Fellows Bouquet and now I know. Shame it didn't work for you but being a fellow (odd!) heliotrope phobe I can understand.

    I can also understand going the wrong way practically on your doorstop. I think you are less complacent about the direction you're heading in the Mojave desert :)

    Oh and I love "The Mata Hari of the spindle world"!

    1. Hi Tara,

      I had the same thing happen at Space NK once when I wanted to photograph a Diptyque display, and they cited 'intellectual property reasons'. It is silly really, as you could cobble together the images of the Diptyque range from Google if you really put your mind to it. And which is what I may in fact have done, haha.

      I was sorry about The Odd Fellow being a bit of an odd bod, as the notes otherwise would have been my kind of thing.

      Yes, I was mortified at my complacence about the bus stop, and you are absolutely right that it was me being too laid back in my own town. In the whole hour I stood there, I never thought to check where the buses were going on the other side of the street. I had already watched a couple that I should have taken drive right past me in that time!

    2. This is interesting - I called a "local" (45 miles away) Space NK (inside Bloomies) asking how large their Diptyque display was to see if it would be worth the drive. The sales assistant that answered the phone took a photo of the display herself and texted it to me so I could see for myself! Maybe I just got lucky with a real nice gal. :)

    3. Hi Sun,

      That is what I call real customer service! The SA knew that that there was a better chance of your visiting if you could see the potential for yourself. I heartily approve. I had that happen once with a bathroom showroom, but never in the perfume sphere. I have also had people at sanitaryware companies measuring loo pans and cisterns for me, which was amusing. ;)

    4. Yes - she was really sweet! That girl was not there when I did eventually trek down to Space NK - but that was better because the Nordstroms had just started carrying Diptyque and their selection was probably 3x as large. So I made the purchase there and didn't feel guilty to the girl that sent me the pic, hehe.

      It sounds like those sanityware companies know where the customer service is at too! :)

    5. Hi Sun,

      Well, that worked out for the best in the end, as you ended up somewhere else... ;)

      Yes, I was most impressed with the response of some of the bathroom companies, though I was quite persuasive. I really needed to know the projection of the cistern for example, which was not always in the drawings.

  2. Oh, I was forbidden to take pictures in one! :) I think it was in Paris Sephora.
    That said, there are small perfumeries that will allow you take pics if you ask, a great example Parfumarija in Dublin where I was actually encouraged to do so once I stated my interest. :)

    1. Hi Ines,

      Oh boo! I must say my experience has been very mixed. I have had small perfumeries refuse and big chains say okay. I think a lot is down to the farsightedness of the staff at that store, as in your Dublin instance.

  3. Shame that the Odd fellow was odd for you.I only asked once to take a picture, at the wonderful Jovoy, and they were OK about it. Lichfield cathedral looks stunning btw.

    1. Hi Sabine,

      Ah, I have also taken photos at Jovoy and they were fine with me too. That sofa at the back was so photogenic, never mind the perfumes!

      Yes, Lichfield cathedral is quite something. I believe it is unique in the fact that its three spires were all original features, rather than one being 'retrofitted', as it were. ;)

  4. I think it's just a general stupidity of SAs that makes them to object taking pictures of perfume displays. I was told "No" a couple of times and there was never a good reason for that.

    I saw Atkinsons brand at Barney's and even sniffed something from the bottle but those bottles look huge (without being factice! ;) ) that I was reluctant even to start getting to know them.

    1. Hi Undina,

      Interesting - I assumed it was at least due to some higher notion of 'copyright', however low in practice the actual risk of infringement.

      Those Atkinsons bottles are a bit huge, it's true. Not unlike the jumbo one of mouthwash I rejected in Superdrug the other day, deciding to come back when they had a smaller format in stock. ;)

    2. What?!! Why would you do anything like that? Bigger volume usually costs less per ml. I buy the biggest bottles available but keep the smaller one and keep re-filing it. It's not like you'll stop using it any time soon or get tired of the particular variety. (Just in case: I'm talking about a mouthwash, not perfume ;) ).

    3. It would have cost more per ml, no question. But I have limited storage space in the bathroom, and wouldn't know where to keep such an enormous thing. It's the Listerine brand - the big bottles are like factices! But if I had the space, I would do as you say, and am doing just that with small bottles of Bioderma Sensibio and even smaller bottles again!