VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Notes From Abroad | Tracking Global Retail

In Florence, It’s Farewell to Old England

Historic retailer to close its doors after over 90 years in business

Every once in awhile we come across a fantastic legacy business that is in danger of being demolished and we just wish we could find the right person to rescue it.

 

In Italy, a narrow little shop in the center of Florence called Old England is just one of those places.

 

One enters and feels as though one has stepped back in time. It’s a store that is just begging to be discovered by a smart and savvy hipster: Old England has the pedigree and all of the trappings to be polished into that genre of “authentic” retail that is usually painfully imitated.

 

Here, it’s the real deal, a store where generations of Florentine expats and aristocrats came to stock up on fine imported goods from the British Empire.

 

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Courtesy I. Miel Ventagli

At top, a portrait of Old England’s founder, Carlo Marcacci, who took inspiration from the successful Anglo-American Supply Stores, where he was director. Below, an antique fan from the period advertises Anglo-American’s three locations.

Old England is a sliver of a store located on Via Vecchietti, that has somehow managed to survive 92 years – until now.

 

 

With barely a month’s notice, the owners announced that they must close; yet another casualty of Italy’s struggling economy and the seismic shift in how people shop. The news of its closing has stayed remarkably off the radar making it a slim chance of finding the right candidate who would respect Old England’s DNA. And while becoming another hipster establishment is not our first choice, it’s certainly a viable one for keeping the store alive.

 


Here, it’s the real deal, a store where generations of Florentine expats and aristocrats came to stock up on fine imported goods from the British Empire.


 

 

“The generation that understands and cares about this kind of quality and these kinds of goods is getting smaller,” says Susanna Marcacci, wife of Antonio Marcacci whose great-great grandfather founded the store in 1924. “We cannot survive. The city is changing.”

 

Indeed it is: the center of Florence is increasingly becoming home to major luxury brands and the kinds of stores meant really for the constant flow of foreign tourists.

 

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At top, a view of the front of the store, which is stocked with a large assortment of British dry goods, liquors, and housewares. Center and below, the rear of the store with its selection of women’s and men’s wear, all of it imported from Great Britain. 

 


“The generation that understands and cares about this kind of quality and these kinds of goods is getting smaller.”


 

There are no big brand names in Old England. Only old ones. Needless to say, nothing in this store is labeled with anything but “Made in England.”

 

British sartorial style has always had a place in Italian consciousness, beginning with the golden age of what was known as the “Grand Tour,” a phenomenon that began in the 17th century when wealthy English families made the fashionable pilgrimage to Italy to see its famous ruins and classical art.

 

The British fell in love with the ruins of the Roman Empire and Italians fell in love with all things English — minus the food, probably: the polished purity of fine saddle leathers, Irish linens, Savile Row tailoring, and the quaint elegance of “British Style.”

 

What evolved was a series of “Anglo American” shops that popped up throughout Italy and France. Most of those stores have long since closed and now, so will Old England.

 

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Antonio Marcacci with his wife Susanna. Antonio’s great-great grandfather founded the store in 1924. The store is one of the last in Italy specializing in British goods.

“Everything has become more expensive here in Florence, and we are finding that there just aren’t as many people who appreciate this kind of merchandise,” says Susanna. “People who want to touch, to feel the quality. They know.” She uses that word to underscore the kind of clientele who shops at the store.

 

Tuscan nobility (or those who simply had a second home here) shopped at Old England because — pre-internet and jet aeroplane — it was the only place where you could buy a few hundred meters of top-notch double-faced cashmere or genuine Scottish tweed. Or perhaps some Liberty of London printed cottons with which to make a summer frock.

 

In those days, the store doubled as a social hub, with foreign newspapers and a daily afternoon tea. That ended in 1960.

 

Now in its last days, the front of the store is still brimming with English groceries: biscuits, jams, teas, canned goods, and the requisite Pimm’s Cup, Balvenie whisky, and Beefeater Gin.

 

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At top, customers line up to shop Old England’s final days. Center, a pair of 1960’s era duffle coats that were discovered in the basement. Below, a selection of driving caps and hat quills.

On the first day that the store’s closing was announced, a hundred or more people waited in long lines to get into the store. Shoppers left with armloads of Shetland wool sweaters, silk bathrobes, and even some remarkable dead-stock merchandise that was discovered in the store’s basement: classic duffle coats, a Burberrys cashmere coat(with the old label) , and stacks of scarves and driving caps.

 

Old-fashioned Christmas “crackers” (a cardboard tube that explodes when two people pull on it together) are stacked on the floor, waiting for the store’s last loyal customers to bring home and celebrate the end of 2016.

 

But for Susanna and Antonio Marcacci, there will be no celebration. “Old England was born here, and now it will die here,” says Susanna.

 

Antonio stands behind her, arms crossed, stoic in his effort to hold back emotion. Old England is a family legacy which he must let go. Efforts to campaign the city of Florence to save the store have gone nowhere. All that will be saved is the building itself.

 

“The city will not even allow us to take the furniture, even though it is ours — my family’s. Everything, the lights, the chairs, the cases, have been here forever. And now we must go and leave them all behind.”

 

 

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