Jermyn Street, that last refuge of raffish men's shoes, was a disappointment; New & Lingwood, a perfect shoe shop in all other respects, could only suggest making a pair (or preferably two) at a price which John Steed would call a trifle expensive, and John Major a by no means insubstantial sum. Fashion shops were no help, proffering Chelsea-style boots with platforms, zips, straps, buckles and otherwise podiatrically incorrect heels and soles.
But there, under my feet in my own native corner of London, were Chelsea boots - black leather, brown leather and suede in every size - waiting behind a nondescript shop front to tread the boards and pavements of London town. At just pounds 45 a pair.
A & G Martin-Stone appears to be the sort of old-fashioned and very ordinary London shop you would normally pass by without a first, let alone a second glance. Sited on that stretch of the Edgware Road known as Maida Vale at Little Venice, this family- owned and family-run shop stocks an astonishing range, running into several hundreds of 'ladies' and 'gentleman's' shoes: classic, fashionable, fogey, great aunt, exotic, romantic, eccentric. This is an Aladdin's cave for shoe lovers or those simply in need of well-made leather shoes at bargain basement prices.
It is one of the few surviving independent shoe shops in London and its owners, Anita and Graham Martin-Stone (and Graham's father, Arthur) run it as independently as it is possible to run such a shop and earn a reasonable profit. 'We've very low overheads,' says Graham, 'so we're able to sell high quality shoes cheaply. This is a genuine family business: if we need an extra pair of hands in the shop, we ask another member of the family to help out. We're unaffected by the recession because people tend to discover us when they're feeling the pinch. Our brogues and Oxfords are recession-beaters, less than half the price people expect to pay for them.'
Racks of handsome and well- crafted black Oxfords and brown brogues are crammed into the tiny interior. 'We deal closely with four factories in Northamptonshire,' says Graham, 'working with them on new designs or else ordering traditional designs they've been making for the past hundred years.
'Alfred Sergeant, which makes our Chelsea boots, for example, and many of our classic men's shoes, is happy to run up a batch of just 12 pairs of one our own designs. When black suede brogues became fashionable a few years ago, they made those for us quickly, so we were able to offer our customers what they said they wanted.
'Arthur Sergeant,' adds Graham, 'is one of those excellent factories that's been making shoes for clothes shops like Blazer under their labels. We thought they should be making shoes using their own name; about five years ago they agreed to and now people are beginning to recognise an Arthur Sergeant shoe.
'Because we can order in small numbers, we can afford to take the risk of stocking up on unusual shoes. They always seem to sell, eventually. At the moment, we're working on a design for a full heavyweight brogue, the sort you can wear in heavy rain and tramp across fields in without ruining them,' he says.
'We think hard about the little details. We're thinking about what size holes we should use for the decoration before putting them into production.'
Cheap, high quality shoes, an extraordinary choice of styles and two of the most expert and talkative shopkeepers in London add up to a shop that keeps loyal customers. It has long been a favourite with showbiz types. 'We've made and repaired shoes for West End shows,' says Graham. 'A lot of actors live in the area; Arthur Lowe used to be one our favourites - he always bought shoes here - so is Edward Fox.
'My father started the shop in 1935 a little way up the road and we moved here in 1970. Originally, we did repairs and sold slippers; now we don't do repairs, but sell shoes and accessories. We still sell slippers, although we moved more into ballet pumps about 10 or 12 years ago. Along with middle- aged, mumsy shoe styles, these are our bestselling ladies' line.' Hardly surprising; a pair of French-made leather ballet pumps in a choice of 12 colours, including a sparkly and very popular harem gold, cost just pounds 13.
'It's designs like gold ballet pumps and suede Chelsea boots that go in and out of style,' says Graham. 'This is annoying for customers who come back in two or three or even five years time to buy another pair only to find they've gone out of production. We try to keep as many designs as we can in stock; but, even if we hadn't had a pair of suede Chelsea boots for you, we would have made up a batch.'
It is hard to think of another shoe shop which would say that, without the price tag hitting three figures.
'I can't see,' says Graham Martin-Stone, wrapping up a pair of suede brogues in separate brown paper bags after carefully 'Scotchguarding them' and adding a complementary wire cleaning brush, 'quite why you want to write about our shop. It's not exactly Bond Street, is it? Do we have to pay to be in the paper?' When a shop is as well-stocked, well-run, as cheap and as unassuming as this, who could possibly refuse their feet a stroll along the Edgware Road to Maida Vale. At A & G Martin-Stone, you have nothing to lose but your corns.
A & G Martin-Stone, 449 Edgware Road, London W2 (071-723 9727).
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