A 30-second walk off of Oxford Street are 200 shops which you might not know existed.
Selling everything from 2000+ year old Egyptian artefacts to a sequin dress bearing the famous image of Warhol's Campbell's Soup, Grays Antique Centre is as interesting for what flows through its basement as for its eclectic range of traders.
Despite the wealth of pedestrian traffic on nearby Oxford Street, the centre's not well advertised. Crossrail hoardings outside the wedge-shaped red brick building don't help matters.
The scanning eyes of three of four traders alight on us as we push the glass door open. The centre is a mini shopping centre, several straight corridors intersecting each other, lined with small shops — some only big enough for one person, others merely glass cabinets. There's a library atmosphere, silence broken only by the occasional murmuring of the few other weekday browsers.
"How's the family?", one customer asks a trader. These are serious antiques dealers who thrive on repeat customers. It's a bit intimidating to be honest; stallholders lull about with no sense of urgency. Some polish their silverware and jewellery displays, other amuse themselves on Kindles and iPads. They're clearly used to biding their time. There's no jumping up, eager to please each and every person that walks by. Or perhaps we just don't look in the market for serious silverware (an accurate observation, to be fair).
Downstairs, silverware and jewellery dominate still, interspersed with the occasional display of artwork or militaria. Yet it's a ghost town — even fewer shops are open down here, the rest shuttered up with notes letting prospective customers know how they can contact the owners.
Back out on the street, a sign directs passers-by to a second building, Grays Mews, home to more antiques dealers (the website claims a total of 200, split across both buildings. We'd estimate that less than 50% of them are open on our weekday lunchtime visit, as is the whim of the antiques world).
Grays Mews is more your typical antiques centre. Art specialists, coin dealers and Middle Eastern antiquities experts sit side-by-side. It's more welcoming than the first building, with shop owners mingling, keeping half an eye on their own shops while they chat in someone else's.
Whitewashed walls, grey shop signs and a mottled grey lino floor debunk the stereotype of a dusty and chaotic antiques shop — it feels more hospital than historical. Inside each shop, though, is the mish-mash of treasure our formative years spent watching Antiques Road Trip have led us to expect.
We'll come back to the ground floor; what we're really here to see is down in the basement.
Yes, that's a river. Well, supposedly. Grays claims it's part of the River Tyburn, a lost London river now buried beneath the streets and buildings of the city. (We think it's more likely a stream that feeds into it, or another source of water altogether.) A steady trickle of water is the only soundtrack to this underground shoppers' playground, the goldfish the only movement. It's so deserted, we wonder who the customers are. The Oxford Street hordes certainly haven't discovered it.
"Once they've found us, they keep coming back," says Gillian Horsup, one of six dealers who combine to form vintage fashion store Vintage Modes, tucked away under the staircase at one end of the basement. Her customers are a mixture of UK and overseas dealers.
"It's comfortable and warm here, not like being in a normal market where people can't try things on." She should know; her 11 years at Grays were preceded by several years at Camden Passage in Islington, where "two buildings were sold from under me", as well as several other markets.
"I have fun wearing jewellery and encourage others to do the same," she says, "like these earrings". She points to the grape sized red glass balls hanging from her ears by two-inch chains. "People told me not to buy them, said they're too big".
"Have you got one of those necklaces you're wearing?" asks a browser with perfect timing. And Gillian's off, suggesting colours, styles, shades.
"We get all sorts down here" says Amanda Langham — another of Vintage Modes' traders — with a coy smile, but she's reluctant to elaborate. What she does tell us is that her items — mainly 1950s print dresses and fur coats — are regularly hired out for music videos. Names such as Kylie and Whitney roll off her tongue as if personal friends. Gillian's items too have appeared in the likes of Vogue, Dazed and Wonderland in her 35 years in the business.
While we're browsing through the overstuffed racks of dresses and boxes of leather handbags, a hubbub erupts on the carpeted staircase above our heads. Three people are trying to get a wooden and glass cabinet down the stairs. The smell of fresh paint from an empty shop tells us that another trader is due to move in soon. Nobody knows who.
Back upstairs in daylight, we chat to Pavlos S. Pavlou, a coin expert who previously worked as a cataloguer at Bonhams. Before that, he was a banker. "Even now, I still work in coins", he grins.
Passing trade doesn't really exist, but it's not a problem. "Those who know the market come" he says, sharing the story of a regular guest at Claridge's who stumbled across the market one day. He happened to be a coin collector, and is now one of Pavlos's best customers. Ben Morvaridi joins our conversation before leading us to his own family's shop, specialising in Islamic, Greek and Roman ancient artefacts.
He offers a whirlwind tour through ancient Egyptian statues and 12th century Middle Eastern pottery, chatting animatedly about each item, its history, its importance. He sags slightly when asked where he sources his stock, imparting on us the difficulties of this particular trade; the countries he specialises in have forbidden exports of valuable items since 1982, so unless it was already in Europe by then, he has no way of getting hold of it.
Still, his goods are more special than almost anything you'd find 100m away on Oxford Street.
Grays Antique Centre, 58 Davies Street/ 1-7 Davies Mews, Mayfair, W1K 5AB. Open Monday-Friday 10am-6pm and Saturday 11am-5pm (although if you want to visit a specific shop or dealer, check before you go, as they don't all open every day). Closed Sunday.