What Mary Helen sells are the remains of an aristocratic lifestyle. "The nobility furnished their countryside châteaux with fine furniture," she notes. "Often the wood was left au naturel, but the furniture was certainly not rustique." Before she and husband Ron launched the business in 1990, Mary Helen was an assistant to Frances Emond, who owned Wardemond, once the best antiques shop in Birmingham. Together, they went on buying trips to Europe where Mary Helen fell hard for French furniture. "I grew up surrounded by beautiful things-Oriental rugs and English furniture and ceramics," says the former arts student. "But French antiques are my addiction."
In her shop, we survey the fruits of her yearly shopping trips to the French countryside. A showy Louis XIV marquetry commode bejeweled with elaborate bronze mounts outshines a towering lyonnaise armoire. The surface of the three-drawer chest served as a kind of canvas for marquetry master Thomas Hache (1664-1747), who arranged hand-sawn slivers of contrasting-colored woods (ebony, olive, and walnut) into flowery pictures. "Hache was to marquetry what Boulle was to brass," says Mary Helen, who is asking $450,000 for the commode.
Less formal but no less spectacular is a Régence walnut console, which Mary Helen describes as a table à gibier. Edged with a leafy frieze and capped with a thick slab of marble the color of greenbacks, the table served to cool roasted pheasant, ducks, and other game, or gibier, in the early 18th cen tury. But today's hunters in the field shoot for domesticated tables rather than wild boar.
Mary Helen insists that her shop is but one of many Birmingham "must sees." Within seconds, out tumbles a playlist of the city's greatest hits, which she gamely agrees to share. Great restaurants and cafés, a growing art and antiques scene, a civil-rights museum, a science center, a botanical garden, a zoo, and plenty of Southern charm are promised-and delivered.
What's missing is attitude. When I couldn't pony up for an iced tea at Birmingham's boho hot spot Chez Lulu because I left my wallet back at the hotel, the waitress told me not to fret. "Drop by later to pay your debt," she said with a wide smile. This was a stunning gesture that perhaps only a New Yorker can fully appreciate.