In Praise of the Doyenne of the Perfume Counter

I realize that I am becoming the prototypical old man when I see things changing and wish for them to stay the same. I have been exchanging e-mail with one of my earliest perfume acquaintances who has recently retired. Back in the late 1980’s I was really just starting to broaden my fragrance horizons. In those days of yore there was no such thing as smartphones and the internet to look things up at the speed of your data connection. What passed for that resource was the Senior Sales Associate at your favorite department store. Carolyn was that Doyenne of the Perfume Counter for me.

Carolyn presided over her fragrant space with grace and patience. She would explain and then give me strips to illustrate the difference between chypre and fougere. As we carried on an almost thirty year affair she knew what I liked and what I probably wouldn’t. I would often go in on a weekday just to have a little more time to chat. We started out as eager student/teacher and finished as peers. Nothing made me happier than to receive an e-mail from her on one of my latest reviews. I valued her opinion and was thrilled that she came to value mine. She was the one who taught me that even if the bottle has bows and flowers on it if I liked it I should wear it.

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(Illustration: Zohar Lazar via GQ)

Upon her retirement I inquired if she had trained a replacement and her answer was, “No.” Her department store was going to use an assortment of line representatives instead of having a permanent position in charge of fine fragrance sales. This seems to be the way things are evolving. Since I moved to the Washington DC area I haven’t found the counterpart to Carolyn here. I certainly did in Boston but I suspect once those Doyennes retire those positions will, as well.

Like landlines and compact discs the day of a single person curating a department store’s fragrance department is a quaint old-fashioned notion. The necessity in our immediate information gratification society is certainly reduced if it is just the facts you are after. What I think this generation of perfume lovers will miss is the opportunity to create a relationship around a common love for perfume. Now, to find the same interpersonal service, it requires you to have a small fragrance boutique in your city. The owners of those businesses are more interested in creating a long-time customer over a one-time sale.

With Carolyn’s retirement I realize it will be far too soon that I will have little reason to visit the department store fine fragrance department. All things change but it is human nature to wish that some of them might be immune to evolutions of style. I wish Carolyn the best of her retirement and her extra time with her grandchildren. Her child of the perfume counter will miss visiting with her.

Mark Behnke

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