When the Point Isn’t Just to Stay Dry

Sunday was one of the rainiest days in New York’s weather history, Monday was soggy and Tuesday was mostly gray before the sun finally returned. All over Manhattan, umbrellas were being hawked for $4, as they always are at the first drop of rain.

Indoors on East 45th Street near Madison Avenue, the least expensive umbrellas Peggy Levee had for sale cost $38.

She keeps them on the highest rack, out of the view of all but the most observant customer, because they are not the top quality umbrellas she admires most. “I was going to accommodate the people who want cheaper umbrellas,” Ms. Levee said. “But they can get that somewhere else. You cannot get a $38 umbrella that’s quality.”

Her shop, Rain or Shine, which opened in 2002, is no hawker’s fold-up table and its umbrellas are unlikely to end up in trash cans, or floating in gutters. They sell for $38 to $995, come in designer fabric from Jean Paul Gaultier ($170); with handles made from bamboo, hazel and ash ($305); or shaped to look like cats ($75) and skulls ($165); or tipped with sterling silver ($995). They are flown in from Milan; London; Branau, Austria; and Paris — where the manufacturer Guy de Jean sews a model called the “Cancan,” named for its layers of swishy pink fabric voluminous as a dancer’s petticoats ($170).

That the shop sells a $38 umbrella at all “is kind of a compromise,” said Ms. Levee, 54, the store’s owner. “Even those, I don’t like to sell.”

On Tuesday, four customers walked out when they heard the prices. Ms. Levee was not surprised, just disappointed. “There are a lot of people who only understand cheap, disposable umbrellas,” she said, arms crossed. “They just think it’s something you buy and you throw it out, something disposable — like everything now in the U.S.”

Her umbrellas, she says, are of a completely different quality from those found on the streets, or, for that matter, in Duane Reade. Some have solid wood handles or fiberglass frames, which hold up well in the wind, and all are guaranteed to last at least two years. Those $4 umbrellas may not make it much past the first time they are unfurled.

One patron claimed his Fox umbrella, a gift from a British diplomat, had lasted 35 years.

But that really is not the point.

Umbrella lovers like Mark Chandler, 50, a set designer who has bought props at Rain or Shine, are not influenced by the weather. Walking in, he said, “I want something chic and black,” and scooped up a bamboo-handled Fox umbrella for $85. “My Louis Vuitton broke a year ago,” Mr. Chandler explained. He had gone a year “umbrellaless” rather than deign to use a street-bought version. “I’d rather be wet!”

Roman Ajzen, 29, a lawyer, wanted a blue umbrella for his girlfriend, who had moved to London. He ended up with an azure-striped, brass-handled Pasotti lady’s umbrella ($120), which looked like what Mary Poppins might have carried if she had been a member of a country club. “I have old people tastes,” Mr. Ajzen said.

Ms. Levee said she did not understand why people did not regard umbrellas as accessories, much like a briefcase or a pair of nice shoes.

“I always see guys with pink umbrellas like they ran out of the house and grabbed their girlfriend’s or whatever,” she said with pity. “In Jersey City, I saw a guy running to his car with a little kid’s umbrella. He was a big guy, and it was this little, tiny thing. I wish I had taken a picture of that, really.”

Her $38 umbrellas, though nearly 10 times the price of a street vendor’s umbrella, are designed in Onati, Spain, but manufactured in China, and not of the quality Ms. Levee is interested in selling. “I’m starting to phase out the cheaper umbrellas,” she said. “That’s not why I went into business.”

Some of her employees share Ms. Levee’s passion. One salesman, Lou Cruz, 40, says she “fell in love with umbrellas” when she started selling at Rain or Shine eight years ago.

Ramón Henriquez, 71, a repairman there, has been working on them since he started making umbrellas by hand in the Dominican Republic in 1958. Since he came to New York in 1967, Mr. Henriquez said, his career has taken him through two umbrella factories — since closed, due to competition from the Chinese factories that supply street sellers — and to Rain or Shine, where on Monday he set about repairing four umbrellas flattened in Sunday’s storm.

Bad weather meant more repairs, of course, but it also meant that the shop could make a few converts.

“I spent a lot of money on umbrellas over the years,” said James Baxter, 73, a retired security guard from Harlem, after making a purchase. “My lady and my son can’t keep their hands off mine. And everything they put their hands on breaks.”

The black and white Vogue umbrella he bought was the first one he hopes is sturdy enough that his family will not break it and expensive enough – at $42 — that he can tell his 6-year-old, “If you use it, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Luis Tovar, 20, who writes for a music blog called Pretty Much Amazing, had suffered from a drowned street umbrella. He tried out a few basic styles, and ended up buying an $85 collapsible model by Fox. “Will you throw this cheapie away?” he asked Ms. Cruz, handing over a soggy, broken jangle of metal. She said she would, gladly.

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