TAMPA — Only one ground rule stood for those fortunate enough to catch the Earl Charles Spencer, Princess Diana's younger brother, during his brief visit here Monday: There would be absolutely no questions about the late princess or the royal family.
Spencer wasn't here to talk about painful memories, sordid affairs or royal secrets. He was perched on a fine upholstered chair in West Shore Boulevard's Livingston Furniture for one reason only: to talk about furniture.
Livingston Furniture is one of only a handful of furniture dealers in Florida who sell the Althorp Living History line. It's a 350-piece collection that features replicas of antique furniture from Althorp, the Spencer family's 500-year-old ancestral home in England.
Spencer, 44, now owns and lives in the home, and he launched the Althorp Living History home furnishing brand in the United States four years ago. Since then, he has taken annual tours through North America to promote the furniture, and a few months ago, Livingston Furniture owner Dick Greenfield learned he was on "the short list."
"It's definitely the most exciting thing to happen in this store," said Greenfield, who has owned Livingston since 1978.
Greenfield wasn't the only one giddy over the visit from nobility. Around a hundred customers, collectors and Princess Diana enthusiasts showed up at the store, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tall, rosy-cheeked, blond aristocrat.
Though no one was allowed to bring up Diana (unless the questions pertained to her life at Althorp or her favorite furniture), her influence over the crowd was hard to ignore.
John Hoatson, 35, has been collecting Princess Diana memorabilia since he was 8 years old, and his Venice home is now covered wall to wall. He has written letters to Diana's mother, but this was his first time meeting a Spencer in person.
"I'm very excited," he said. "I brought a piece of her wedding cake that I bought at an auction four years ago. I've collected many Althorp pieces and think it's a lovely way to acquire a part of her family's history."
Spencer autographed many of the store's pieces, which included a $13,950 replica of an 18th-century cabinet that contains 100 drawers and his favorite, a $1,980 Washington cabinet, replicated from the one George Washington's ancestors owned in the 1600s. The most affordable pieces, picture frames and mahogany boxes, began at around $120.
Spencer marveled at the timelessness of the pieces, and how the public still seems very much interested in the Althorp legacy.
"The history just keeps trundling along," Spencer said, "and it's fascinating to watch from both the outside and the inside."
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio couldn't be there for Spencer's visit, but she sent over a hand-painted plate rimmed in bright green and featuring a colorful minimural bearing Tampa's name.
"Oh, good," Spencer said as people around the room chuckled. "This will be a nice addition to the Althorp collection."
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.