Grand tour of the Apple retail palaces of Europe: London

Photos: Apple Inc.

FORTUNE — I can just see Steve Jobs getting excited about planting Apple’s (AAPL) flagship U.K. store in the Piazza of Covent Garden, near the Drury Lane Theater, St. Paul’s (“the Actor’s”) Church and, according to Fancyapint?, 272 pubs and bars.

Apple already had a store on Regent Street just a mile away in a busier district with serious shoppers and serious brand names: Hugo Boss, Anthropologie, Burberry’s.

But Covent Garden had a history.

Inigo Jones (Van Dyck)

It’s where the monks of Westminster Abbey grew their fruit and vegetables before Henry VIII seized their land. It’s where Inigo Jones, building homes for “gentlemen and men of ability,” first brought the vocabulary of Italian Renaissance architecture to England. It’s where, when the money moved out and the pubs and prostitutes moved in, “gentlemen of pleasure” sought out Betty Careless, Mother Douglass and the other women of negotiable virtue catalogued in Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.

After the original market was spruced up and re-opened as a retail center (the “Apple Market”), the 136-year-old building Apple Inc. now occupies housed a parade of short-lived enterprises, including a nightclub (Rock Garden) and a cheeky satirical TV puppet show (Spitting Image).

Opening day, 2010.

When Apple opened its doors with the usual fanfare in 2010, Covent Garden was the largest Apple Store in the world, with more than 60 tables, two glass staircases, a glass elevator and a large skylit atrium. (See ifoapplestore for more detail.)

Thanks to the strictures of British heritage protection, the space is a bit of an architectural hodgepodge, without the usual uniform Apple look. Behind the 20-foot stone arches of its eight-bay arcade is an odd mix of old and new — high-tech glass and exposed mechanical tubes above English oak floors and two kinds of brick: old and very old. (Some of the very old, I was told, had to be removed and cleaned one brick at a time.)

It’s a busy store — the busiest I’d seen in Europe. I clocked nine visitors per minute at noon and nearly 15 at 3 p.m. — which was a European record until I walked to the Regent Street store, where I counted 225 people between 4:40 and 4:55 p.m.

The atrium.

The most popular device tables at Covent Garden, according to my 3:15 p.m. snapshot, were the iPhones (39 visitors, mostly school kids), followed by Macs (34), iPads (30) and iPods (5). I counted 57 people in Genius Bar areas and 14 in the third-floor accessory department.

I left London in the rain, appropriately enough, glad I’d thought to bring an umbrella.

Next and last stop: Barcelona. See also AmsterdamBerlin and Paris.

Below: A typical Apple Covent Garden launch event.


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