LONDON’S MOST QUIRKY AND CHARACTERFUL INDEPENDENT SHOPS ARE A JOY TO BROWSE
Like all big cities, London has a large turnover: many shops open and close every year, but in hardly any other metropolis will you find an equally high percentage of traditional family businesses that have existed for hundred years and more – from boot and hat makers to pie and mash shops; from producers of buttonholes to bell foundries.
Although London is one of the most important financial capitals in the world, Londoners are traditional at heart. They love to go to the same shops again and again. They also love all things old. Vintage shops, from fashion and antique furniture to architectural antiques, play an important role in English culture.
Innovative businesses, which sell new products or find new ways of distributing their goods, add their spice to the dish that is the independent shop scene. It is London’s ability to constantly reinvent itself while retaining a respect for tradition and continuity that makes it such an exciting city both to visit and to live in.
6 Best Independent Shops in London
Pentreath & Hall
The first things you notice upon entering Pentreath & Hall (previous page) are the beautiful white plaster casts. There is also a fireplace, a dresser with a lovely collection of crockery, and a colourful armchair that invites you to sit down, read a book or simply look at the nice things that are displayed throughout the shop.
For example, there are the lovely plaster casts made by master plaster caster Peter Hone, mostly reproductions from 18th-century casts. Pentreath & Hall also stock prints of 20th-century artists such as Eric Ravilious, beautiful stationery, and colourful resin lamps by Marianna Kennedy. The shop is a wild mixture of everything founders Ben Pentreath and Bridie Hall love – which is precisely why it feels just like the perfect living room. 17 Rugby St, Bloomsbury; www.pentreath-hall.com
Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop
Narrow stairs in Covent Garden Market lead up to Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, which sells paper toy theatres and other traditional toys. These miniature stages go back to the Regency era. After seeing a play at the theatre, you could buy it as a paper model, which you could either paint yourself or buy hand-painted or printed. Later it often came in the form of a book, out of which the different parts were cut out and put together. Voilà – a private little theatre all of your own.
Over time this function was lost and theatres became children’s toys, but their fascination is still there. A Spanish theatre, a Victorian model or a tiny stage in a matchbox: a lot of the models can be put together in just half an hour. Others need a bit more time and patience. Go ahead, you’re the director: create your own play with paper. 44 The Market, Covent Garden; www.pollocks-coventgarden.co.uk
Labour and Wait
Anyone who has not gone into raptures over household goods has never been to Labour and Wait. The shop doesn’t stock decorative items: everything here has a purpose. For owners Rachel Wythe-Moran and Simon Watkins, beauty and functionality go hand in hand; they sell both classics and future classics. Many customers come to the shop and immediately remember the round Duralex glasses they had in school. The Sussex trug dates back to the 1500s and customers might have seen them dangling on their grandmother’s arm while she harvested fruit or picked flowers. The lovely Welsh tapestry blankets are a mixture of old and new, inspired by old patterns but newly designed.
Several items are manufactured exclusively for the shop, such as the screwdriver made by a cabinet maker who couldn’t find the right tool, or the apron originally designed in-house for the shop’s staff. It became so popular that they now sell different versions of it. 85 Redchurch St, Shoreditch
D. R. Harris
…How did the 18th- or 19th-century gentleman freshen up? At that time, not even the rich bathed on a daily basis. A gentleman would thus attempt to avoid unpleasant smells by using perfumes or colognes distributed generously all over his body. Citrusy colognes fragranced with oranges and lemons were best suited to mask pungent body odours.
Harris’s Apothecary, founded by Daniel Rotely (D. R.) and Henry Harris in 1790, quickly gained a reputation among the gentry for its colognes and perfumes. Its location in St. James’s was convenient for serving customers from gentlemen’s clubs.
Still owned by the Harris family and operating from its historic St. James’s premises with its beautiful original interiors and the fragrance of oranges and lemons, the business has successfully blended tradition and innovation for the last two centuries. Today it sells soaps, perfumes and colognes, as well as skincare and shaving products, and holds two royal warrants. 29 St James’s St, St James’s; www.drharris.co.uk
Michael German Antiques
Arms and armour, walking canes or maritime works of art; what is your collecting field? Even if you don’t collect any of these things at present, you will probably change your mind after seeing all the interesting and unusual pieces in Michael German Antiques: beautiful crafted objects made by whalers when they were at sea; antique guns, swords and medieval armour; and walking canes, from a cane carried by Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens to a braying donkey cane.
The shop’s founder Michael German has been in the antiques trade for a long time, finally moving to Kensington Church Street in 1982. The shop is a collector’s Mecca that rarely advertises but will be found nevertheless by the discerning collector.
In the shop you will find canes from around 1860 to 1910. In the Victorian era canes were not used to aid walking; they were a dress accessory for ladies and gentlemen alike. For every new outfit you had to have a matching cane: an evening model refined with jewels or gold, an everyday one, and at the weekend a cane with a folk-art handle. A pity that we no longer walk with such elegant canes today – but at least you can collect them. 38B Kensington Church St, Kensington; antiquecanes.com
Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury has become known over the last few years as a hub for avant-garde men’s fashion. In the midst of this masculine cutting-edge-ness, Persephone Books is an island of dove-grey old-fashioned femininity, a sort of antidote to men’s fashion. It prints and sells books by forgotten or neglected mid-20th-century (mostly) female authors.
The first thing you notice about the shop is that everything is grey. The shop front is grey and when you cross the threshold, you will see that all of the books are grey too. They all have the same distinctive dove-grey jacket and cream label, but when you open them, the end-papers are all different and feature beautiful colours and patterns. They match the mood and date of the book in question and are sourced from fabrics of the time. Persephone Books now has 130 titles in print. Whatever your preferences, from poetry or ghost stories to diaries and cookery books, you’ll find something of interest. What dove-grey secrets would you like to unravel next? 59 Lamb’s Conduit St, Bloomsbury; www.persephonebooks.co.uk
This feature is an edited extract from 111 Shops in London That You Shouldn’t Miss by Kirstin von Glasow (£11.99, Emons Publishers).