Monday, 28 November 2011

A tiny treasure trove

I went to one of my favourite places yesterday. Bloomsbury, in London. Once the home of several literary giants, including Charles Dickens, Dorothy L Sayers and Virginia Woolf. It’s steeped in atmosphere and charm, especially in a city that seems to sprout more retail chain outlets and big-name coffee shops by the day. Where have all the independent places gone? They may have all but vanished from the West End, but there are still plenty of them in Bloomsbury.

And one of the richest pickings of all is the tiny area around Lamb’s Conduit Street, just off Theobalds Road. It’s the home of some wonderful shops, cafés, bars and restaurants, not to mention The People's Supermarket. And you’ll even find a small independent publishing company. I love it round here, if you haven’t guessed by now. If you’re looking for unusual and beautiful Christmas gifts, whether for yourself (surely I’m not the only one who operates a one-for-you-and-one-for-me policy when buying presents) or someone else, you’ll be spoilt for choice here. When Christmas has become another memory, you’ll still find lots to buy or gaze at here. It’s a treasure trove.

Persephone Books is one of the jewels of Lamb’s Conduit Street. The company republishes books that have been largely (and unjustly) forgotten in recent decades. Some of the authors, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett, are still well known (although no longer household names), while others, such as the marvellous Dorothy Whipple, once sold in their millions yet had faded into obscurity until Persephone Books began to republish them. Although No. 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street is the Persephone office, the front of the ground floor is their bookshop, where you’ll find copies of all their titles as well as other enticements, such as packs of postcards, their exclusive tea towels and mugs. You can also pick up a copy of their magazine, Biannually, which includes a full catalogue of their books, plus features about the authors and news of forthcoming events. It’s a glorious shop and the books are unfailingly covetable. If you’re the sort of reader who’s left unsatisfied by many contemporary novels (not to mention some non-fiction books), you could find what you’ve been missing at Persephone Books. The quality of the book production alone is enough to gladden a dedicated reader’s heart, with their dove grey covers, carefully chosen endpapers, and forewords or afterwords by contemporary writers. If you buy a book in the shop, you’ll be given a bookmark that matches that book’s endpapers. Delightful.

One of the newest arrivals in Lamb’s Conduit Street is Private White VC, which sells men’s clothes inspired by the wardrobe of Jack White, who was a First World War soldier. If you’re like me in regretting the demise of British clothing manufacturing, you will be heartened to know that all the clothes sold in Private White VC are made in a factory in Manchester. And, neatly, it just happens to be the factory that was once owned by Jack White himself. The fabrics are woven locally too. As for the clothes themselves, they’re stylish and interesting. You will find great looking jackets, coats, shirts, trousers and jumpers there, as well as gloves, shoes and other accessories. Unfortunately, from a female perspective, they are only made for men. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

Two of my other favourite shops are just around the corner in Rugby Street. Ben Pentreath at No. 17 sells what it calls ‘good things for your home’, and they certainly are good. You’ll find everything from glass baubles to sofas, china jugs to prints and cards. Some of the ‘good things’ on sale are contemporary, others are antique. They have a particularly nice line in antique lustreware china, which is a hopeless weakness of mine.

If jewellery is your thing, then you’ll love Maggie Owen at No. 13. She sells highly collectable contemporary jewellery of the 'wow!' variety, made by a carefully chosen collection of European designers. The shop is beautifully laid out, with displays of necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. There are also cards and gloves (I spotted some very elegant pairs of elbow-length cashmere gloves on my last visit), as well as some enchanting fabric teddy bears and dogs.

And there are other shops in the area too. And cafés. And bars. But the four I’ve mentioned here are my current favourites. I often drift into them and have a good mooch about. The staff are always friendly and welcoming, and there is none of the unpleasant expectation that you get in some shops where you feel pressured to buy something simply because you’ve crossed the threshold. (For me, a cast-iron guarantee that I won’t be making that mistake twice.)

So if you’d like to enjoy your Christmas shopping this year, and buy some fabulous gifts while you’re at it, I’d suggest you head for this tiny corner of Bloomsbury. You never know what you’ll find.


  1. Hi Jane, it sounds like you had a lovely time in the City. You are definitely living the life I'd like for myself. I have looked round your website. Its a lovely, clear, easy-to-use, informative site. Well done you. I did laugh at your biog where you say you could make procrastination an olympic sport! Goodness - I think that's me at this moment in time. I know I need to make changes but I am ... I don't want to say 'reluctant' but somehow I can't get my act together. Does that make me a procrastinator too? Liz

  2. Thanks for your lovely comments, Liz. I'm glad you like my website, as I wanted it to be clear and unfussy.

    I think we procrastinators should stick together - if we can get ourselves organized!


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