Right, so here’s what you do. You make a list the night before, and you think about which of the nice little shops you know, or have been meaning to visit for ages, are most likely to have what you want. You take a day off work, mid-week. Then you head out, looking forwards to a day of chatting to friendly assistants, browsing among things you won’t see elsewhere, and stopping for lunch somewhere civilised. Under no circumstances enter a department store – they sap the soul.
This was my itinerary on Thursday:
1: Books. I wanted a couple of nicely presented, classic books for some very stylish friends. Normally I make a beeline for Hatchards or London Review Bookshop, but I’ve been meaning to check out the new independent bookshop Belgravia Books in Ebury Street, which opened in September. Belgravia Books is the retail wing of the publisher Gallic Books, which specialises in translations from contemporary French fiction and non-fiction. They’re the house behind the quirky hit The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. I was immediately greeted by the friendly staff, who helped me find exactly the right presents, including a beautiful hardback of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Jazz Age, which I’m very tempted to keep myself. The shop has a great range of titles, intelligently chosen and lovely to look at. The manager is also my old school chum Alison, so I had the pleasure of catching up on the gossip while I made my choices. A good start to the day.
2: Sweets, chocolates and stocking-fillers. I knew Hope and Greenwood from their East Dulwich shop, but hadn’t had the pleasure of a browse around the Covent Garden branch. It was still relatively quiet, so I had plenty of space to pick up a selection of striped candy canes, chocolate lady birds and sports cars, boxes of marzipan fruits and chocolate truffles, all beautifully-wrapped and mouth-watering. The great thing about Hope and Greenwood is the balance between luxury, quality and prices that start at pocket-money levels. I piled my purchases on the counter for wrapping by the chatty assistants, and was thrilled to be given an extra ‘chocolate pudding bar’ as a reward. I even splashed out on a quarter of licorice for myself.
3: Tea towels, kitch and kitchenware. Now, I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of the whole Cath Kidson thing myself. All those florals bring me out in a bit of a rash, and I have an intolerance to cup-cake domesticity. (What are cupcakes, anyway? They were fairy cakes when I was little, and about a quarter of the size). However, the range clearly has a following as several people on my Christmas list had made specific requests. The store was busy, but the staff helpful and attentive. I was in and out, minus what felt like quite a lot of cash for some oven gloves and tea towels.
4: Toys, jokes, more stocking-fillers. I usually avoid Covent Garden Piazza, but it does contain the delightful Pollock’s Toy Shop, and you can’t get much more Dickensian and Christmassy than that. Card tricks, masks, glove puppets, all perfect for making up a parcel and sending off to friends overseas, with some of those Hope and Greenwood sweeties. Best of all, it means you don’t have to go anywhere near the hell that is Hamleys.
5: Lunch. I’d been eyeing up the delicatessen-come-restaurant Machievelli, on Long Acre, as I cycled past in the mornings on my way to work. A restaurant’s response to a request for a table for one is a good marker of their attitude to customer service – and I was swiftly installed in a nice little table in the window, with a glass of ginger beer and a menu. I chose the soup and a salad of roast squash, both of which did the job nicely. But I’m still raving about the coffee, which was quite the best cup I’ve had for an age, richly tasty and flavoursome. The stuff you get at the chain outlets bears no relation at all to the coffee I had here, which sent me smiling out into the Covent Garden crowds, step re-sprung.
6: Menswear. An exciting new find, this – albeit one that’s been around since the 18th century. Wolsey, supplier of polar expedition clothing to Antarctic explorers including Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton, has opened a temporary store (alright, a pop-up) on Monmouth Street, one of my favourite streets for shopping. The company makes very decent knitwear, shirts, casual trousers, jackets and coats, all aimed at the sort of chap who would rather be trekking across the polar wastes than down Oxford Street. A chap, that is, like the Gentleman Caller, who is to be kitted out, gradually, from head to toe in their practical yet undeniably sexy clothing. A palpable hit. (And they plan to open a proper shop in Soho shortly)
7: Biscuits, preserves, caviar and other essentials. Alright, Fortnum and Mason is a department store. But, to paraphrase Jo in Little Women, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Fortnum’s Lucifer Ginger and Chilli Biscuits, even if just for the fun of passing one to an unsuspecting relative. And while I was there, I picked up a few other little luxuries to make sure the festive season goes with a swing.
And that was it! A successful day’s shopping, few crowds, no bad temper, and if there was a department store, at least it was Fortnum’s.
Image: From Rennings photostream on Flickr, with CCL.