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Andy Parsons

Inside London’s special shops

As our annual 100 best shops list is revealed, we take a tour of some of London’s most unique boutiques

By Ellie Walker-Arnott
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You don't need to look very hard to find a one-of-a-kind shop in London – this city is absolutely heaving with quirky stationery stores, cheesemongers, florists and old-school butchers.

We've singled out six of the most unique shops in the capital, from a traditional brolly-maker to an irresistible Italian deli and a fiercely feminist bookshop. These gems are perfect for picking up a thoughtful gift at, spending that hard-earned cash or just escaping the rain for a leisurely browse. 

RECOMMENDED: 100 best shops in London

 

W Martyn
W Martyn
Andy Parsons

W Martyn: The Victorian Grocer

A visit to W Martyn is like going back in time. It’s been trading since 1897 and it’s still a family affair, run by William Martyn, the great-grandson of the original owner. He’s staying true to the shop’s heritage and stocking the shelves with locally sourced goodies.

‘We’ve tried to keep as much of the original shop as possible. The shelves, drawers and jars have always been here. The jars at the top are empty now, but in the 1900s products would have come in loose, been stored in here and then weighed up.’

‘The shop’s layout is exactly as it was. This is our original counter – it runs the length of the shop. In 1910, customers would have sat at a chair at the counter to give their orders and we had a horse and carriage to do deliveries.’

‘I’m not sure how old these beautiful scales are. We had them converted into metric around 1973. They’re not just for looking at. We have a vast range of dried fruits, nuts and teas. We buy them in bulk and weigh them up to sell in the store. Dried figs and apricots are really popular – and we sell about 50 kilos of deluxe muesli a week.’

‘We roast coffee every day. It creates a bit of theatre in the shop. The roaster is in the window and it’s the same one we’ve been using since the 1950s. Smiths Coffee have been supplying us for 40 years.’

‘We like to stock locally made food. Angela from East Finchley makes our chocolate bars: they’re my favourite. We also have more chocolates from Hornsey and fudge made in Muswell Hill.’

‘We don’t want to stock things that are in supermarkets; we like to sell things that people haven’t seen before. We have a range of honey made on Dartmoor. If you enjoy it, you’ll have to come back. Unless you want to drive to Dartmoor!’

Paxton & Whitfield
Paxton & Whitfield
Andy Parsons

Paxton & Whitfield: The kings of cheese

Great cheese dreams are made in this iconic store. You can almost smell Paxton & Whitfield from the pavement on Jermyn Street. It’s been trading since the nineteenth century, but its history goes back even further – to an Aldwych market stall in 1742. Nearly 300 years later and it’s still the best. 

‘We’re very proud to hold two royal warrants. We supply Buckingham Palace every week and have done since 1850. We have to apply for it regularly. Prince Charles is focused on sustainability.We have to prove we adhere to his high standards.’

‘We refrigerate the entire shop these days. That’s so that [no cheeses are] inaccessible, and everyone can experience the full sights and smells of the cheese shop. There are around 150 cheeses on our counter.’

‘Our Stilton is our bestseller. In the run-up to Christmas we sell over six and a half tonnes, just from this shop. Stilton has the same protectionas champagne. It has to be made in certain counties with pasteurised milk.’

‘Truffle cheeses are really popular right now. The most expensive cheese we sell is truffle brie. We truffle them in-house in our cheese cellars under the shop. They go all the way underneath and are a closely guarded secret.’

‘This Cheddar Pounder is in our house range. The cheeses with our name on are of the highest standard. They are something that we’re really proud of and always want to stock in store.'

‘This cheese-making kit is amazing. There’s a recipe book for fresh ricotta, burrata, mozzarella. You get the starter culture and the raw ingredients, and you just have to add milk.’

‘It’s important to have little nods to our history in the shop. We’ll never become too shiny because we’re an old-fashioned brand. We moved into this building in 1896. We recently renovated our cellars and discovered all these old glass bottles and newspapers from that period.’

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Lina Stores
Lina Stores
Andy Parsons

Lina Stores: The Soho Italian

A green-tiled, gold-lettered delight, Lina Stores has been selling Italian fare since 1944. It’s not changed much since then; the crowded, lively deli, managed by Marina Dentamaro, still sells incredible cheeses, meats, antipasti and sweets straight from the Med. Yet it’s recently begun to expand, first to a petite restaurant just around the corner from the Brewer Street deli and now to a new, enormous space in King’s Cross. Pretty good for a 75-year-old brand (and our pasta cravings).

‘We had a refurbishment 12 years ago but we still have the same signs, the same doors, the same windows. All the shelving was kept and the Italian suppliers are all the same ones that we used to use. We’ve always had a bit of green somewhere, but we decided to bring the colour out. This shade of green was made for us: like Tiffany’s has its blue, we have a “Lina green”.’

‘Prosciutto de parma is the most popular thing we sell. It’s from Emilia-Romagna. We use suppliers with a history: they’ve been making the same products for ever.’

‘This is bottarga, a type of fish egg and a Sardinian speciality. You can’t find this anywhere else in London. Have it grated on a plate of spaghetti. It’s delicious.’

‘We make food fresh in the shop every day. My favourite is the ravioli. It’s incredible: made fresh in the deli every morning. We’ve always used the basement underneath the shop for making fresh pasta.’

‘All our cheeses have a history. They come from tiny producers. The parmigiano-reggiano comes from a rare type of brown cow. Its milk makes a very mature parmigiano, perfect for cheese boards.’

‘Space is tight! We have a ladder and storage at the top of the shelves. The panettone hangs from the ceiling, which looks amazing but is also very useful. Our supplier has been producing this panettone since the 1940s.’

James Smith & Sons
James Smith & Sons
Andy Parsons

James Smith & Sons: The brolly specialists

As a city with a rainy reputation, it seems only right that London has an incredible shop dedicated to brollies. James Smith & Sons has been keeping Londoners dry for nearly two centuries. You’ll find all manner of umbrellas here, including a snakewood-and-silver number costing nearly £3,000. Shop manager Phil Naisbitt talks us through its Victorian charm.

‘These original shop signs are from the other James Smith & Sons branches. There used to be six stores, but as fashions changed and those buildings got knocked down, the shops’ fixtures, fittings and signs ended up coming here.’

‘This is a painting of the first James Smith. When he ran the business, everything was handmade by one person. They did every part, from whalebone frames to silk canopies. We like to hold on to these bits of history.’

‘We’ve got quite a stick collection which has built up over time. We have a trout stick made from rams’ horn, and a stick covered in python’s skin. Also, walking sticks made out of bulls’ penises, which wasn’t actually unusual back in the day.’

‘The oldest records of the business date back to 1830. It was in Foubert’s Place. In 1857, we moved to these premises, and have been here since. Last time the store was renovated, an old customer came in and said, “Oh, I thought you were having the place decorated.” It looked exactly the same.’

‘We’ve made umbrellas the same way for about 100 years. One of the old names for an umbrella maker is a “mush-faker”, from “mushroom”. We’ve got a few in our workshop downstairs!’

‘We stick to traditions of recycling, reusing and not just throwing away. We get a lot of requests but we can only fix our own umbrellas. Our repair book is still all written by hand. It dates back a long time.’

‘We’re traditional but we can’t keep selling the same exact things because fashions change. We’ve got colour – in the old days it would have been just black umbrellas. These days the decorative sticks are more popular for dressing up, weddings, fancy dress and parties.’

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Persephone Books
Persephone Books
Andy Parsons

Persephone: The feminist classic

London has some brilliant bookshops, but none of them is quite like Persephone. This year, the shop celebrates 20 years of owner Nicola Beauman finding and republishing works by female writers that might have been lost. The shop is cosy and welcoming but there are some surprising and challenging texts on its shelves.

‘Poster art is in line with the ethos of our books. Much women’s writing is dismissed as middlebrow. Posters are similar. Because they’re functional and meant to be eye-catching, they’re dismissed: they’re not seen as real art.’

‘There was never a plan for the shop’s layout. I bought two tables and then it just grew and grew. Every time we publish new books we wonder how they’re going to fit in. They’re all arranged in number order – it’s quite unusual.’

‘Every book has a patterned end paper. They are all textiles from the year that book was written, and they’re related to the text. This is “High Wages”, by our bestselling author Dorothy Whipple. It’s about a dress shop and the pattern is from a 1930s dress fabric.’

‘We publish all kinds of writers. From Virginia Woolf to Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote “The Secret Garden”.and wonderful novels for adults. “The Fortnight in September” is brilliant and is an example of one of our few books by a man.’

‘Here is “Miss Buncle’s Book”, one of our all-time bestsellers. It’s such a good title, and a lovely story from 1934 about a writer taking charge of her life. The pattern is a Vanessa Bell design.’

‘If you’d never read any of our books before, we’d either recommend “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”, which was made into a film, or “The Persephone Book of Short Stories”.’

‘All our book covers are grey because it’s the content that is most important. Persephone was a Greek goddess who was dragged into the underworld. When she comes up in the spring, she’s a symbol of regrowth and of women writers being rediscovered. That’s what matters.’

Labour and Wait
Labour and Wait
Andy Parsons

Labour and Wait: The landfill avoiders

The shelves in Labour and Wait, a store in a beautiful former pub on Redchurch Street, are lined with covetable homewares. Everything here is designed for a long life. Owners Rachel Wythe-Moran and Simon Watkins met working in the fashion industry. They set up shop 20 years ago after becoming tired of having to throw out perfectly good designs every season. Now their store is full of items that aren’t ever destined for landfill.

Here, they give us a tour of the shop…

‘There isn’t a sill on most of the shop’s windows, so we can’t do conventional window displays. This pegboard is like our shop window.’

‘We sell things that help people make things, like these toolbags. Though you could use them as regular bags. They’re robust and heavy duty but stylish. ’

‘The lamps are inspired by our shop fittings. We had vintage lampshades and people kept asking to buy them so we started making these.’

‘We love this clock. We worked with a maker – who designs clocks for schools and pools – to create our own product but with their expertise.’

We make our aprons ourselves. At the beginning, they were for staff to wear in the shop but then people wanted to buy them. Monmouth Coffee got them for their staff and now we sell them all over the world.’

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