Oxford Circus to Covent Garden
We have decided to take a different approach to reviewing stationery shops. London is a big city full of unusual independent shops, hidden history and the odd café or two. So we came up with the best of all worlds – Stationery Walks. Short trips through a part of London reviewing a few stationery shops whilst highlighting some of our favourite temptations along the way. Oh, and we threw in a café or two for good measure.
Hopefully this will work out as we’d love to do more, and go beyond London. I’m already thinking of where else we can visit in the country. Maybe even abroad. Please do send in suggestions of great stationery shops and we will work on more stationery walks.
It is said that Napoleon apparently once described us as a nation of shopkeepers. No doubt it was meant as an insult rather than a compliment, but we’ve taken it to heart and built our entire economy on the idea now. So where better to start our first walk than the heart of all things shop keeping – Oxford Circus. We are seeking out stationery shops slap in the middle of London’s West End. Not somewhere normally associated with tempting boutique stationery shops but turn the corner and you might be surprised what you find. Our final destination was Covent Garden, which meant meandering through Soho. A few years back this might have been an edgier affair, but now even Soho is in danger of being homogenised with another swathe of big name brands. However there are still enough signs of life along the way to make it worthwhile diving down those little side streets.
You can follow the route on Google Maps here. The route we took was about 2.5 miles, so manageable in a morning, depending on your stationery shopping dwell time of course! Or you can adapt it to suit your needs. Oh, and do please comment if you find anything we missed.
The first of our West End stationery shops is the world-famous Liberty. It’s worth a visit just to see this landmark department store which resembles an Elizabethan theatre inside with its galleried balconies. Actually it is all fake, constructed in the 1920’s during the rage for Tudor revivalism out of a couple of old ships, but it does look impressive.
The stationery department is downstairs and on entry you feel a certain wow factor with everything beautifully laid out. Closer inspection reveals an odd mix of the tasteful and the trashy with some quite plasticky pencil cases and cheap looking notebooks at odds with the expensive feel of the place. There are some very lovely wrapping papers though, which at £9.95 I might not want to waste on a present, and a nice selection of greeting cards. There was a big display of notebooks from Esmie (Elegant Stationery Made In England) which were quite beautiful with cover prints inspired by Japanese printing and woodblock design. Oddly though, when I asked where the pens were, the staff looked a bit non-plussed. “We don’t have any pens” they said, shaking their heads. Odd.
Said is a shop and café from Rome which offers possibly the best hot chocolate in London together with some fantastic cakes and chocolate offerings. Everything is beautifully packaged – bars, boxes, slabs and jars, the whole place smells delicious and the walls are decorated with the metal chocolate moulds.
Next stop was Waterstones, the big flagship store on Piccadilly. Some years back this had an excellent stationery department at the back on the ground floor but lately it has become a shadow of its former self. There is stationery there – Kaweco, Lamy and Caran d’Ache pens and notebooks like Moleskine. Interestingly they also had Esmie books there but they didn’t have anything of the impact they did in Liberty. The stationery is mixed in with the rather dull gifts and tiresome platitude-emblazoned product and consequently it doesn’t appeal in the same way. I nearly missed it. The pens are all locked away under glass and look uninspiring and untouchable and there is no one around to tempt you in. It is a shame because it used to be full of unusual and interesting stuff.
If you have made the detour down to Piccadilly then we can recommend a couple of non-stationery places nearby. Firstly Danish bakery Ole & Steen is a must for any Danish patry lover. A long time ago when we had a shop in Covent Garden, a friend of our father’s called Lars would pop in on his travels to say hello and bring us some Danish pastries from a bakery at Kastrup airport. The staff would get very excited – “Lars is here!” would amazingly generate a small crowd. They were the most delicious pastries ever, with a thick layer of almond and lots of chocolate: I have never found any as good. Until now! Genuine Danish, just as they should be.
Alternative Shop Idea
Another essential visit is The Japan Centre on Panton Street. This basement food hall celebrating all things Japanese opened late 2017 so is relatively new and features a café, deli, dedicated miso and tea rooms and a huge selection of Japanese delicacies and groceries. From street level it doesn’t look anything but once underground it is a wonder to investigate.
Alternative Shop Idea
Walking through Soho on the way to the Covent Garden it is worth checking out a couple of non-stationery gems. Firstly Lina Stores (est. 1944), the legendary Italian delicatessen with its fantastic selection of fresh and dried pastas, meats, cheeses, wines, biscuits and everything Italian and delicious. The shelves are jam-packed with items so beautifully packaged you’ll want to buy it all. It knocks Carluccio’s completely out of the park.
Alternative Shop Idea
Also worth a visit is the Algerian Coffee Stores (est. 1887), a proper old-fashioned coffee/tea merchant where the beans are ground in front of you to order for the brewing method you will use and sealed up in their trademark red bags. The scent of the shop alone is worth the visit but it’s also full of pretty chocolates and biscuits as well as moka pots and all manor of brewing equipment. You can try before you buy but no Flat Whites available here, strictly Espresso/Cappuccino only. The Arabic with Spices will scent your whole house so beware!
Foyles is next on the list, the famous London bookshop, looking amazing in its (relatively – 2014) new setting on Charing Cross Road. This is my favourite bookshop and it has a small but decent stationery department which Waterstones could learn a thing or two from. Which hopefully they will since Waterstones bought Foyles in 2018. Everything is out and touchable – pens, notebooks, diaries, and everything is colour blocked neatly. Here you can find the new Kaweco Frosted Sport fountain pens, the latest Blackwing pencil editions, Hobonichi diaries and the Midori Travellers range. There are gifts too but somehow they don’t jar in quite the same way and are kept a little separate. Stalogy notebooks are there and some nice pencil cases from Midori, lots of interesting stuff to browse and then one of the best bookshops to wander round as well.
As stationery shops in the West End go, this is right up there. Choosing Keeping have relocated from their East London Columbia Road premises to this larger store in the West End and it looks simply stunning. The shop itself is quite beautiful, light and airy and the stationery is displayed exactly as it should be. On every surface there are little pots of sharpeners or clips, pens and pencils. There are tables laden with the most beautiful hand made books and some niche ink brands including Abraxas from Switzerland. It is truly a visual feast and an essential stop on the tour. It does have a bit of a look-don’t-touch feel though and in fact some of the (£60) wrapping papers have a sign saying this. And strictly no photographs either!
After all the walking some lunch is definitely needed. Possibly my all-time favourite coffee shop in the whole world is a tiny eight-seater Swedish café tucked behind Long Acre – Bageriet. There are some sandwiches available but it is the cakes that people come for: flaky-pastry custard-filled Danish with raspberries, almond cakes topped with orange, cardamom sugared doughnuts and their own cinnamon buns of course.
Another option in the area is the very excellent WA on New Row, a rather beautiful Japanese patisserie with chefs trained in Paris and offering an interesting combination of the two cultures. The cakes are lovely but you should try the Curry Bun. I can only describe it as a cross between a doughnut and a samosa which obviously sounds quite wrong but is actually amazing. I couldn’t work out if the coating was sugar or something savoury, it was quite confusing but incredibly tasty.
London Graphic Centre
Back on the stationery trail for two final hits. First up is The London Graphic Store, a huge warehouse of stationery and artist materials. Here you will find a good selection of Leuchtturm books, Moleskine, Midori, Lamy, Clairefontaine, Blackwing – all the good stuff plus papers and craft materials. They’ve been servicing most of the London design agencies for years so they know their stuff.
Alternative Shop Idea
Whilst meandering through the back streets of Covent Garden you might take in a local landmark. Stanfords may have given up its iconic building on Long Acre for something a bit more modern (and bland), but inside it still packs in arguably the best collections of maps for sale in the world. One to add to your list…if you need an obscure street map of Zagreb that is.
And lastly something of a chain shop but not one that widely available even in London let alone across the UK. In the West End it is well worth seeking out the stationery on offer at Muji, one of the must-see shops on the tour – for basic notebooks and disposable pens, they are unbeatable at the price. I bought a smart black pocket notebook for £3.50 and nearly bought some clear filing boxes. Everything is unbranded and mostly black, white or grey and stylishly minimal.
And that’s it – enough stationery (and cakes) for one morning.
The places mentioned in this walk
Liberty, Regent Street, London, W1B 5AH – https://www.libertylondon.com/
Said, 41 Broadwick St, Soho, London W1F 9QL – https://said.it/
Waterstone’s, 203- 206 Piccadilly, London W1V 9LE – https://www.waterstones.com/bookshops/the-russian-bookshop
Ole & Steen, 56 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4RN – https://oleandsteen.co.uk/
The Japan Centre, 35b Panton St, London SW1Y 4EA – https://www.japancentre.com/en
Lina, 18 Brewer St, Soho, London W1F 0SH – https://www.linastores.co.uk/
Algerian Coffee Store, 52 Old Compton St, Soho, London W1D 4PB – https://algeriancoffeestores.com/
Foyles, 107 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0DT – https://www.foyles.co.uk/
Choosing Keeping, 21 Tower St, London WC2H 9NS – https://choosingkeeping.com/
Bageriet, 24 Rose St, London WC2E 9EA – https://www.bageriet.co.uk/
WA, 5 New Row, London WC2N 4LH – https://www.wacafe.co.uk/
London Graphic Centre, 16-18 Shelton St, London WC2H 9JL – https://www.londongraphics.co.uk/
Stanfords, 7 Mercer Walk, London WC2H 9FA – http://www.stanfords.co.uk/
Muji, 37-38 Long Acre, London WC2E 9JT – https://www.muji.eu/index.asp?