Tucked away on a side street off Covent Garden’s St Martin’s Lane is an extraordinary shop, one of those that causes you to stop and stare, the sort of shop that looks so visually arresting that it doesn’t really matter what they sell because the shop itself is just so beautiful.
The shop is Choosing Keeping and they sell stationery: not ordinary everyday stationery but outstanding, lovely, desirable items. Practical and useful of course but chosen carefully to fit with the aesthetic of the place which has a traditional and rather specialist feel, the kind of place you might expect to find in Florence perhaps. Here there are no manufacturers stands or sales units: products are displayed in ceramic pots or arranged on pieces of handmade furniture, with vases of flowers and small handwritten price tickets giving it a personal feel.
Choosing Keeping opened originally back in 2012 in Hackney’s Columbia Road, where the famous weekend flower market takes place. The idea was to create a store with its own identity, where brands were incidental to the story, unimportant and not celebrated and where people felt as if they had been invited into a home environment. There were rugs on the floor and the desks were set out with pens and papers, all beautifully arranged and displayed. With the 2018 move to the new Tower Street site in Covent Garden, former home of the much loved Bead Shop, there has been a transformation into something quite exceptional though: one of those shops that will appear on a must-visit list of any London visitor, for the visual treat alone if not also to buy the stationery on sale.
Owner Julia eschews big brand names, though some are stocked here, even neglecting to brand their own exclusive ranges and preferring to focus on items as individual products, the sum of their own parts. She prefers to let people consider what they like free of all the perimeters of brand association. “Do I like the colour pink? Do I like blue ink?” It doesn’t matter if this is the latest product or not. She is keen to support small and medium businesses, not neccesarily British, though much is, just products with a heritage or a story behind them. Products reflect the true cost of production here and she considers the investment in the people behind the stock as an important part of their presence in the store. She doesn’t mention the phrase ethical sourcing but that is what it is, independent businesses making independent products.
In the bright and uncluttered spacious shop you will find little pots of many different pencils, clips and erasers, a wall of exquisite Japanese prints as gift wrap, decoupage pen pots and flower-filled paperweights. On sunny days the Lightmills, little glass globes containing sails that turn with solar radiation rather than wind, will be fluttering furiously in the window. There are fountain pens ranging from the well known German Kaweco and Japanese Pilot (though only a selection of the most beautiful) to more niche brands like Sailor and Platinum. They also have some lovely cellulose pens from the workshop of Mr Ohnishi, an Osaka-based studio dating back to the 1930’s where the pens are still hand turned on a lathe with no machine calibration, using only the eye to gauge each component.
And this is really the key to the shop, so many nearly lost traditions and skills are supported and celebrated here: like the ceramic bird paperweights from France that can be traced back to Marie Antoinette, still produced in the same St Clement factory in Lorraine. The reproduction dominoté papers, a precursor to wallpaper, beautifully restored in a Parisian studio.
Perhaps the most beautiful of all the products in the shop are the Composition Notebooks. Handbound journals which use Katazome and Chiyogami silk screened papers, made using the centuries-old techniques and designs of kimono art and produced in a handful of studios in the Kyoto region. Other journals use meticulously hand-cut reproductions of Dutch Gilt papers, made with genuine ‘printers waste’ from the 18th Century. Another series celebrates old wallpaper from the 1930’s- 1960s. What else could you do with these beautiful old rolls of paper was the thinking. Why not upcycle them into notebooks, a way of keeping the designs out there and finding a use for them.
There are exhibitions from artists and craftspeople too, most recently by Steve Harrison, a salt-glaze potter and furniture maker, responsible for many of the beautiful fittings in the shop. Visitors purchasing in-store will get their goods bagged with one of Choosing Keeping’s trademark bird emblem stickers, in a nice acknowledgement of their identity, or you can have your purchases beautifully gift wrapped in one of their lovely papers.
There is a website of course, which can’t do the shop any form of justice but does have some fascinating context for many of the products, detailing the story behind the stationery and the people who make it. A little bit of history and colour to explain why this shop and much you can buy here is unique, something to treasure that will last, an investment for all concerned.