A selection of my favourite off-the-radar Soho shops, including an off license that started life dealing in confiscated goods and a bookshop doubling as a private cocktail club.
Gerry’s Wines and Spirits
The best off-license in London, basically. Think shelves lined with rare bottles of alcohol and eccentric cocktail ingredients, from watermelon liqueur and guava syrup to Swiss absinthe. For added old curiosity shop effect, little labels are written out in felt tip pen underneath them all. You might bump into retired owner Michael Kyprianou; the Greek Cypriot and symbol of old Soho. Ask him about when he ran Del Monico’s off-license five doors down in the Sixties, would stock the shop by buying confiscated spirits from British Customs, and was sometimes forced to call the police to keep the gigantic queues in line.
Insider tip: Come on Friday or Saturday afternoons for a tasting session, which normally features something brilliantly strange – like a tea liqueur from the Slovakian Tratra Mountains or a herbal digestif hailing from Hungary.
74 Old Compton Street, Soho, W1D 4UW; gerrys.uk.com
Harold Moores Records
You smell Harold Moores before you even properly step inside. That new-shower-curtain plastic pong of the polyvinyl chloride from the records, which are wrapped in dust jackets that carry an odour of basement and tobacco and must. It’s devoted mainly to jazz and classical music (so don’t come here looking for rock). I love the jutting wooden display stands for the CDs, which remind me of sifting through my local HMV as a kid in the Nineties. And there’s something almost archaeological about flicking through the LP boxes, like going through a historian’s carefully-organised index of artefacts. Also, in an age of wipe-clean, click-clacking faux-wood retail flooring, shout out to the moss-green quicksand carpet redolent of a country pub.
Insider tip: Note that there are two floors of music, as some people miss the stairs. It’s worth liking the shop on Facebook; they post when new rare CDs and records come in, along with their price.2 Great Marlborough Street W1F 7HQ; 020 7437 1576; hmrecords.co.uk
It may not look much from the outside. But Borovick – a fabric emporium of same family for three generations – has been selling to both individuals and the trade since the Thirties. I come here when I want to tinker with one of my party dresses by adding a particular shade of satin or lace. But I always end up fingering the reams of rough-finished taffeta and stroking the piles of diaphanous chiffons – some embroidered to resemble delicate watercolours. It’s also hard not to gawp at the feather boas and heavily-beaded cloth samples, which make you feel like you’ve just walked into the chaotic dressing room of a period theatre.
Insider tip: This place is very popular with brides. Some even come with their mothers or grandmothers, who also sourced their own wedding dress fabric from here.
16 Berwick Street W1F 0HP; 0207 437 2180; borovickfabrics.com
Joy Everley Fine Jewellers
A rare British family-fun business that crafts quirky jewellery themed around animals, flowers and insects of the English countryside. It started life in the Eighties – as the owner’s stall in Covent Garden! With the blistered wooden facade and flamboyant nature-inspired window displays, it can feel a bit like stepping into Farthing Wood, but inside is actually extremely refined, with a small batch of pieces displayed in glass cabinets, hand-painted wallpaper, and tear-drop chandeliers that make the lighting just right.
Insider tip: If you are on a budget, then the signature Fairy necklaces start at £35. I have my eye on a pair of slightly pricier pair of flower earring studs made from garnets, myself.
7 Newburgh Street, Carnaby, W1F 7RH; 0207 287 2792; joyeverley.co.uk
Vintage Magazine Shop
In March 1974 magazine aficionado Danny Posner trekked up to the rare books department of Foyle’s to look at old magazines that the store kept in a large cardboard box. But he was devastated by what he learned: “We aren’t selling them any longer. People keep going through them and we end up with a box of confetti”. His solution: setting up his own shop, obviously – a place where people could get their fix of the feel and smell of ageing glossy paper, and source rare copies of their favourite periodicals. Today, this is still the place to come for Beano back editions, old copies of Vogue. They also have a huge stockpile of original images, and sell posters, cards and offer printing services.
Insider tip: Ask about the collection of horror and sci-fi magazines from the Sixties, or the satire publication IT, from the same era, which Paul McCartney donated to.
39-43 Brewer St, Soho, W1F 9UD; 020 7439 8525; vinmag.com
The Society Club
A rare and out-of-print bookshop particularly well stocked in first editions of the 20th century, yes. But it’s also a community hub that hosts backgammon evenings, poetry nights, book discussion groups and offbeat talks. Rake the shelves for potential purchases, order one of the champagne and brandy cocktails inspired by Charles Baudelaire, and then take up a seat on one of the communal benches that run the full length of the room.
Insider tip: if you’re coming for a drink, get here before 6pm (you may need to knock if the door is closed) – after that it’s members only. There’s a resident dog, and shoppers often come here with their own pooches, so I hope you like pets!
12 Ingestre Place, Soho, W1F 0JF; thesocietyclub.com
W. Sitch & Company
Soho’s oldest shop has been hammering and melding metal light fittings since 1776. It’s a mini museum, with antique and reproduction light fittings jabbing for wall space over five floors – from laquer-finished chandeliers decorated with golden leaves, to Art Deco wall sconces and Renaissance candelabras painted sky blue. Other slightly random but apparently in-demand services on offer include finishing the metal work on boat propellers and stair rods, colouring and polishing lighting, and transforming vases into lamps.
Insider tip: The owner Ronald and his sons also offer workshops for people who want to learn how to do up lighting themselves. If you’re feeling nosy, ask about how the Sitches supplied the lighting used in Titanic, and has worked with Downing Street and Clarence House.
48 Berwick Street, Oxford Street, W1F 8JD; Monday to Friday 9-5pm and Saturday 9.30-1pm; 020 7437 3776; wsitch.co.uk
Reign Vintage – Berwick Street
The owners head to Italy, Austria and Germany to snap up stand-out vintage pieces, particularly from the Eighties and Nineties. This really sets it apart from other London second-hand clothing outlets, which import from the United States in bulk. Prices are also reasonable for the central London location, starting at £10. You might find a embroidered Moschino bomber jacket, Versace psychedelic print silk shirt, brocade Sixties dress fashioned from a metallic mint-coloured thread that catches the light beautifully, or even a Portuguese folk art hand bag.
Insider tip: It’s worth liking the Facebook page as it’s how the shop markets its most prized new pieces
12 Berwick Street, Soho, W1F; 020 3417 0276; reignvintage.com
Milroy’s of Soho
London’s oldest whisky shop is younger than you’d think – founded in 1964. My sister is a big whisky fan, and this is where I always come to buy her a Christmas tipple. I love it because – yes, there are bottles of rare malts fetching £3000, but you can also find modest-priced Scotch for under £15. Milroy’s also runs regular whisky tasting events focused around a particular distiller, priced at £15.
Insider tip: The real USP for me is the ‘secret’ whisky bar in the basement: You’re suddenly in a bar with wood-clad alcoves, shelves topped with books, vintage bourbons and mini barrels and exposed brick walls so rough if you come to near it might graze your skin. You can taste whiskies from around the world, and there’s a huge range of top-shelf whisky cocktails – go for the Japanese Garden with Nikka By the Barrel and rose vermouth. Whisky lockers are even available – so that when regular patrons visit, they can have their favourite bottle to hand.
3 Greek Street, Soho W1D 4NX; 020 7734 2277; shop.milroys.co.uk