A secret guide to Oxford Street

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Oxford Street. I don’t like it much. But it’s remarkable. As familiar as a favourite song. The trudging rush of people. The shop windows that wink and coax. The wheezing buses that start and stop, like sick men climbing stairs.

Is there any street in London capable of teasing out such an emotional range from us all? The resentful scraping of elbows with strangers. The thrill of the rebellious hopscotch across the road. The hopeful heave to open the department store door. And, at the end of it all, the hideous, bag-clutching hobble back to the tube.

An unsuccessful mission to Oxford Street is as draining as an argument over the dishes. As dehumanising as a tax return. And yet. There are flashes of brilliance. You just need to know where to look. Here are a collection of my favourite little experiences in Oxford Street. Luckily, most of them also deliver you away from the heat of the crowds.

Reading and sweeties at Selfridges

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There will always be a chair free to sit at in the magazine department. I promise. There’s rarely more than one or two people. Come here to peruse pretty much any magazine you can think of, from Archaeology to Art Review Asia. There are Elvis collector edition glossies. There are magazines devoted to vintage style with instructions for dressing like Jackie O and hoiking up your hair like Brigitte Bardot. There are offbeat political periodicals with matte paper and names like Delayed Gratification and The Lifted Brow.

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A sneaky plus is that there isn’t really an attendant at the magazine department as it’s so small – so you can get away with just sitting and reading without a disapproving assistant sniffing about whether you intend to buy anything.

Right next to the magazine department is my second-favourite thing about Selfridges: the sweets. The Pic’n’Mix reminds me of childhood Saturdays at Woolworths. It has all the classics: cable bites with creamy wires, fizzy twin cherries blanketed in tiny blades of sugar, and mini fried eggs.

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Old-fashioned glass jars glint innocently on the shelves. They are filled with prosecco gummies, ‘raspberry diamonds’ with frosted outer shells, and whipped strawberry boiled sweets. Plastic gift cups are filled with twisted marshmallow sticks in pastel colours, candy bracelets and sour-centred flying saucers – those 5p sweets from the newsagents after school. Sadly, no longer 5p.

Queer candles and craft beer

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My last two tips for Selfridges. Check out the wine department in the basement if you like to try random beers. There’s everything from red rice ale from Japan and Brixton pale ale to black beer and fruit-infused cans with silly names like Salty Kiss. They come in individual cans so you can just buy one or two to try.

Finally, if you have the energy, head to the candles department on the top floor. Several smells jostle with each other: cypress trees, black lillies, amber, Moroccan rose. But my favourite part about this place is the shelf at the back with the Lola James Harper scents. They have names like “Woody office of daddy”, “The first morning of spring” and “The vinyl store”. And, I swear, they actually capture these smells!

Coffee, cake and calm in Debenhams

Nowhere in Oxford Street is as British as the canteen at Debenhams. The civilised slide of trays across the counter, the polite point to a sugary treat behind the screen, the industrial hum of strip lighting, the squeak of silver-haired couples’ Clarke shoes.

The coffee is generous. It comes in cups like cereal bowls with plenty of cream. The selection of cakes is English: fat scones garotted with cream, moist lemon and blackcurrant slices, and slightly sad looking fruit tray bakes. There’s always a whole Victoria sponge.

Magic sets and stationary at John Lewis

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I can’t go to the basement without checking out the magic section next to the board games. Think pocket-sized magic guillotines, rope cutter tricks, juggling balls and children’s beginner magic sets. And then there are the joke items: plastic creepy crawlies and chattering teeth.  

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Speaking of the board games, I love those too. There’s always something I’ve never heard of here. On my last visit I discovered Obama Llama, a bizarre rhyming charades party game. You’ll also notice that there’s an interesting sign detailing the history of games at the back of one shelf – how backgammon originated 5,000 years ago in Persia and chess is a concept from 6th century India.

I also like the stationery department at John Lewis in the basement, though it’s more wacky than serious, with ‘little gold books’, sticky notes with silly quips, pencils by the Designer’s Guild and filofaxes with the Union Jack.

My final tip for John Lewis is the haberdashery. I love feeling the fabrics – from the liquid silks to the bead-encrusted laces and crepy taffeta. But it’s also like stepping back in time. It’s the attendants that walk around in short-sleeved white shirts clutching tape measures, a pen behind their ear.

The carriage seat at the Disney Store

The best place for a quick sit down on Oxford Street. There’s also plenty of space in Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage to put your bags. Not much of interest here unless you are a big Disney fan, though I have to say the packed lunch boxes and flasks with The Little Mermaid always take me back to childhood. This is also the place to come for a CD of Disney’s greatest hits.

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Jean pimping at Gap

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There’s a little stand on the right hand side of the store where you can get your jeans decorated with letters or transfers, distressed or frayed. They also do hems. It’s free if you’ve bought the jeans in store.

Perfumes and potions at Marks & Spencer

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The beauty section on the first floor of the Marble Arch outlet is always empty. Seriously. Nobody seems to know this is here. There’s also plenty of testers. So you can try out the L’Occitane hand creams and anti-stress gels, dab on a bit of the frankincense facial oils and  spray the pearl illuminators into the air. The posh shower gels make a nice present, there’s a generous display of upscale travel toiletries, and there’s a big display of alternative perfumes to the usual Chanel and Dior – like Fragonard and Shay and Blue. So avoid the crowds at the smelly counters in the department stores and come here.

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