Head to this hidden Marylebone street just behind Edgware Road Station for Ai Weiwei, London’s messiest bookstore, an Aladdin’s cave of Nineties ghetto blasters, and a Lebanese nut emporium.
This is the kind of street where you’re off to a cracking start as soon as you turn into it. At number 1, you’ll find the rather serious-looking Mark Jason Gallery. Don’t let the sombre grey frontage and the fact that it’s appointment-only put you off; Mark Jason used to work at Christie’s so he’s got a forensic eye for value, and this space pulsates with the outlandish energy of the young emerging British and international artists’ works on display.
Look out for glass handbag sculptures by Debra Franses-Bean (Central Saint Martins) with mummified objects from wads of cash to lollipops and designer lipsticks encased inside; and Simon Schofield’s diagramaphic paintings of lawns and landscapes that look like microscopic scientific phenomena but still manage to have a meditative quality, and an oceanic sense of movement. (Monday to Friday 10.30am-5.20pm by appointment only; Saturdays 11am-2pm during exhibitions only; 0207 258 5800.)
The main entrance to the most famous Bell Street art space, the Lisson Gallery, is now 67 Lisson Street, but this gallery has two spaces along Bell Street (usually with different artists exhibiting in the two buildings). I make the rules for these guides so it’s going in here anyway. Don’t be shy about pressing the buzzer to come in. Especially if you’ve never seen an Ai Weiwei and want to see what all the fuss is about without the crowds (there are two installations by him here).
This gallery has been associated with the promotion of minimalist and conceptualist art since the Sixties; it has helped launched the careers of several British sculptors, including Anish Kapoor, and there’s a small collection of his work here. Exhibiting artists are normally people ‘everyone is talking about’, from French-Moroccan Bouchra Khalili, with her video map installations that explore themes of displacement and migration; to Jason Martin’s strange striations on canvas, made by dragging acrylic gel across aluminium and stainless steel – to make textures that resemble wisps of hair, the ghostly imprint of a feather, or the ridges of a vinyl record.
Also try and pop into Vintage Wireless London at number 17, with its Yellow Pages colour scheme. It’s one of the strangest shops that I’ve come across in this city, selling everything from antique recording equipment, old hi-fi systems and Nineties ghetto blasters to collector’s rock’n’roll vinyl and nostalgic reggae cassettes.
I believe they do a lot of trade with people looking to hire props, but it seems to be just as popular with music lovers hankering after the grainier, blunter, less airbrushed sounds of years passed.
You might want to avoid number 23 if you have a nut allergy – as here you’ll find a rare Lebanese nut shop; also lots of lentils and beans if you need to stock up, or baklava sweets if you need a sugar fix.
Finally, at number 83, you’ll see the blue-tile-fronted Archive bookstore, which has been selling second-hand tomes and sheet music since the Seventies. It’s the closest you’ll find to a ‘Black Books’ in London – cramped and chaotic, like a library after a hurricane. Cheap novels (Jane Austens; copies of Huckleberry Finn) are plopped haphazardly into wooden cartons outside; on the shelves books that are mostly about history and art slouch at ugly diagonals or are stuffed in so tightly their spines bulge. Scores of Mozart and Wagner spill across tables like knocked over liquids. There’s that gentle, fetid, archaeological smell of slowly decomposing paper and the harsher pong of varnished wooden cabinets that have seen better days. In other words, if you like old books, you could stay here for hours.
There’s a fantastic and rather nostalgic children’s section, so come here to stock up on Enid Blyton. There’s also an impressive collection of travel books, which I especially enjoy sifting through.