I cannot recommend enough this real-life answer to Diagon Alley; think Victorian street lamps gently glowing on the windows of zany shops framed with black pilasters and crowned with hand-painted signs. Bargain boxes of old records, ancient maps and tattered books gobble up the pavement space. This seventeenth-century street just seconds from Leicester Square is where Mozart lived and composed his first symphony, T.S Eliot once resided and Graham Greene and T.E. Lawrence used to shop. Most walk straight past it when they visit Theatre Land. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon here.
If you are coming from St Martin’s Lane, start at The Witch Ball art gallery (Number 2), which specialises in antiquarian prints. There’s a lot of original theatre and opera posters, but I especially enjoy looking at the old advertisements for ballet shows; there’s also quirky travel prints on display. Having once lived in Tunisia, I was somewhat amused by an old tourism poster for the country, complete with fez-hatted man on a donkey, painted in medieval, almost Nativity-play style. The affable owner, Rosselyn Glassman, specialises in the School of Paris, so you’ll notice a lot of French posters, many from the Twenties and designed with vibrant colours and Art Deco flair. There’s a smattering of rare prints by Matisse and Picasso as well.
Walk along to Tenderpixel art gallery at Number 8, a small but dynamic contemporary art gallery devoted to mid-career emerging artists.
It’s kooky. Think Spanish-born David Ferrando Giraut, with his video and sound installations, which attest to his fondness for washing up liquid, absinthe, and MDF; and Londoner Richard Healy’s phallic mouth-blown-glass vases, which have a tendency to turn heads.
Vinyl fans may want to pop into Intoxica Records at Number 11 – strong on Fifties and Sixties rock’n’roll. They’ve a sense of humour here; watch out for the section labelled ‘weird shit’.
A very special rare coin collectors shop, Colin Narbeth & Son, is further down on the same side of the road at Number 20. The musty, inky tang of old banknotes hits you as soon as you step in. Notes from the Russian Revolution and Iran in the time of the Ayatollah paper the walls, next to displays of antique medals, mottled and browned with age, and colourful, chintzy cigarette cards.
The coins on display are impressively old: expect widow’s mite used in the Holy Land when Christ was alive and shillings from the reign of Henry VIII. The Georgian cartwheel pennies and Victorian silver crowns make cool and inexpensive gifts, on sale from just £12.
At this point I’d recommend crossing the road and making a start on Cecil Court’s exciting cluster of independent bookstores. Bryars & Bryars at Number 7 is an Aladdin’s cave of old maps (particularly of London) and rare books.
Tim, the owner, is super friendly – ask to see the old maps of the original London Underground. There are some extraordinary artefacts here; prices reflect this fact.
Travis & Emery Music Bookshop is at Number 17. It’s friendly and manages to be pretty orderly even though it’s tiny and filled floor to ceiling with over 40,000 items, in particular second-hand sheet music and old programmes and periodicals. Don’t miss the atmospheric basement if you decide to go in for a browse.
Next door at 19-21 is Watkins Books. Now this is one of London’s most eccentric book shops, specialising in black magic, witchcraft and the occult as well as spiritualism and personal development. Rather than the usual sections like ‘politics,’ ‘history’ and ‘fiction’, here you’ll find the likes of ‘voodoo’, ‘yoga’ and ‘conspiracy theories’. Talks every Thursday at 6.30 cover everything from how to access your higher self to the medicinal benefits of hedgerows.
Finally, Goldsboro Books at 23-27 is the place to go for first-edition signed copies. They run a monthly book club that only reads novels printed exclusively for the shop – mainly debut authors.
Bear in mind that this is only a selection of Cecil Court’s weird and wonderful offerings to give you a flavour of what it’s about; to appreciate just how rammed with the peculiar and extraordinary this place is, go check it out yourself.