During my time in London I was a student with very little disposable income. Shopping usually consisted of going to Boot’s Chemist shops for toiletries plus film developing, Hart’s Food Market on Baker Street for groceries and popping into a little newsagent’s near the City University for papers and candy. I was overwhelmed at Harrod’s, browsed disinterestedly at Laura Ashley, and finally forced myself to buy some boots and a clubbing outfit at Selfridges.
There was a Benetton store on every corner (it was the 80’s) and at the HMV on Oxford Street, I purchased the Les Mis soundtrack and the Pet Shop Boys on cassette. It was the 80’s, remember? There were a lot of little boutiques in my neighborhood, but I wasn’t cool enough or wealthy enough to feel comfortable going inside. I did try the outdoor market experience in Convent Garden and Camden Town, but just ask my family, that type of adventurous bargain hunting makes me indecisive and irritable. It saddens me to say, give me Target and Kohl’s and I’m content. I must admit I am probably a shopaphobic.
Also at the time I lived in London, shopping hours were not nearly as convenient as I was accustomed to in the States. Many stores closed by dinnertime and all day Sundays. I remember wondering how working people got their shopping done. As for customer service, I don’t recall being accosted by salespeople, but the smaller shops seemed to have friendlier staff.
And what of the British television take on shopping? The proprietors and staff tend to be quirky and eccentric. According to Monty Python sketches, the stock might be non-existent (the cheese shop) or deceased (the pet shop). But stores are places for human interaction and that makes for great comedy. Here are a few I can recommend whether you adore or abhor the beep of the cash register :
Men’s clothing and women’s lingerie are featured at Grace Brothers (Are You Being Served?). I’m afraid I’m not very familiar with this classic retail institution. Nevertheless, my impression is that while on the surface this department store seems quite proper, you may walk away with ill-fitting clothing, questionable alterations and a shopping bag full of double entendres.
Ladies finery from the late 1800’s can be found at the The Stores, owned and operated by the Pratt Sisters (Lark Rise to Candleford). If you are wealthy and well-connected, Ruby and Pearl will unabashedly compliment and fawn over you. If not, you are likely to be the subject of snide remarks and cruel gossip.
Costume wigs, whoopee cushions, and chocolate…erm… naughty bits are sold at Miranda‘s joke shop (sorry, I don’t think they ever mention the actual name). While Miranda is the owner, you probably won’t find her helping on the sales floor very often. Her social awkwardness, lack of business acumen and general ADDish behavior has led her to hire her more ambitious childhood friend, Stevie, to manage the shop. Miranda is more likely to be at the restaurant next door, making a fool of herself in front of Chef Gary, her friend and not-so-secret crush.
Books, mostly second-hand, are stored in a shop called Black Books. Proprietor Bernard Black seems to have little interest in making a sale and even less in treating his customers with common courtesy or providing any level of service. Just watch the YouTube clip above and you’ll get the idea.
For the person who has everything might I suggest visiting the Nabootique (The Mighty Boosh)? Here you can purchase the full range of Howard Moon elbow patches, stationary and an exclusive Vince Noir invention, Indie Celebrity Radar. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a real shop at all, just a front for the Board of Shamans. Don’t ask.
Constantly changing stock is the hallmark of Shopkeeper Roy’s business. Books, costumes, greeting cards, and videos have all been on offer in this anonymous establishment (Where else could that happen besides Little Britain?) Here’s the drill. Mr. Mann, the store’s lone patron, requests some absurdly specific item. Then Roy, with the help of his unseen and apparently limbless wife, Margaret, usually finds something almost perfect…like a painting of a disappointed horse for example.