20 January 2017 | 7 °C

The People Who Sell Souvenirs On Oxford Street

The People Who Sell Souvenirs On Oxford Street
Jim, holding his personal favourite souvenirs

Look up!, us Londoners are always implored — especially when in places like Oxford Street. Look up, and see the real London — the caryatids, the pillars draped in vines and gods, the mazy scrolling ironwork, the spectres of Selfridge and De Quincey appearing in upper storey windows.

It's a pretty universe up there, but unreal. To keep your neck craned is to ignore what's happening on Oxford Street right now. Which, as it turns out, involves a lot of this:

On street level, denting the chain of chain stores, are the shops belonging to the brash, colourful and frankly cutthroat world of the souvenir. This is a dominion of 75% off, eternal closing down sales, Katy Perry pumping out of ghetto-blasters, and more Keep Calm and Carry Ons than there would have been, had the Nazis actually invaded.

So who exactly is keeping these emporiums ticking over?

Abdul from Afghanistan, who's worked in this Souvenirs of London for eight months

"We get people from everywhere," says Abdul, who works at Souvenirs of London, "Australia, New Zealand, Americans, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Holland... we can't ask everyone where they come from! Asian and Indian. For me, all of them are the same!"

He means this, by the way, in a complimentary way; you can sense Abdul relishes his work.

Fridge magnets are a bestseller

But for starters, a lot of people who walk in don't want souvenirs at all, but something else completely.

"Most of them ask for directions," says Abdul, "Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch... how to get to Big Ben."

Knowing central London is part and parcel of the job, and there's no impulse to foist an A-Z on anyone who asks to be pointed the right way.

"We just try to give them a good direction and they're happy," says Abdul.  

Rose from Canada peruses postcards

For those who are in the market for souvenirs, there's a plethora of items to choose from: from fish and chips-shaped postcards to miniature Big Bens for the mantelpiece. What do people tend to go for?

"People like the hats and hoodies," says Abdul, "and at the moment, t-shirts. And mugs. That kind of stuff."

Keyrings are a favourite too, says Jim, who's owned a shop closed to Tottenham Court Road station for three years.

Any theme in particular? "Union Jack things!" Jim laughs.

Most of Jim's customers, he says, are European — Germans in particular, are keen to buy.

Frank, buying prizes for his pupils back in Berlin

Frank, from Berlin fits Jim's description. He's eyeing up Union Flag mugs outside a gift shop across from the British Museum. "I'm a teacher, Frank says, "so I'm looking for some prizes for my pupils."

Does the Union Flag actually mean anything to him?

"Not really, it's more like 'OK it's England!'"

Not exactly PC. But you do get more tequila than usual

It's easy to sneer at these keepsakes, but souvenirs have been a phenomenon in London since the days of the Crystal Palace and the Brunels' Thames Tunnel. Some of the shop owners we speak to have been here for over a decade.

And while there's a decided nervousness about London's housing market at the moment, we may well be on the verge of a golden era for the capital's cheaper goods.

Says Jim, "After Brexit it's quite busy. Because the euro's going up. So people come down now, I sell more stuff. I'm telling you, after Brexit... it's picking up."

Imran says Americans and those from the Middle East like to buy souvenirs for everyone they know

Although for Imran, who works at The London Gift Shop on New Oxford Street, it's those from further afield who like to dig deepest.

"Every time an American or someone from the Middle East comes in... you can sell lots to them," he says, "Personally I think when they come here, they try to take something for everyone.

"Maybe they will buy, for example, 50 key chains. It's £20 — it's not that expensive, but they buy for everyone.

"But mostly I am selling mugs. And the Dancing Queen."

Long may you reign, plastic Ma'am. And she will too — she's solar powered.

Last Updated 19 December 2016