Wes Anderson-inspired illustrator Joel Holland published NYC Shopfronts in 2022 — a pictorial ode to the scores of beloved independent businesses across the city. Now, he's created a follow-up book — London Shopfronts — with words by Time Out's Rosie Hewitson. From floating Chinese restaurants to everyone's favourite foliage-smothered boozer, here's a taster of what to expect.
Gay's The Word, Bloomsbury
Founded in 1979 as a not-for-profit run by members of the Gay Icebreakers socialist group, this Bloomsbury landmark was the first specialist LGBTQ+ bookshop to open in the UK, at a time when queer literature was mostly available only by mail order. It soon established itself as a vital community space during the AIDS crisis, despite hostility from neighbouring businesses, several homophobic attacks and a 1984 Customs and Excise raid in which thousands of pounds' worth of stock was seized and the shop's directors were charged with conspiracy to import indecent books. Immortalised in the 2014 film Pride, Gay's The Word was met with an enormous community response in 2017 when it announced that it was facing closure due to rent hikes. With its future secured, the store's 40th anniversary was commemorated in a special event at the British Library in 2019.
Rowans, Finsbury Park
Mention Rowans to anyone who grew up in north London over the last forty years, and you’re likely to be met with giddy nostalgia as they recall childhood birthday parties, teenage jaunts and any number of rose-tinted anecdotes of their visits to the legendary late-opening fun palace.
Housed in a former tramshed that had previously been a cinema, a dance hall, a bingo venue and a snooker club, the Finsbury Park landmark was an exciting addition to the few existing central London bowling alleys when it opened to much fanfare in 1988, replete with 24 lanes, two bars and a boatload of kitsch Americana plastered all over its walls. Initially open 24 hours a day, by the late 1990s it had grown popular not just with youngsters and families but also with a weekend crowd of indie kids attracted by its late-night drinks licence.
The club atmosphere was further fostered by the arrival of the UK's first bowling alley DJ, an erstwhile security guard by the name of Big Daddy Johnson. The venue's round-the-clock hours may have been curtailed — it now shuts at a sensible 12.30am on weekdays and 1.30am on weekends – but with the addition of dozens of arcade games, table tennis, five karaoke booths and a snooker room, Rowans remains a go-to destination for birthday bashes, first dates, Christmas parties and impromptu midweek mad ones. Nobody can call themselves a true Londoner until they've bowled a gutter ball on its hallowed lanes.
Churchill Arms, Kensington
Mash the words 'pub' and 'flowers' into your preferred search engine and the first results will more than likely be pictures of this world-famous Kensington boozer. Costing more than £25,000 each year to maintain, its magnificent floral exterior has won the Churchill Arms countless prizes, including recognition at the Chelsea Flower Show and an Evening Standard Pub of the Year award. Come the festive period, its 50-odd window boxes, several dozen hanging baskets and over 100 flower pots are replaced with a seasonal display usually incorporating around 90 Christmas trees and more than 11,000 twinkling fairy lights. Inside, you’ll find a great selection of traditional real ales and a very decent menu of curries and noodle dishes from the resident Thai restaurant.
Khan's Bargains, Peckham
With its lengthy shelves stacked high with an endless variety of spices, grains, pulses and exotic fresh produce, this gargantuan self-styled 'Store of the People' is a treasured landmark among the bars, restaurants and nail shops of Peckham's vibrant Rye Lane.
A well-known figure among the local community, owner Akbar Khan hails from the Afghan capital of Kabul, and left a successful wholesale business behind when he fled the city for London in 1999 amid Taliban conflict. Khan's Bargains was founded the following year as a stall within the indoor market that then occupied this cavernous arcade, which first opened in the 1930s as a department store by the name of Holdron's.
Expanding his business until he had eventually made this little patch of Peckham his own, in 2019 Akbar set about restoring the shop's magnificent historic premises, working with a local architect to expose the original vaulted ceiling inside the art deco building, which was awarded a Grade II listing for his efforts.
With his sights set on further restoration projects, Akbar now takes a keen interest in the architecture of the neighbourhood he has made his home, and hopes to get other local shopkeepers on board with efforts to restore the area’s historic art deco quarter to its former glory. Until then, Khan's remains the pre-eminent destination for those looking to simultaneously lay their hands on a Lebanese cucumber, 10 kilograms of gram flour and 50 different varieties of pickle.
People's Sound, Notting Hill
If you're ever in town for Notting Hill's world-famous Carnival, don't miss a chance to visit this esteemed Caribbean record store in Ladbroke Grove. It's a treasure trove of reggae, ska, dancehall and ragga sounds, decked out in Jamaican flags and Bob Marley memorabilia.
Opened in 1988, People's Sound was once part of a cluster of businesses catering to the area's thriving Caribbean population, and is now the last surviving Black-owned business on All Saints Road. Born Von Barrington Adams, but better known as Daddy Vego, its late founder arrived in London from Jamaica as a teenager in 1956 as part of the Windrush generation, which saw thousands of Caribbean workers move to the city on the promise of well-paid jobs helping to rebuild post-war Britain.
As the original selector for the UK's first sound system, Original People's Sound, Daddy Vego played a wide variety of tunes every night for seven years at central London's first Black nightclub, the Roaring Twenties. A hugely influential figure within the British Caribbean community, he worked tirelessly to promote Jamaican music, sound system culture and his Rastafarian beliefs until his death in 2016. Now run by his son Dexter, Daddy Vego's iconic sound system still posts up outside the shop every August bank holiday for Carnival.
In a city with rent as expensive as London's, it pays to get creative with space. But few business owners have got quite as imaginative as Pete Tomlinson and Ben Russell, the co-owners of this Fitzrovia coffee shop inside a former public lavatory. Built in the 1890s, the subterranean gent's loos lay dormant from the 1960s until 2013, when they were artfully converted into this delightfully quirky space. It retains plenty of the original features, from its magnificent wrought-iron entrance right down to the Doulton & Co. porcelain urinals which now sit above the countertop perch where customers sip espressos. As for the name, that comes from the sign on the door to the toilet attendant's office.
The Comedy Store, Leicester Square
Insurance salesman Peter Rosenberg and nightclub owner Don Ward founded this stand-up venue in 1979, having been inspired by trips to the US, where they had visited some of the exciting new comedy clubs popping up in New York and LA. Starting out as a weekly club night at Don's Soho strip club, by 1982 The Comedy Store had evolved into a full-time venue based at 28 Leicester Square, where it was located for a decade before expanding into this 400-capacity basement space just round the corner. Often touted as the birthplace of alternative comedy, the club was compered by influential Scouse comic Alexei Sayle for its first three years of existence. Countless famous faces have graced its stage, including Hollywood stars like Mike Myers and Robin Williams.
Beigel Bake, Brick Lane
Wide-eyed new arrivals to the city can't really claim the title of 'Londoner' until they've paid a visit to this famous family-run Jewish bakery on bustling Brick Lane. But the same can also be said of another well-known Jewish bakery just a few metres away.
Founded in 1976 by siblings Asher and Sammy Cohen, Beigel Bake is actually an offshoot of the UK’s oldest beigel bakery, The Beigel Shop, which was established over a hundred years earlier in 1855 and is found just three doors down at No. 155. They may have once been run by the same family, but these days The Beigel Shop ('the yellow one') and Beigel Bake ('the white one') are up there with Arsenal and Tottenham's football teams as two of London's best-known local rivals. Both are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Both do all the classic beigel fillings, from smoked salmon, cream cheese and salt beef to the more acquired taste of chopped herring. And with almost identical pricing, both continue to do a roaring trade, serving up several thousand beigels every day to tourists and locals alike. Anyone who has moved to London from elsewhere knows that conducting your own Brick Lane beigel tasting is a rite of passage, and that once your allegiance has been declared there is no going back. Still, the queues tend to be that little bit longer at Beigel Bake.
Cummin' Up, New Cross Gate
Serving up ackee and saltfish, stewed oxtail, curry goat and ital stew until late into the night, this family-run restaurant by New Cross Gate station has been the saviour of countless drunken students at nearby Goldsmiths University. Lewisham-born founders Richard Harvey and his wife Sharon opened their first Caribbean takeaway in 1991, and now run this branch and a second in Lewisham with the help of their six children. Known for their generosity, the family have been serving up free Caribbean Christmas dinners to lonely and in-need south Londoners every year since 2009.
Bramble & Moss, Richmond
A jungle of succulents, monsteras, calatheas and dried floral arrangements fill the elegant curved windows of this picture perfect florist shop on Richmond’s Hill Rise. Embellished with emerald-green tiles and stained glass panels, the Victorian premises were originally home to a chemist and had variously housed a wine merchant, picture framer and fabric shop before florists Jo Antrobus and Ella Sarafian moved in in 2011. Selling everything from pots and houseplants to hanging baskets and terrariums, Bramble & Moss is perhaps best known for its whimsical tied bouquets of seasonal British flowers.
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History (opened by The Last Tuesday Society), Hackney
A two-headed taxidermy kitten, an obsidian mirror and a strand of Elvis Presley's hair are some of the curiosities to be found amongst the occult bric-a-brac, Surrealist artwork and vintage erotica displayed at this eccentric museum in Hackney Central. Opened in 2008 by esoteric literary salon and debauched party throwers The Last Tuesday Society after a successful crowdfunding campaign organised by their leader Viktor Wynd, the museum also contains an absinthe bar, where patrons can sample wares from the largest collection of the green fairy on offer in the UK, including a 77% ABV variety from Switzerland. Nothing about this place is for the faint-hearted.
James Smith, Bloomsbury
Standing proudly on the corner of New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, this impressive, Grade II-listed Victorian building houses Europe's oldest umbrella shop, which first opened in 1830 in the popular West End shopping district of Regent Street.
Originally based in a shopfront so small that prospective customers had to step outside to test the umbrellas manufactured in the attached workshop, the family business was vastly expanded under the leadership of the founder's son, James Smith II, who was said to be a keen entrepreneur.
As well as opening several additional businesses, including a hatters and a barbershop, in 1851 he became one of the first umbrella sellers to adopt a new, lightweight and cheaper-to-manufacture design made by British industrialist Samuel Fox. Sales of the fancy new model began to boom, and James Smith & Sons moved to the magnificent premises of Hazelwood House in 1857, where the Smith family also lived in the quarters upstairs.
Having survived second world war bombs, recessions and even a global pandemic, today it is the only specialist umbrella shop left in London. The interior retains its original Victorian counters built in the 1870s and the shop stocks as many as 3,000 walking sticks, parasols and umbrellas at one time, many of which are still handmade in the workshop downstairs.
Feng Shang Princess, Camden
Just a few minutes away from Primrose Hill, bobbing quietly on the water of a secluded little bend in the Regent's Canal, lies this splendid two-storey pagoda painted a vibrant red and decorated with traditional paper lanterns. Handcrafted in the early 1980s, the picturesque structure looks as if it's been plucked straight out of the Forbidden City, and houses what is said to be London's first floating restaurant. Inside, you'll find a British take on Chinese classics ranging from Peking duck to dim sum. Visit at night — when the glow of the lanterns is reflected in the water below — for a particularly magical experience.
Puppet Planet, Clapham
A magnificent assortment of handmade marionettes, shadow puppets and vintage figurines adorn the windows of this quirky little spot in Clapham. Here, customers can browse a variety of puppets ranging from collectibles made by the now-defunct British manufacturer Pelham Puppets and characters from the 1960s kids' TV show Thunderbirds to traditional Balinese wayang kulit shadow puppets and felt hand puppets from the former East Germany. Many of them have been handmade or repaired by self-taught puppeteer Lesley Butler, who founded the shop in 2004 and puts on Punch and Judy shows for children's birthday parties, visiting the shop as her alter ego Professor Baguette. Apparently all Punch performers go by the title 'Professor'… you learn something new every day.
Rasa, Stoke Newington
This Indian restaurant in Stoke Newington was opened by Kerala-born chef Das Sreedharan in 1997. Specialising in the light, largely vegetarian cuisine of his home state, it has since become one of the area's best loved cheap eats.
London Shopfronts by Joel Holland and Rosie Hewitson, published by Prestel
All images © Joel Holland, 2023