At Christmas time, London goes shopping mad. The streets are illuminated with twinkling lights, glowing shop fronts and scrolling advertisements. Shelves are heaving with shiny gift sets and plastic stocking-fillers. The poet Shelley was dazzled by London’s ‘goldsmiths, print-shops, toy-shops, mercers, hardware men [and] pastry cooks’. ‘ These are thy gods, O London!’ he cried.
You can escape the Christmas crowds, by seeking out some of the more unusual emporia that this city has to offer. Here is a selection of Christmas gift ideas, from a range of London’s more eccentric outlets.
The window of Get Stuffed on Essex Road is crammed with an exotic menagerie: baboons and giraffes rub snouts with crocodiles and a great white shark. Pick up a stuffed armadillo for your loved one, or if they want to get hands on, buy a two-day squirrel-stuffing workshop with the London Taxidermy Academy in London Bridge.
Get Stuffed, Islington
‘A book is like an alligator’s mouth’, says Lemony Snicket, ‘if you see one open you often end up disappearing inside.’ Disappear into The Alligator’s Mouth bookshop on Church Walk in Richmond, hand-painted by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell. Browse their superb collection of children’s books, and pick up ideas at their themed storytimes on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The Alligator’s Mouth, Richmond
Cheese has been sold in Leadenhall Market for a long time. This Victorian arcade, with its stunning gold-and-burgundy ironwork, occupies the site of what was the Roman forum, or marketplace, and it was the Romans who first brought cheese-making techniques to Britain in 43 AD. Cheese at Leadenhall Market will supply you with a couple of truckles of Berkswell, a Roman-style ewe’s milk cheese.
Cheese, Leadenhall Market
Village Games on Camden Lock Market is stacked to the rafters with games: card games, board games, old games and new games. They have tubs of pick-and-mix multi-coloured dice, including some with 20 sides.
Village Games, Camden
‘Children know such a lot now,’ wrote J. M. Barrie, ‘they soon don’t believe in fairies’. Believers should go to the shop with no name opposite Gospel Oak Station. On the door, next to a drawing of a fairy, are the words: ‘we do not exist, but if you think we do, please knock’. Knock and wait for Kristin Baybars to let you into her toyshop, which specialises in all things magical and miniature. Browse through the tiny costumes, button-sized cakes and microscopic jigsaws, and pick up anything you need to accommodate visiting fairy folk.
7 Mansfield Road, Gospel Oak
Become a special agent at Spymaster on Portman Square. Instead of keeping money in a safe, store it in a covert soup can with an unscrewable bottom. No need for CCTV: wear glasses with an inbuilt camera and fit pinhole video recorders behind the acrylic eyes of your mounted boar’s head.
Top up on Christmas fruit and veg at the People’s Supermarket on Lamb’s Conduit Street, which was founded in 2010 as a reaction to the growing dominance of a few big chains. The staff members all volunteer for four hours a month in return for 20% off their shopping. They sell as much local produce as possible and minimise waste by cooking food approaching its best-before date and selling it in their People’s Kitchen cafe.
People’s Supermarket, Russell Square
Sh!, an erotic emporium just off Hoxton Square, caters exclusively for women. Men enter by invitation only and the friendly staff offer tips and advice over cups of tea. Pick up some Christmas stockings.
Sh!, Old Street
If you like Hemulens and Hattifatteners, you’ll enjoy a browse through the small replica of Tove Jansson’s Moomin Valley, in the Moomin Shop above Covent Garden Market. The original books are available, as are mugs, puzzles and bath toys.
Moomin Shop, Covent Garden
The travel bookshop Stanford’s has been operating since Edward Stanford created his ground-breakingly accurate Library Map of London in 1862, still in print after 150 years. Today the shop has the world’s largest stock of maps and travel books under one roof, and even its floors are laid out as a stack of maps: on the ground floor you walk around the world; on the first floor you trek across the Himalayas; and in the basement you stroll across a giant A–Z map of central London.
Stanfords, Covent Garden
Everyone’s favourite candy-themed megastore has a kooky lift that looks like you’re stepping into a red telephone box. You’re not. It’s a lift. Buy your chocolatey treats here.
M&M’s World, Leicester Square
Rummage for the perfect Christmas roasties at Marylebone’s Sunday Farmers’ Market: the Potato Shop has sacks full of spuds.
Potato Shop, Marylebone
Real Gallifreyan Sonic Screwdrivers are on sale at the Dr Who shop and museum on the Barking Road. ‘THIS IS NOT A TOY’, the website warns.
The Who Shop, Upton Park
Visit the wonderfully archaic Segar & Snuff in Covent Garden Market and purchase a tin of their own-brand snuff. Their blends date back to Jacobean times; we recommend the Mature Crumbled.
Segar & Snuff, Covent Garden
Barn the Spoon’s spoons, on display in his shop on Hackney Road, make lovingly handcrafted wooden presents. Barn also runs regular carving days in his East End woodworking school at Stepney City Farm.
Barn the Spoon, Spitalfields
Select a premium quality blend at the Twinings shop on the Strand. Don’t miss the old money chest in the in-store museum, with the letters ‘T.I.P.’ painted on top, short for ‘To Improve Promptness’, the origin of ‘tipping’ for service.
Twinings, The Strand
For lovers of vintage toys, visit Pollock’s Toy Museum on Scala Street, and pick up one of their miniature ‘matchbox theatres’. While you’re there, pay your respects to the oldest toy in London: an Ancient Egyptian clay mouse from 2000 BC.
Pollock’s Toy Museum, Fitzrovia
You can stock up on dungaree-wearing rabbits at the world’s only Sylvanian Families shop on Mountgrove Road. Alternatively, they also sell rolls of miniature wallpaper; superfans should buy up several hundred thousand to decorate their homes.
Sylvanian Families, Highbury
On Sunday mornings, the curve of Columbia Road is flooded with fragrances and colour. The weekly flower market is a treat at any time of year, but in December it is the place to pick up festive essentials: trees, holly branches and fir cones are all available, as are handcrafted Christmas wreaths.
Columbia Road Flower Market, Bethnal Green
If all else fails, Soho has two superior liquor stores: Gerry’s and Milroy’s. Gerry’s Wines and Spirits on Old Compton Street is crammed to the gunnels with hand-labelled bottles of all colours and shapes. You are welcome to sample before you buy. Milroy’s on Greek Street is London’s comprehensive whisky emporium: drop in for a dram of Jura.
Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose are the authors of Curiocity: In Pursuit of London (Penguin Books, £30), a new guide to the capital, full of stories, ideas and itineraries, and maps drawn by artists including Isabel Greenberg, Steven Appleby and Chris Riddell. We reckon it's ‘perhaps the best book about London ever compiled’.