From pound shops to supermarkets, you can get everything in one place these days. The specialist, it would seem, is dying off. But a smattering of little guys glint through the fug of homogenisation — and some aren't as old as you might think.
Duke of Uke: ukuleles
And they said the uke craze wouldn't last. This purveyor of mini guitars (only joking; for lord's sake, don't call them mini guitars) has been going strong since 2005. To be honest, there's not much competition — it's the only uke-only merchant in London. Ukes come in all shapes and sizes — soprano to baritone, acoustic to electric, normal shape to flying-v shape. Depending how serious you are, come out with a wallet that's 30 or 500 quid lighter. That's a lot of busking to make your money back.
Duke of Uke, 88 Cheshire Street, E2 6EH
Gardners: disposable bags
A 10-minute walk from Duke of Uke takes you to a one-trick shop that's been in business since 1870. When Spitalfields' fruit and veg market went, 90% of Paul Gardners's customers disappeared. You'd have thought such a hit would spell the end of a paper bag business, but not this one. The shop has ridden the waves of time, venturing into tote bags, vacuum bags, plastic bags... and good old paper bags. Ask for a bag in which to carry your bags and see what happens.
Gardners, 149 Commercial Street, E1 6BJ
When is London going to open a dedicated cactus and succulent boutique?, you ask. You know, one with a really edgy, near explicit name? It already exists, we answer. Whether you're enchanted or slightly repulsed by the prickly wares on display, you can't deny they're choreographed quite wonderfully. This is less plant shop, more art exhibition. Owner Gynelle Lyon has more than 150 varieties of cactus here, and her sheer passion for the things might help you fall in love with them too.
Prick, 492 Kingsland Road, E8 4AE
The Button Queen: buttons
Hold the press — this one's not in east London. The Button Queen has only been at 76 Marylebone Lane since 2009. Then again, it was across the road at 19 Marylebone Lane for more than 30 years. And as a company it's been going since the 1950s. It's fair to say then, that these guys know their buttons. Blazer buttons, pearl buttons, wood buttons, royal-crested buttons... even if you're not looking for buttons, you'll wind up wanting to take a handful home. Who knew there was a button called Rockstar and another called Shanked Rockstar? Those with koumpounophobia, stay away. Everyone else, put it on the list for your next Marylebone visit.
The Button Queen, 76 Marylebone Lane, Marylebone, W1U 2PR
James Smith & Sons: umbrellas
Most Londoners have at least craned their neck around the door of this Bloomsbury umbrella emporium. Many of them have probably been told off for deigning to take a photo. Mr James Smith opened up a shop selling umbrellas at Foubert's Place in 1830. It moved to New Oxford Street in 1851, and has remained here since. Browsing the neat displays of umbrellas, parasols and sticks (the ones with animals heads are the best), gives you a taste of retail as it was back then. But you'll need more than a few shillings to make a purchase. In fact, when you see the price tags, you'll probably shrug and step back out into the rain.
James Smith & Sons, Hazelwood House, 53 New Oxford Street, WC1A 1BL
Barn the Spoon: wooden spoons
Cutlery's not niche enough for this Hackney Road venture. As the name would suggest, Barn the Spoon deals solely in spoons. And not just any spoons; wooden ones.
"Since the first apes shoved sticks in termite mounds hominids have had a love affair with the design and use of this wooden utensil," says Barn of his beloved spoons. He's often seen sitting in the window of his shop, carving away at bits of green wood, shavings piling up at his feet. You can also take part in woodcarving workshops at Stepney City Farm.
Barn the Spoon, 260 Hackney Road, E2 7SJ
Books for Cooks: books for cooks
Say what you see. Any cook worth their salt will be a regular visitor to this joint. Though they only sell cookery books, there's a whole lot of them out there, and the catalogue here numbers around 8,000 titles. Books for Cooks has been simmering away since 1983, with 'Fat Lady' Clarissa Dickson Wright working behind the counter for four years. From the latest Rick Stein to classics by Julia Child, this shop will surely sate your appetite.
Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill, W11 1NN
Blade Rubber Stamps
This shop's business sense is obviously better than its punning abilities; Blade Rubber has been selling rubber stamps since 1993. Who on earth needs a rubber stamp? While plenty of companies still use them to print envelopes and documents (with the likes of 'approved' and do not bend'), the arts and craft community adore this place too. They even have a line of London-centric rubber stamps. You haven't lived until you've stamped a black cab onto a bit of paper.
Blade Rubber Stamps, 12 Bury Place, WC1A 2JL