Living in London - part IV
by Pam Mather
Note: This guide was written in the fall of 1998 for a friend who was going to live in London on the BUNAC program. Therefore, some of the information will be outdated.
When I was in London, I was poor. All of my money went to necessities like rent and beer (well, when in Rome...) However, I did, on occasion have a spare pound or two, and so here is where I shopped (or just looked, in some cases.)
Note: letters and numbers in brackets  refer to the square and map number in the standard London A-Z.
[6-7 A-K 61]
The best “mall” in London. To be avoided at all costs on Saturday afternoons and weekday lunchtime. This is the best place to go clothes shopping if you're on a budget, since there are many inexpensive chain stores here, as well as both expensive and inexpensive department stores. The best clothing stores (there may be several of each on Oxford Street) are H&M, Next, and Top Shop, plus the hundreds of shoe stores, accessory stores, and jewellery stores. A strange lack of newsagents.
Cromwell Road [4K, 75], also in Camden
Simply the best grocery store on earth. (Forget Safeways and Tesco!) Cheap, a huge selection, great produce, good specials...our home away from home! One word...pick’n’mix!
The only drug store you need to know about. The most magical drug store on earth! Inexpensive film developing, wonderful inexpensive makeup, bath stuff, and all the other necessities a drug store provides. They also have good sandwiches and other lunch items. Boots are everywhere...my only complaint is they weren’t open 24 hours. (But then, who is?)
Newsagents are godsends. Besides selling tons of magazines and newspapers, you can buy London Transport passes, phone cards, candy, and occasionally overpriced groceries. Unfortunately, they generally close around 6 p.m., so if you are dying for the latest issue of Vogue, get it at lunchtime.
Oxford Street - Flagship at Poland St [6G, 61], smaller store near New Bond St [6F, 61]
A massive record store, which, while I was there, was undergoing a massive redo. It is a fantastic store, and generally has a really good sale going on. Singles are cheap as well, and you can pick up your music weeklies and monthlies.
Oxford Street - Flagship at Tottenham Court Rd [6H, 61], smaller store at Marble Arch [6E, 60]
My other favourite record store. A slightly better magazine selection and a much better book section. Like HMV, there is almost always a good sale going on. Check for celebrities, either performing/signing or just browsing.
Marks & Spencer
I always found it strange that these huge department stores would have almost fully stocked grocery stores in their basements. Marks & Spencer, despite being a purveyor of somewhat cheesy clothes, has a top-notch food hall. Yummy sandwiches and all matter of frozen foods. The underwear is famous, or so I’ve been told.
Knightsbridge [2D, 76]
Really, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said? I haven’t even been above the first floor. We did get some yummy (and affordable) warm olive bread from the amazing food hall.
Bookstores - New Titles
Books etc., Waterstones, WH Smith, Dillons
These shops are part of huge chains that can be found all over the city. They regularly have good sales on fiction paperbacks and a good selection.
Charing Cross Road [7H, 61]
A massive, massive bookstore on Charing Cross Road. There is one room with just maps and guides. Wonderful for browsing, but strangely oriented.
A magnificent shop, in existence since the 18th century. A great selection of books, nicely arranged and displayed. On the wall on the ground floor is a purchase order signed by Queen Victoria.
71-73 Charing Cross Road [6-7H, 61]
The store for crime fiction in London, from Sherlock Holmes to Inspector Morse.
Bookstores - Second Hand
These are just a few of the stores on Charing Cross Road, which is lined with many used book stores, some of which are specialty, like art, sports, and for women.
Any Amount of Books
62 Charing Cross Road [6-7H, 61]
A large horde of old books at reasonable prices. Subjects include science, the occult, literary criticism, Penguin fiction, and cookery.
Henry Pordes Books
58-60 Charing Cross Road [6-7H, 61]
Paperbacks galore in the basement. There is a 10% discount for students.
Gloucester Road Bookshop
123 Gloucester Road [3A, 76]
They have a fast turnover here, so it’s worth visiting regularly. The basement stocks scruffier books at lower prices.
First of all, when you go to the markets, there are a few key things to remember, to ensure that your trip is successful and fun.
- Be careful with your wallets and purses; pickpockets, too, love street markets. Make sure you have small bills. If you flash a large bill, you’ll only draw attention to the fact that you’re carrying a lot of cash.
- Dress casually, and leave your designer clothes and gold jewelry at home. If you look well off, the price will go up accordingly.
- Not every street dealer offers bargain prices. Some are expensive and not as affordable as you would think. Be a wise shopper!
- Always buy name-brand fragrances from a reputable store (Boots has good prices) or you may find when you get home that the bottle of perfume you bought is filled with colored water.
Camden Town [1F, 61]
Camden is the only market I spent any amount of time at, but there are many other markets that are worth checking out. Camden is actually home to a whole series of markets, all fairly different. You can easily spend a couple of hours rooting through racks of clothes, jewelry, CDs and assorted bric-a-brac. There are also permanent shops that sell food, leather goods, shoes and so forth, as well as rather dodgy stalls set up on the sidewalks to sell watches and tapes.
The first market you’ll probably see is Camden Market (Thursday-Sunday, 9 - 5:30). It’s the first market on your right as you walk north from the Camden Town tube along Camden High Street. Camden Market tends to sell mostly clothes; t-shirts, Doc Martens (£35 new!), military peacoats and the like. You can also buy jewellery, makeup and records. If you get hungry, there are some cheap ethnic food stalls whose quality I will not vouch for.
Continuing up Camden High Street you will pass over the Camden Lock, an artificial waterway. Along with the usual t-shirts and jewellery, the Canal Market also offers up some more interesting items: African statues, bootleg concert videos and tapes (but don’t bother buying the videos because you won’t be able to play them in the States. Europe uses a different format, so unless you have a VCR in your flat, they will be useless), Swiss army knives, blankets, and more. Sometimes there are collector’s items like stamps or comic books as well.
Across the street from the Canal Market is Camden Lock Market. It sprawls around the market hall, a multi-story shopping centre. The items you’ll find here are similar to those in other markets: mood rings, official Guinness pint glasses, bootleg concert CDs, used books, cheesy souvenirs, and all the rest. The permanent shops are interesting, though. They include a Turkish Bath shop, a palm reader, and a nice glass shop, and they are open seven days a week, unlike the stalls that only spring up on weekends.
If you continue north through the Lock Market you will quickly find yourself in a warren of brick alleyways. This is the Stables Market, which bills itself as London’s biggest antique market. Whether it is or not, it’s still massive, and there is plenty to be found there. There are antiques by the bucketloads, of course: spoons, clocks, and coins dominate. There are also clothing and army surplus stalls, record shops, vintage book stores, and a metalwork stand.
There’s also plenty of food in the Stables, as well. You can try the Oasis Food Arch, which gathers six international food stands into one area by the south entrance. There are also carts that sell packets of roasted coconut and peanuts (£1) and a stand that sells burgers (£2 for veggie or meat versions).
Camden is a fairly touristy area, with lots of foreign students as well. All of the markets are crowded. Camden Market, in particular, can get packed, with barely any room to squeeze past. In short, it’s a pickpocket’s heaven, so play it smart: keep your wallet in a front pocket, and securely close any bags.
Camden Town is a wonderful place for bargain hunters to shop. Initially, the prices are high, but with a little persuasion from the buyer, these vendors will gladly lower their prices immediately. Open Thursday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., this market is just right for anyone who enjoys a crowded, but relaxing, scene for shopping. Even if you aren’t a shopper, or if your budget does not include buying clothes in London, go for the cultural experience. The people are friendly and interesting.
Pam Mather is a New Orleans-based Anglophile. She lived in London for six months in 1997 and goes back for a visit every year.