Nifty, gifty shopping in London?
April 15, 2013 4:45 AM   Subscribe

LondonCommerceFilter: Business trip to London (from US) coming up, and I've got a free initial jetlag day that I'd like to spend shopping-- preferably for cool, unique, not-too-expensive, suitable-for-gifting items I'd be unlikely to find in the US. I'm specially interested in women's accessories (scarves, jewelry); toys and games; (travel-friendly) foods; tchotchkes; and used/antique books. Any must-visit shops?

I'm taking a red-eye, so my primary mission that first day will be NOT TO FALL ASLEEP-- which is where the shopping comes in. Total budget of £ 150ish, and I'd like to make that go as far as possible in gifts for the folks back home.

I'll be based around St. Pancras, but wouldn't mind travelling elsewhere, as long as it's public-transportation-accessible. I'll likely not have energy for a ton of train-hopping, though, so it'd have to be just one neighborhood of relatively consolidated shopping. I'm not particularly interested in buying anything explicitly souvenir-y or British-themed, but I would ideally like to find items that I might not necessarily see in a regular mall or department store back home. Oh, and since I'm obviously not a local, some basic locating info for any suggestions (tube stop?) would be super useful, if you've got it handy. Thanks!
posted by gallusgallus to Shopping (23 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe too expensive but: Liberty by Oxford Circus, Fortnum & Mason by Piccadilly Circus.
posted by knile at 4:54 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it crosses the too expensive line, but the Victoria and Albert Museum often has fun ladies' accessories that are not the standard museum fare. I think my favorite find was a set of 8 quid zipper pull earrings, but mostly it's thematic around the current exhibition. It's around 15 minutes on the tube/5 minutes walking from South Kensington station. Right now it looks like David Bowie-themed stuff is on deep sale, but there's some more traditional and pretty options in the 10-15 quid area. The British Museum has a fantastic gift shop if you are wealthy but it's less fun on the cheaper end of the spectrum. (Continuing on this theme, the Soane Museum has wonderful and wacky tea towels, and St Martin-in-the-Fields has kind of a fun, small shop as well just off Trafalgar.) There also is a Fortnum and Mason's in Heathrow, which is obviously quite expensive but if you're on the way back and need of a gift, they have nice pots of jam and rock crystal stir sticks for tea that aren't that bad. If you are bringing back food for kids/teenagers, the more unusual flavors of crisps have been popular, especially Tyrell's various meat and/or cheese based ones.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:01 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can wander down to St Pancras or virtually anywhere else in London and go into Accessorize, which is basically inexpensive accessories, many of which are pretty ace.

Also, I do not believe the US has Primark and while I wouldn't go shouting about shopping there, everyone does. The website is useless. The store is a wonderland of cheap and adorable accessories.

Toys and games: Hamleys. There is very little that you won't find in the US unless you select a London-branded item.

Used/Antique books: Can't help you.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:04 AM on April 15, 2013

The British Museum gift shop, not too far from St. Pancras has many unique things including scarves and jewelry many from local designers. They have stuff at all price ranges. They also have toys and games. So its a good one-stop shop.

For used/antique books, there's quite a few bookstores on Charing Cross Rd between Tottenham Court road tube station and Cecil Court. On your way from the British Museum to Charing Cross, there's also L. Cornelissen which has many unique beautiful things.
posted by vacapinta at 5:07 AM on April 15, 2013

St Pancras has shops which include Branches of Hamleys Foyles( new books), Marks&Spencer(department store that includes a supermarket).

You will also be close to the British Library, which has an excellent book/gift shop.
posted by brujita at 5:10 AM on April 15, 2013

The Tate Modern gift shop (or shops - there are a few within the buidling), The V&A gift shop, both have some beautiful things - books, posters, jewellery, household items, etc. The Design Museum gift shop has some really great things too.
posted by everydayanewday at 5:11 AM on April 15, 2013

(sorry - forgot locating info! Tate Modern and Design Museum are pretty much within walking distance of each other - get off the bus/tube at St Pauls and walk across the bridge to the Tate, and from there walk along the river down to Shad Thames. Bonus is, it's very pretty.)
posted by everydayanewday at 5:14 AM on April 15, 2013

Travel friendly foods: Marks & Spencer inside St. Pancras will have digestive biscuits and/or a tin of butter shortbread. The tin is especially useful, as it will prevent the shortbread from getting crumbled into a powder in your bag. Also, if you don't mind carrying something a little heavy, you can go into any large grocery store and, for less than a pound, buy a can of mushy peas. (Yes, that's what they call them. Mushy peas. Ask for them by name!) You can't get more British than mushy peas.

Toys/Games: The London Transport Museum Gift Shop in Covent Garden will have lots of options featuring recognizable London symbols like double-decker buses and black cabs, ranging from cheap pencil sharpeners to larger and more expensive items. They will also have some unusual clothing gifts, like a scarf based on the fabric used on the seats of Tube trains. Depending on when you arrive, you may see a queue stretching out the door of the museum. That queue is for tickets to the actual exhibitions, so if you are just going into the gift shop, you don't need to wait in the queue-- you can just walk right into the shop.

(Disclaimer: my wife used to work for the Transport museum so I may be biased, but I really think the shop is full of incredibly cool things.)

Also, if you're shopping for kids, you might think about getting some distinctly British picture books in addition to toys. Judith Kerr's books -- especially Mog The Forgetful Cat and The Tiger Who Came To Tea-- are wonderful and very British, but completely accessible to an American kid. They've become our go-to gifts for American kids of picture book age. I'd also recommend The Witch's Children and The Queen by Ursula Jones. The Queen's Knickers, by Nicholas Allen, is also very funny, but I've found that it requires a little more explanation -- in addition to words like "knickers," it has some fairly specific cultural references, like Balmoral or the Queen's Christmas Speech.

There's a Foyle's bookstore in St. Pancras, but pretty much any bookstore in London should have at least one of these books, if not all of them.
posted by yankeefog at 5:41 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Spitafields market
posted by oh pollo! at 5:44 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

For one neighbourhood of consolidated shopping I'd recommend Seven Dials.

You can also explore the rest of Covent Garden, or walk to Regent St. through Soho if you haven't found what you need. You are also close to Charing Cross Road for books which Vacapinta mentioned above.
posted by mani at 6:15 AM on April 15, 2013

The London Transport Museum Gift Shop in Covent Garden...

A general wander round Covent Garden market might be good.
posted by Segundus at 6:15 AM on April 15, 2013

US-ian who has been to London five or six times in the past few years.

For a centrally-located place to buy British-history themed toys and games and tchtockes not available in the US, try the gift shop at the War Rooms (Westminster or St. James). I've picked up really fun kids books and toys there. Not sure if you can get there without getting through the museum, but man, it's a stupid awesome museum that is easy to enjoy while exhausted and jet-lagged. The Imperial War Museum proper has a bigger selection, but is kind of out of the way.

For foodie gifts that are budget-friendly, while being super-nice and suitable for giving as a gift (definitely not available in regular stores in the US), Fortnum and Mason is my go-to (Picadilly Circus). Yeah, I know, insert a series of jokes about American tourists here and the quality of American tea, too, but the quality and variety of the tea is in-fucking-credible. Also, they have a peppermint tea that smells like mint chocolate chip ice cream and tastes almost as good. Do you know what it takes for me to love flavored tea? You can't go wrong with their jams and preserves, either. Commercial lemon curd in the US (and in the UK too, in my experience) as is a pale, shadowy imitation of the glorious thing F&M have on the shelves. Also, the strawberry preserves. Also, the golden raspberry preserves. Also, more lemon curd. Also, the dark navy rum marmalade. I have checked entire suitcases solely for the purpose of bringing back jam and preserves from F&M.

With 150 pounds, you'll have enough to go take a look in the basement, where the super-posh people who live in the neighborhood/buy the legendary Christmas hampers send the help to shop. For meat aficianados, you can buy tiny, great-for-presents ye olde fashioned tins of the correct mustard-y relish to have with pie made with pheasants!
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:25 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Women's accessories (scarves, jewelry) - Lots of nice little shops on streets off Carnaby St; Liberty and Selfridges are both great designer-y places with dedicated spaces for designer stuff; there is also Craft Central at Farringdon; A lot of London's best up and coming designers work out of Cockpit Arts near Holborn (also in Deptford, SE London). They have an open day twice a year so you might coincide and be lucky. You can browse their website and if you see a designer you want to visit then sometimes designers allow you in by appointment. There is some really great stuff there. For higher end jewellery (although there is cheaper stuff) the Goldsmith's Fair in September is fantastic. This is too late for you, but you can browse the exhibitors, which include pretty most of the best designers.

Toys and games; although I don't really rate it, it is a London landmark: Hamley's on Regent St; The Natural History Museum and the Science Museum's shops are both first rate and next to one another in South Kensington.

Foods - Fortnum's is good, but expensive; Rococo makes lovely gift chocolates; Selfridges have a great food hall. Harrods' one is crap, by the way. There is a decent supermarket under John Lewis on Oxford St (Waitrose). M&S's flagship store on Oxford St (next to Selfridges) also has a good food hall.

Tchotchkes and other gifts - The London Transport Museum (and shop) in Covent Garden is brilliant. There are also loads of little shops around Covent Garden in the piazza itself and north of the tube. Covent Garden also has the Jubilee Market but it is a bit touristy. Avoid any and all of the crappy souvenir shops anywhere; I'd recommend Spitalfields and also worth going down Columbia Rd (the flower market operates on a Sunday only, but there are lots of decent permanent shops selling designery stuff, but typically only open later in the week). If you're out east already then Shoreditch High St has decent indie designer stuff too in various shops. If you're into design, SCP in Shoreditch has good home accessories (at a price), as does TwentyTwentyOne in Islington.

Used/antique books - Go down Cecil Court (by Leicester Square). If you've got some cash and want expensive stuff/first editions then go to Peter Harrington (near South Kensington). If you're on Marylebone High St, London's much loved indie bookshop Daunt Books is there (new books only).

Over and above that - there's Camden Lock market, which is a mixture of stuff but some good vintage shops and arts and crafts. Portobello Market also, a mixture of clothing, antiques etc. Marylebone High St is a posh shopping street with a few indie shops and whatnot and is close to the centre of town.

Places that are near one another: Directions from at Oxford Circus

- Directly south: Liberty, Carnaby St, Regent St (Hamley's)
- South east: Leicester Square (Cecil Court), Covent Garden (LT Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, Jubilee Market)
- East: British Museum, Holborn, Cockpit Arts (about a mile), Farringdon (about 2 miles). Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Columbia Rd are near one another and further east again from Farringdon.
- West: John Lewis, Selfridges
- Further west/south west - Notting Hill (Portobello Market), South Kensington (Peter Harrington, V&A, Science Museum, NH Museum)
- North west: Marylebone High St (Rococo, Daunt Books)
- North: Camden (1.5 miles), Islington (2 or so miles).
posted by MuffinMan at 6:42 AM on April 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

For used books, your money will go far at the Book and Comic exchange at Notting Hill Gate. They get some weird things in there which outweighs the very grumpy service. My favourite weird bookshop, on Colet Court (edit - I might mean Cecil Court) near Trafalgar Square/Charing Cross Road, seems to have gone now, but Colet Court has some interesting bookshops.

Primark is indeed cheap and plentiful, but be prepared to queue for anything up to an hour at either central London branch, and at least an hour at weekends. I only tend to buy pyjamas there and only then if I happen to be free on a weekday to avoid the queues. Topshop has interesting things and so does Tatty Devine in the Seven Dials area (though unless the sale is on this might not be great for your budget). I know they have Uniqlo in the US now, but at the moment they have a nice Celia Birtwell range of scarves for about £10 each. I also hear that US folk go nuts for our drugstore make-up - Barry M polishes or a Sleek eyeshadow palette from any Superdrug store would be nice if you're buying for teens.

The Tea House in Covent Garden is my favourite stop for loose tea; there are also branches of Whittards all over the city if you don't get chance to get to a specialist store.

If you're in Covent Garden for the Transport Museum - which has a very good shop - then I'd recommend going into the 'market' and finding Pollock's Toyshop. They do a lot of interesting and small old-fashioned toys. I would have loved it as a child and I'm still tempted to buy the whole shop as an adult.
posted by mippy at 6:46 AM on April 15, 2013

Oh yes - there's also Gosh Comics in Soho if you're looking for books and interesting bits and pieces. The old one was in Holborn near my office, but I'm afraid I can't remember where the new one is.
posted by mippy at 6:48 AM on April 15, 2013

Seconding Camden if your gift-ees are arty boho types. Lots of cute stuff there.

Also, my friends and family have been made very happy by small gifts of food from Marks and Spencer's lovely food department (you can go to any M&S, and really, any grocery store will have lots of things that seem boutiquey and are delicious).

Have a fabulous shopping day.
posted by supercoollady at 6:59 AM on April 15, 2013

I have to second Cecil Court. It is mostly known for antiquarian and modern books but also has some theatre-related tchotchkes. Prices range from very expensive to not-so-expensive. You could do a lot there with £150.

You get on the Piccadilly Line and get out at Leicester Square. It's a very short trip.

If you have time after that, you should go to Liberty, which is by Oxford Circus. You take the Piccadilly Line again and change at Green Park to the Victoria Line, then go down Argyll Street. Again, prices range from ultra-expensive to not-so-expensive. It will have things you never thought you wanted... correspondence cards, little sewing kits packaged up to look like luxury items, high quality writing paper (drool)...

Really it doesn't get much more British than those two places. And Liberty has some nice cafés. They were both big haunts of mine as a child and a teen especially; the moment I had an income, it was mostly going there. I think when I die, my irate ghost will be asking the cashier at Liberty to try my card again.
posted by tel3path at 7:08 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

And don't forget to show us your haul when you're done.
posted by tel3path at 7:12 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of great ideas!

I second the museum gift shops which are full of really high quality and not too expensive stuff-- the Victoria & Albert and the Science Museum are next to each other, the former for pretty designy things and the latter for fun geeky toys. Not too hectic (I'd find Camden Market waaaay too hectic if was jet-lagged!). All the museums are free as well so you can spend lots of time in there. Picadilly Line from Kings Cross to South Kensington (or the no. 10 bus from Kings Cross, which would let you see the city from the top deck, alight at Royal Albert Hall and walk down Exhibition Road).

I love the stuff in the Transport Museum too, which you could do as a batch with Liberty and Fortnum and Mason, that would be a meandering walk through Covent Garden and Soho, pausing in the second-hand book stores on Charing Cross, for a more buzzy urban experience.

On a sunny day the Tate Modern to the Design Museum walk along the river is a great idea and will wake you up too, one of the nicest walks in the city. You'd pass the Borough Market on the way for all kinds of foodie stuff Thursday through Saturday (if it's another day of the week, there's still a few specialty food shops there open all week too). I'd suggest taking a bus there and back so you can see the city from the top deck- take the 63 from King's Cross, alight just after crossing Blackfriars Bridge, walk east along the river. You'll pass the Tate Modern, Bankside Gallery, Globe Theater, Borough Food Market, etc, all the way along to the Design Museum a bit past Tower Bridge (maybe a half hour walk all together). Then backtrack to London Bridge and take the 17 bus or the Northern Line back to Kings Cross. Sleep!
posted by Erasmouse at 9:09 AM on April 15, 2013

Lots of great suggestions! But just in case you find you're too tired to contend with the Tube after all...

Actually in St Pancras (here I'm mostly reiterating what other people have said), there are a few shops you might find interesting. For starters, there's a little branch of Hamleys and a little branch of Foyles. Foyles only has new books, not used, but it has some nice book-related toys as well. There's some fairly upmarket packaged food and drink to be had from the Sourced Market, and it's also worth taking a look at the food in the larger of the two station branches of Marks and Spencer (it's not in the main hall, but round in a sort of annex opposite the Sourced Market). And there are a fair few fashion shops, of which I agree that Accessorize is probably your best bet for scarves and jewellery.

King's Cross station, just across the road, has another Accessorize; it also has a Harry Potter shop and a small branch of the rather decent British chocolate chain Hotel Chocolat.

Then, within ten minutes' walk of St Pancras, there are two good second-hand bookshops, Judd Books (on Marchmont St) and Skoob Books. Judd is on the way to, and Skoob is actually in, the Brunswick Centre shopping centre, which also includes a Waitrose supermarket; you'll find plenty of nice food there, and it'll be a bit cheaper than the Sourced Market in St Pancras.

By the time you emerge from the back of the Brunswick Centre, you're only half a mile from the British Museum, whose shops are worth a look even if you're too tired to explore the galleries. Then you can loop back to St Pancras via the British Library, whose shop is apparently rather wonderful. The whole round trip is no more than a couple of miles, which should hopefully be enough to keep you awake without wearing you out!
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:20 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh - I work near to the Brunswick. There are two specialist shops there:

Gay's The Word on Marchmont St - specialises in gay and lesbian books.

Bookmarks (?) which is near to Tottenham Court Road - they are an 'anarchist' bookshop. There is a whiskey shop next-door, if that interests you, and nearby is a large Paperchase which is stuffed with stationery-type tchotckes.
posted by mippy at 9:39 AM on April 15, 2013

I don't have much to add - I haven't been to London since 2007, but the London Transport museum was always a must, along with whatever Sainsbury's I was staying closest to, for tea, candy, crisps, jam, etc.

I'm so envious! Even jet-lagged, that sounds like the most perfect day I could imagine. Sigh...
posted by pyjammy at 7:49 PM on April 15, 2013

For secondhand bookshops, try this guide. Cecil Court is the best place for browsing, though most of the bookshops there are now up-market boutiques rather than the dusty basements of yore.

If you're starting from King's Cross, hop on the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square, head to Cecil Court (2 mins walk from the tube), then cross St Martin's Lane and cut through the side streets to Covent Garden (5 mins walk), visit the London Transport Museum and hang out in Covent Garden for a while. If it's a nice day and you fancy a walk, go up past Covent Garden tube to Neal Street (if you like cheese, don't miss Neal's Yard Dairy), then up to High Holborn, along Museum Street (pausing to look in the windows of Abbott and Holder and Jarndyce), then cut through the British Museum and out into Montague Place. Now you're in Bloomsbury, and a gentle stroll across Russell Square, past Russell Square tube and left into Marchmont Street (taking in a few more bookshops on the way: Skoob Books, Gay's the Word, Judd Books, and my favourite of all, Collinge and Clark in Leigh Street) will take you most of the way back to King's Cross.
posted by verstegan at 9:38 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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