London's Best Shops: Fopp

Christopher Fowler
fopp-covent-garen-london In this series I'm not including any of the shops that usually go into glossy travel magazines, the ones which are meant to typify London, because they don't. Lobb's and Lock's and Berry & Rudd and Smith & Co are beautiful and evocative time warps, but I've never met anyone who has shopped in them - not quite true, a friend once bought me a very expensive Smith & Co umbrella. I lost it the very first time I took it out. Le_temple_du_parapluie_snob_James_Smith_SonsINT_2X The grand old shops of London are dying out. I was heartbroken when Floris, the venerable royal chocolatier, closed down in Soho and became a vintage magazine shop (and is now the home of the resurrected bling emporium Fiorucci) because it used to have vast handmade chocolate sculptures in the window. Similarly, the grand old department stores that amazed me as a child have virtually all gone except Liberty and Selfridges. Bourne & Hollingsworth, Lilley & Skinner, Gamages, Marshall & Snelgrove, Derry & Toms, Swan & Edgar and Arding & Hobbs all disappeared in my adult life.
Most shops have nothing to interest me at all now, but Fopp is an anomaly because it shouldn't be there at all. Perhaps it was a matter of timing; it can be a good idea to start your businesses at the point when no-one needs it, because scarcity breeds popularity. So just as the world of 'things' disappeared, to be replaced by invisible online services, Fopp appeared. It sells 'entertainment things', something other companies had collapsed doing, but it does so very cleverly. Just as vinyl is back and books are back, so DVDs and CDs remain important to collectors, being physical hard copies of things you value and wish to keep. Divided by country and theme and sometimes director, the main London store holds two floors of cult fiction, music and film, curated by helpful, knowledgeable staff. Geeks know that hard-copy quality trumps streamed quality every time. Try playing a CD on a good sound system, then listening to it from a streamed version. It sounds like music being played through a tin of nails. I collect film rarities, so I have little interest in Amazon, Netflix or Sky, which seem to concentrate on films about flying teenagers and the backlist of Jennifer Aniston. I love world movies, experimental, demanding, difficult cinema of ideas. Which rather rules out anything that Ben Affleck has touched. It's why Fopp remains for me a destination store. It's on Shaftesbury Avenue, near where that Harry Potter play will be on for the next 75 years. Untitled


Jo W (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 10:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I once window shopped at James Smith and Sons to see if they sold a stick with an 'orses 'ead 'andle. I was disappointed that they didn't. I thought they may have taken over from Woolworffs. ;-)

Vincent C (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 13:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Many, many years ago I bought an umbrella at Smith & Co's. It was a thing of beauty, right down to the (real) gold tip cup, and cost what was then a fortune, a ridiculous extravagance. It was not the smartest purchase I ever made - it took me no time at all to leave it behind some place, never to be seen (by me) again. Sic transit gloria mundi!

My wife, a New Yorker, has always loved the name Arding & Hobbs, located up the Junction. For years I passed it twice a day going to and from school and never thought twice about the name until she picked up on it - it really is a magnificent moniker.

Happy Thanksgiving to all from an ex pat Londoner.

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 16:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jo W - You weren' t thinking of poking an old lion in the eye, were you? That is the only use for the kind of stick you were looking for.

DC (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 16:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Now a true geek would laugh at your CD and raise you a Vinyl. In addition, you can get super high res audio streaming. The files contain 6 times he data held on a CD, so if your DAC can handle it, should blow your shiny disk out of the water.

That said, I find it difficult to play my LPs on the train, so Spotify tends to win out on the convenience stakes.

Christopher Fowler Thu, 23/11/2017 - 16:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree about CDs, but I this year I bought DVDs in Estonia and other far-flung places that I could not get in the UK.

AF Ruaud (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 17:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

well, I did buy a brolly once in Smith & Sons and it has been a very enjoyable and funny experience, with the old gentleman obviously playing his part with a twinkle in the eyes. a very John Steed-ish exeprience, trully (and a superb umbrella, that I still cherich and which is supposed to be garanteed for life).

Jo W (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 18:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ian Luck- quite correct. :-)

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 19:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If I did the lottery, which I don't, as I already pay enough tax, without a voluntary contribution on top, then if it were a great deal, a good amount would go to charity, just to annoy the red top newspapers, then I'd see what family I've got left right, ditto a couple of really good friends, and then I'd go to Lobb's and have a couple of pairs of shoes made, to Lock and Co. and have a bespoke Coke (That's the proper name for a Bowler, by the way), made, and, if it were not utterly illegal, I'd go to Swaine, Adeney, and Brigg, and have a sword umbrella created. Just because. I would really like a nice suit, too ("A nice bit of schmutter", as my late father would have said - he wasn't Jewish, but when he lived in London, he had a lot of Jewish friends, hence his speech was full of a mixture of English, Welsh, Cockney slang, Yiddish, and some Polari, and no, I have no idea where that came from. Julian and Sandy, probably). The trouble if I wear a suit is that I am tall, and wide, so whatever suit I wear - no matter how nice, or well cut, god knows I've tried, I always resemble a nightclub bouncer, and have even been asked as such at a wedding, and at the funeral of a work colleague. So, to sum up: if I did win a lot of cash, I don't want much, but what I want has to be the best. No holidays or flashy cars - I hate the sun and beaches, and I don't drive, but some nice gear, made here, would do nicely, cheers.

Phil A. (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 19:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Visited Fopp last weekend. Terrific selection of world cinema dvds as Admin rightly states, and at very good prices.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 21:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ian, I share your taste in items that I can't afford precisely. If I were 20 years younger and they wear as claimed, the shoes might just make financial sense.

Vivienne (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 21:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Debenhams and Freebody in Wigmore Street struck me as the most upmarket. The ground floor seemed to sell only ladies' leather gloves which were far too expensive for me, but I think I was too intimidated to venture further. I was once taken to lunch there by a school friend's mother and there were proper waiters who served you your peas from silver dishes. I once also ventured upstairs in Fortnums and Mason to look at dresses, perhaps this was early 70s. It would be the case that to try anything on, an assistant would be assigned to advise on fit and so on. I'm sure my shoes, handbag and coat wouldn't have passed muster to warrant this attention and I was ignored.

Might I recommend Paxton & Whitfield in Jermyn Street for cheese? Individual and unchanged for ages.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 23/11/2017 - 21:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I buy my walking-stick ferrules from Smith's but - at 75p each - I think it must take more than that to keep them going. I also have several hats from Lock's but I bought them in a charity shop so I don't suppose they count. On the other hand, presumably someone in London must have bought them at some time. I think the purchaser must have died - hats don't stop fitting you - so I have the distinction of literally stepping into dead men's hats.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 24/11/2017 - 02:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm glad to hear in this day and age, it's not just me who enjoys a proper hat. This week, I are mostly bin' wearing a Homburg. If it's good enough for Tony Hancock, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, and Winston Churchill, it's good enough for me.

Christopher Bellew (not verified) Fri, 24/11/2017 - 07:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I had a bespoke wallet made at Lobb. I chose a green leather with black interior.

madbear (not verified) Fri, 24/11/2017 - 19:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think you mean the backside of Jennifer Aniston, don't you?

Roger (not verified) Sat, 25/11/2017 - 09:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Most of my hats are very elderly Donegal tweed caps, Ian Luck, and the Lock hats are equally tweedy, but much less hairy - designed for the respectable Jacob, rather than Esau, you might say.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 25/11/2017 - 22:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My late father liked a Donegal Tweed cap, too, and his favourite one was a kind of map, inasmuch as he could point to an interesting mark, or more usually, stain, and tell you from where it had come :"Hydraulic fluid from a Caterpillar D-8, boy." "I think that was wet chalk from a drainage adit under the railway, near Dover, boy." Hovever, when it acquired yellow gloss paint, my mother 'lost it' (in the dustbin), and dad took to a Breton Fisherman's cap, which is a style I'm fond of, too.

Roger (not verified) Sun, 26/11/2017 - 18:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Mine date back to my cycling days - sort of half-deerstalkers: flat caps with flaps over the top you can tie under your chin in high winds.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 26/11/2017 - 20:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have a German Army M43 'Feldmützhalbe' ski hat, for my main winter hat, which unbuttons at the front, and folds down to cover the ears, and buttons up under the chin. A clever piece of German engineering. It's wool, and waterproof. A great bit of gear, and I can see why they were used throughout the second world war, and for many years afterwards. I should point out that it carries no insignia whatsoever, as I realise that it might be offensive and imflammatory to some people.

Helen Martin (not verified) Tue, 28/11/2017 - 01:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's cost that keeps us away from the bespoke shops. The Vancouver Umbrella Shop, THE place to buy good umbrellas if you aren't the kind who loses them right away is closing down. They would recover your garden umbrella for a (significant) price and provide parasols for weddings as well as the keep the rain off sort. Lovely shop - and right next door to Cartems Doughnuttery where you can buy bacon and scotch whiskey doughnuts as well as all the usuals, including London fog.