If I had to pick one area in London for a mainstream afternoon out, for something easy and unchallengingly pleasant that can be quite exciting if one is in the right state of mind, I'd go for the area between Long Acre and the Seven Dials. Without attractions or landmarks, the humble backside of Covent Garden, far removed from the glitter of the Royal Opera House or the Savoy, is nevertheless perfect for yuppies and unadventurous tourists on the look for something special.
Over the last few years, the area has become a tightly focused shopping hot spot. There are the ubiquitous corporate monsters like Banana Republic or H&M, but they're rather small and certainly not dominant because the interesting places are interspersed between them. There's a tiny cupcake baker whose display window is filled with pieces of pop-art colored way beyond the imagination of any rainbow. Next door to a dark hole tastefully decorated in velvet, latex and leather, is the boutique of an independent designer of retro fashion. There are the esoterica of Neal Street and the coffee at Monmouth. And on the other end is Stanfords, where I started out my ambling.
Stanfords is a travel bookstore of some renown. They used to be the first stop for adventurers off into the unknown. In a time before the internet and instant information, they were in the know - and they could provide at short notice a map of nearly any place on earth. Today, the store is much more conventional, but still sharply focused. Three vast floors house unimaginable quantities of travel writing, guidebooks, phase books and maps.
Out in the streets, it's a pleasant walk. There's hardly any traffic and the few cars that bravely venture among the pedestrians are clearly at a disadvantage. The buildings lining the streets are four-story warehouses for the most part, survivors of the late 19th century, when commerce meant bringing the world to England. Now they stand tastefully refurbished. Of their erstwhile purpose, only the brick-chic of their facades and the odd third-floor hoist remain. On the ground level are now restaurants and retailers and higher up expensive penthouse apartments.
Near Cambridge Circus is one of very few branches of Fopp, a Scottish music retailer with a story to tell. From humble origins on a street market in Glasgow a national chain rose in the 90s that deluded itself into thinking it could take on the giants of the trade. The rise was fast, the success vertiginous but the whole operation unsustainable. It was a time of violent upheaval in the recorded music business and probably a time a good as any to overthrow the status quo, but Fopp didn't do business much different from any of its competitors. Except they overreached, overstretched and broke. They went out of business even before Zavvi, the national number two, folded a couple of Christmases back. (HMV, the number one, is still hanging on, but only just if the ringing of their tills is any indicator.)
Fopp went bust and most of its stores closed, but the brand remained and found new life with a new owner. It has now been reinvented as a purveyor of lifestyle through music, much as Puma is a purveyor of lifestyle through sporting goods. Both seem to be doing all right. Every time I set foot in it, the Fopp is heaving. The store isn’t particularly large but the shelves form a dense maze that’s nearly impossible to navigate. Anyone stopped for browsing forms an obstacle that’s hard to circumnavigate. Disks are piled on every available surface.
At prices of a permanent going-out-of-business sale, with DVDs starting from two pounds and CDs from three, it’s hard to see who’s making any money, but somehow it works – or it wouldn’t continue. Are the invidious forces of cross-promotion at work? I don't see it. But free, and also nearly free, can be highly profitable, if Chris Anderson is to be believed. Wired editor and previously bestselling author of The Long Tail, he also authored Free, a book about the economics of not charging. I had download the audio version of this book a while ago (legally for free – how could it be any other way?) and starting listening to it on my walk to work the other day. Halfway though, it still couldn't see where Fopp's profits were coming from. With a book and two CDs, I left the store.
Across Shaftesbury Av is a rare treat in London – a good coffee shop that's not crowded. Big windows face the street, and a raised gallery of tables and seats give a great view of the bustle outside. The coffee is good and the pastries, well, you don’t expect much of pastries in London, do you? They even advertise wireless, another rarity in this city, believe it or not, but it’s not working for me. I pulled out my little Eee, just to test it, but there was no connection. As there’s also no CD drive in my netbook, I can’t check out the music I just bought a few minutes ago. But it's getting dark and I'm on my way home anyway. It was a pleasant afternoon.