The Hobbit of Soho

January 24, 2013

At 72 Wardour Street in Soho, there’s a newsagent which goes by the unusual name of The Hobbit.

Or, at least, there used to be.

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For the last twelve months, the shop has been empty and it’s only since it’s closed down that everyone seems to have noticed the odd name (if you google ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Soho’, you’ll see the sign has caught the eye of almost everyone with a camera.)

The newsagent was given the name in the early 1970s, simply because the owner Ray Grant was a fan of the book (his name can be seen on the right of the sign.) Run by manager Victor for most of its lifespan, the shop was an old-fashioned newsagent in the heart of Soho, and when I recall its dusty, faded, strangely East German-looking interior, I could kick myself for never taking photos.

The largely unmodernised shop was sold to new owners in 2007, who gutted, refurbished and turned it into something closer to a late-night mini-mart. They retained a later sign which had been erected by Ray Grant, but while the new owners diligently chiselled his name off the front, they left The Hobbit.

The name looks even odder when you see it on the modern sign – it seems to bear absolutely no relation to the other words, or the building its on, or any sort of possible business.

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The shop closed down in late 2011 and after being empty for six months, the modern sign was removed to reveal the original 1970s frontage in all of its handpainted glory.

I think part of the joy of seeing the sign again is that it’s a reminder of how shop fronts used to look. Inviting, quietly attractive examples of the human sign-writer’s art. They’re not like the majority of newsagent’s signs today, which are uniformly awful: looming, back-lit slabs which people with no design experience have drawn up on a PC, squashed into shape and had printed on sheets of neon plastic.

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So far the 1970s sign has enjoyed six unexpected months in the open air – but how much longer it will stay there is anyone’s guess.

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The Shakespeare’s Head

July 13, 2011

At 29 Great Marlborough Street, W1 (but most often approached by Carnaby Street, where it’s situated on a corner where the street meets Fouberts Place) stands The Shakespeare’s Head.

The sign outside the pub claims the inn was established on the site in 1735 and was named after the owners, Thomas and John Shakespeare, who claimed to be distant relations of their famous namesake. Nothing of the original establishment remains – the building which stands today is late nineteenth-century (albeit in a Tudor style) – and there are serious doubts over whether it has any connection even with Shakespeare’s descendants. After all, The Shakespeare’s Head is a fairly common pub name in London – others can be found in Holborn, the City, Kingsway, Finsbury and Forest Hill.

It’s likely Thomas and John Shakespeare form part of a colourful story about the pub’s origins, and one which has been stated with increasing conviction over the years. The presence of the claim on a nicely-painted board outside the pub certainly helps attract the passing tourists ambling down Carnaby Street, but it doesn’t make the story any more likely to be true.

What the pub does have, however, is one of London’s most charming Shakespeare statues.

There are others dotted around the capital – Leicester Square, Westminster Abbey, on the front of City of London school, a bust in the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury – but none with the playfulness of the one which peers out from a window-like recess of the pub.

There’s just something perfectly realised about the position of the body. While the face is cold and fixed, the stance of the body really conveys him casually examining the crowds below – a fixed moment where the greatest playright of all time is half-looking for inspiration in the throng that passes outside his window.

I have no idea whether the bust has always been painted in these cold colours, but there’s more than a touch of “zombie Shakespeare” about the hue (a zombie Shakespeare made an appearance in The Simpsons’ 1992 Halloween special Treehouse of Horror III, looking surprisingly similar to the pub’s statue.)

The sign outside also claims the bust lost a hand in World War 2 “when a bomb dropped nearby.”

While the bust is definitely one hand down, I’m inclined to take everything that sign says with a pinch of salt.

As a long-time comics fan, there’s nothing I enjoy more than conjuring up mental images of how comic shops used to be. When I was nine-years-old, the original Forbidden Planet comic shop at 23 Denmark Street was simply the most magical place on earth.

I only have to see a glimpse of the Brian Bolland artwork which used to adorn the plastic bags (and the associated t-shirt my dad bought me on one trip) and I’m straight back to the uneven wooden floor, the smell of pulp paper, the shafts of light streaming through the dust which hung in the air, and the vague unease of my mum as the till rang through each 75p I’d spent on the recent releases.

A price sticker from the original Forbidden Planet

The store first opened in 1978, the third of the dedicated comics shops in London following Dark They Were And Golden Eyed in Soho and Weird Fantasy in New Cross.

The original Forbidden Planet was owned by Nick Laundau, a former sub-editor of 1970s British comics 2000AD and the war title Battle. He went on to establish Titan Entertainment, a company distributing imported the US comics which were previously only sporadically available at  British newsagents.

The old FP makes a cameo in 2000AD…

And Marvel’s The New Mutants Annual 2 with art by Alan Davis

There’s no better example of how American comic books were distributed in the UK prior to the 1970s than with the knowledge that most arrived in the country as ballast inside American ships. It’s a commonly told tale that when the ships docked in Manchester during the 1940s, the ballast was purchased by two brothers who wanted the American newspapers inside to sell on to fish and chip shops as wrappers. Any comic books they found would be diverted to a market stall and sold from there (the two Mancunian brothers later went on to found World Publishing, a successful children’s book imprint which finally closed in 2003.)

Today, Laundau is no longer the owner of the Forbidden Planet chain, but remains with Titan Books, now a vast publishing company specialising in TV tie-in books and magazines.

23 Denmark Street, formerly Forbidden Planet 1, today

Just round the corner from the original shop on St Giles High Street was FP2, which, despite it’s claim in the poster above to be “the cinema and television shop”, I recall being stuffed full to bursting with sci-fi novels.

The two shops combined and moved round the corner to New Oxford Street in the early 1990s, forming the country’s first Comics and Sci-Fi Megastore.

Forbidden Planet ad from Deadline issue 18 (May 1990)

It was a boom time for the comics shop – a new generation’s rediscovery of the Star Wars films and the announcement of an upcoming prequel, a mania for TV hits like the X-Files, and a runaway speculator’s market of limited edition comics and cover variants, meant that comics and pop culture had never been more mainstream.

X-Files-era boom for the Megastore, c.1995

Blinded by the record profits that the mania for collecting generated, the comic companies made a terrible mistake; they forgot to make their comics any good. While they would happily produce six different front cover designs for every single issue, they completely forgot to deliver the goods inside the covers.

As the writing and artwork inside the comics plummeted, so too did the numbers of readers. Copies which were once highly prized collectables became impossible to shift from the shelves. The speculators and collectors all retreated, and many of the smaller comic companies who’d been riding those waves folded almost instantly. It’s no surprise that, of the dozen or so mainstream comic shops operating in London at this time, all but the Forbidden Planet have since shut up shop.

Site of the former Forbidden Planet Megastore, 71 New Oxford Street

Now pretty much the sole vendor in town, Forbidden Planet moved to its present, even larger location at 179 Shaftesbury Avenue in 2003.

I like the shop, but I can’t imagine it excites the minds of ten-year-olds like the original did mine. It’s very white, clean and tidy – a far cry from the sense I used to get of hunting for buried treasure in the scruffy old shop located down a rather insalubrious side street.

In fact, with all the silent men in their forties flipping morosely through leaflets, it looks a little bit like a private medical facility where all the health information pamphlets star Spiderman.

There’s still a shop in London that conjures up the wonder of the early 1980s comic shops, however; the Comic and Book Exchange in Notting Hill.

Everything about it is as perfect a relic of 1980s comic shops as you could ever imagine. The floor is dirty, the strip lighting flickers, and most importantly, it smells of cheap paper.

The racks are full to bursting with stuff you’ve never heard of, you can find amazing bargains, the signs are all handwritten, and the vast majority of their stock harks back to a time when comics had lurid, over-the-top covers created solely to encourage kids to pick them up.

It’s odd that the last place to go when you get nostalgic for Forbidden Planet would be Forbidden Planet. While FP might be the last of the London comic book stores to survive, the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange is the only one in London that feels like stepping back to the modern industry’s very earliest days.

High above 105-109 Oxford Street sit a trio of London’s oddest statues.

Three stone rodents.

At first glance, they look a bit like rats, but the wide flat tail sported by the one on the right identifies them as beavers.

The one at the very top also comes with a scroll, bearing the initial ‘H’.

105-109 Oxford Street was formerly the premises of Henry Heath’s Hat Factory, and his name and profession are still spelled out in a brick facade on the back of the old factory, which can be seen from Berwick Street.

According to the firm’s own publicity in 1879, Heath’s hat factory dated back to the reign of George IV (1820-1830) and they guaranteed “1st , Their Quality; 2nd Excellence of Finish; 3rd Style.”

A relief of George can be seen above one of the windows, with the date 1822 most likely referring to the firm’s establishment. Next to it is a young Queen Victoria, 1887 being the date the premises were rebuilt.

Henry Heath’s primary product was top hats, which were made using felted fur from “Beaver Otter, Rabbits, Hares and Musk Rats.”

A Henry Heath flyer from an 1884 exhibition

The firm was still advertising its products in 1931, but while they undoubtedly shut up shop due to the modern decline in hat-wearing, I’ve been unable to find out exactly when. If anyone knows, please drop me a line!

In the meantime, here’s a final shot of the beavers, who’ve been perched on the roof watching London change for the last 124 years.