Saturday, 1 September 2007

The joke shop

Back in June I oh so casually mentioned that in the dim and distant past and throughout my childhood, my parents ran a joke shop in Soho. In the non virtual world, on the few occasions that this information has slipped out, it is received with wide eyed surprise and a desire to know more, but there was nary a blog comment on this topic.
I have been thinking about the shop recently. Physically its exact location is difficult to find now, having been sold twenty-five years ago and subsumed into the Trocadero, but it was a few steps from Piccadilly Circus, on Shaftesbury Avenue opposite the Globe Theatre (since renamed the Gielgud Theatre), and had been a photography studio when my parents first took it on not long after the second world war. They photographed many of the film and theatre stars of the day, including Mae West, and I wish I still had the proofs, but they disappeared many years ago.
It was tiny. A long thin galley of a shop, dark and old fashioned, shoehorned between a Chinese restaurant and latterly a pizzeria. In time the shop morphed into a souvenir and joke emporium. It was lined with deal shelves, some of which hold my books today, but then arrayed with London souvenirs (Beefeater dolls, Tower of London ashtrays, mini statues of Eros), squashy full head rubber masks (Miss Piggy, Frankenstein, Elvis) and every kind of joke product. Bizarrely, when the enormous Hamleys toy store just around the corner in Regent Street couldn't provide the exact joke that some discerning young punter desired, they would send them to my parent's place.
The basement was not open to the public; you reached it by a narrow curving stairwell, not unlike those on the Routemaster double decker bus. It was storeroom and receptacle for unwanted stuff. A complete jumble, and never ever cleaned, I was terrified to go down the stairs to use the toilet. There were several small rooms, some of which I never entered, stacked as they were from front to back and floor to roof with boxes. I had no idea if the boxes were full or empty, if they were from the photographic history of the shop or the more recent souvenir and joke existence. A large photographers light box was often left switched on casting light and shadow among the gloom; there were no windows and just one or two low wattage light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Rats scuttled through the debris, grown huge from Chinese and Italian leftovers stolen from the neighbouring restaurant bins. One large rodent fried to death, trapped in the light box, creating the most horrendous stink.
Some school holidays I would help out, taking the cash to the bank or capering about outside the shop wearing a Miss Piggy mask with full blonde wig to encourage folks to enter which oddly seemed to work. I would stare at the dipping glass birds in the window, their faded yellow feathers dusty and the rim of the tumbler they bowed to, rimed with ancient water marks. Doling out whoopee cushions and stink bombs to more adults than children was an offbeat way to spend one's time perhaps, but it only feels so in retrospect.
My favourite thing was to be allowed to roam Berwick Street market, officially buying some fruit, but in reality gawking at the passing actors, the prostitutes, the film runners and blacked-out windows of the sex shops.
As I got older, and just before the shop was sold, I would from time to time drive my Mother in the early hours into the centre of a quietish London to await the glazier or window boarding guys if some junkie had mashed the glass in an effort to find some cash for their next fix. The last time we arrived to find a huge jagged piece of glass still in the door, covered in thick arterial blood. A red trail led to the till, and the tray pockets for the coins were filled with blood that had to be scooped out in readiness for the next day of trading.


Swearing Mother said...

How fantastic! I could spend hours in joke shops, what fun you must have had.

Great post Mopsa.

Winchester whisperer said...

Do you still play jokes, Mopsa? Thank you so much, by the way, for the plum clafoutis recipe: it was, as you'd promised, delicious!

Big Chip Dale said...

Mopsa, do you have an email so I can send you an invite to join my new ultra secret blog? If so, could you send it to me at

I want you there to join in the fun or the ridicule. I don't know which at this point... ;o)

mutterings and meanderings said...

It sounds rather Diagon Alley to me ..

Mopsa said...

SM - you know, it should have been fun, but I found it all rather creepy. It did have its attractions though, in particular the ancient bakelite telephone with fabric cord, and the pomposity of standing behind a counter, even though you had to stand on tiptoes to use the till!

WW - I am not much of a jokester, but I love to laugh. And clafoutis rules n'est pas?

Chippy, your word is my command.

M&M - I'd never thought about that - however, when I read Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop many years ago and before HP had even been born, I thought she must have been writing about my parent's shop. I have yanked the book out of the shelves to have a re-read. It was a rather strange place.

Sally Lomax said...

Brilliant post. It would make a good book....

Mopsa said...

Sally - that's lovely - thank you!