I began my tour by getting off the Central Line at Tottenham Court and walking the St. Giles High Street to the Seven Dials area. It's a city block where seven small shop-lined streets radiate out from a single point. I'd glimpsed it as our company's Christmas party was held at the Belgo Centraal restaurant here and I wanted to come back and explore it further.
The shops are overwhelming. It might have taken me hours to explore each of the streets; as it was I only walked a few. Unlike most high streets, these seemed to be almost entirely independent shops. In general, high streets in the UK are ruled by chain stores, sometimes with two or more instances of the same chain in different parts of the same street. So you can visit the high street in probably any city in the UK and you will see a Boots pharmacy, a Marks and Spencer department store, a WH Smith bookstore, several Starbucks, a McDonalds. So as you get to know the chain stores, seeing a new high street in a new city isn't overwhelming like seeing hundreds of unique independent shops is.
I walked past a window and saw a big aluminum beer tank with signage about a brewery around the corner and could not pass it up. As it turns out, I'd been there before - the establishment is a nightclub across the street from the Belgo, to which most of us had migrated after our Christmas party dinner. I didn't remember the tastiness of the beer on my previous visit due to the extenuating circumstances of several prior Belgian beers and spirits, but I very much enjoyed my pint of red this time.
Another link to the Northwest was provided by some American brands in the area: an Urban Outfitters store and a Sunglasses Hut. I also saw the Rough Trade record shop (their second, after their Notting Hill flagship) and stopped in but didn't buy anything (mostly because I didn't recognise most of it, and the organisation threw me off).
I'd decided to continue my evening in nearby Soho, and while crossing Charing Cross road I came across Foyles Bookshop. I almost walked past it, but was curious. Once inside, I realised with joy that I'd entered the first major independent bookstore I'd seen in the UK.
From the street you don't notice its five storeys. I couldn't avoid thinking of Powell's in comparison. When I found the computer books on the second floor I felt like weeping for joy. I hadn't realised how much I'd been missing a good bookstore. The chains like WH Smith and Waterstones stick a few Dummies books in the Business section; this was the real deal. I noticed there's a new title in the Martin Fowler Signature series on Refactoring to Patterns that I'll probably have to buy some day. It's like a movie sequel: you can imagine the voiceover: First there was Design Patterns ... then came Refactoring ... now there's Refactoring to Patterns.
I sated myself with the minor purchase of the latest issue of Mojo and continued my journey. I stopped into Sister Ray to look for a few CD titles and didn't find any; then it was on to Oxford Street to HMV's megastore, where I found one of the titles I was looking for, Frou Frou's Details, and decided to toss on a £5 copy of Junk Culture from Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark. Then I went Underground at Oxford Circus and headed home.