Just Junk – But Who Could Resist It?

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Which is the most attractive junk shop in London is a matter of taste, or for debate: but I could lead you to some first-rate ones in the dingier areas of Greenwich, in Islington near the Angel, in Holloway, in Paddington, and in the hinterland of the Edgeware-road. Except for a couple near Lord’s – and even those are in a section of street that happens to have fallen into decay – I have never seen a junk shop worth a second glance in what is called a “good” neighbourhood.

A junk shop is not to be confused with an antique shop. An antique shop is clean, its goods are attractively set out and priced at about double their value and once inside the shop you are usually bullied into buying something.

A junk shop has a fine film of dust over the window, its stock may include literally anything that is not perishable, and its proprietor, who is usually asleep in a small room at the back, displays no eagerness to make a sale.

Also, its finest treasures are never discoverable at first glimpse; they have to be sorted out from among a medley of bamboo cake-stands, Britannia-ware dish-covers, turnip watches, dog-eared books, ostrich eggs, typewriters of extinct makes, spectacles without lenses, decanters without stoppers, stuffed birds, wire fire guards, bunches of keys, boxes of nuts and bolts, conch shells from the Indian Ocean, boot trees, Chinese ginger jars and pictures of Highland cattle.

Some of the things to look out for in the junk shop are Victorian brooches and lockets of agate or other semi-precious stones.

Perhaps five out of six of these things are hideously ugly, but there are also very beautiful objects among them. They are set in silver, or more often in pinchbeck, a charming alloy which for some reason is no longer made.

Other things worth looking for are papier maché snuffboxes with pictures painted on the lid, lustre-ware jugs, muzzle-loading pistols made round about 1830, and ships in bottles. These are still made, but the old ones are always the best, because of the elegant shape of the Victorian bottles and the delicate green of the glass.

Or, again, musical boxes, horse brasses, copper powder-horns, Jubilee mugs (for some reason the 1887 Jubilee produced much pleasanter keepsakes than the Diamond Jubilee ten years later), and glass paper-weights with pictures at the bottom.

There are others that have a piece of coral enclosed in the glass, but these are always fantastically expensive. Or you may come across a scrap book full of Victorian fashion-plates and pressed flowers or even, if you are exceptionally lucky, the scrap book’s big brother, a scrap screen.

Scrap screens – all too rare nowadays – are simply ordinary wooden or canvas screens with coloured scraps cut out and pasted all over them in such a way as to make more or less coherent pictures. The best were made round about 1880, but if you buy one at a junk shop it is sure to be defective, and the great charm of owning such a screen lies in patching it up yourself.

You can use coloured reproductions from art magazines, Christmas cards, postcards, advertisements, book jackets, even cigarette cards. There is always room for one more scrap, and with careful placing anything can be made to look congruous.

Thus, merely in one corner of my own scrap screen, Cézanne’s card-players with a black bottle between them are impinging on a street scene in medieval Florence, while on the other side of the street one of Gaugin’s South Sea islanders is sitting beside an English lake where a lady in leg-of-mutton sleeves is paddling a canoe. They all look perfectly at home together.

All these things are curiosities, but one does find useful things in the junk shop as well.

In a shop in Kentish Town, since blitzed, I once bought an old French sword-bayonet, price sixpence, which did four years’ service as a fire-poker. And during the last few years the junk shop has been the only place where you could buy certain carpentering tools – a jack plane for instance – or such useful objects as corkscrews, clock keys, skates, wine glasses, copper saucepans, and spare pram wheels.

In some shops you can find keys to fit almost any lock, others specialise in pictures and are therefore useful when you need a frame. Indeed, I have often found that the cheapest way of buying a frame is to buy a picture and then throw away the picture.

But the attraction of the junk shop does not lie solely in the bargains you pick up, nor even in the aesthetic value which – at a generous estimate – 5 per cent of its contents may possess. Its appeal is to the jackdaw inside all of us, the instinct that makes a child hoard copper nails, clock springs, and the glass marbles out of lemonade bottles. To get pleasure out of a junk shop you are not obliged to buy anything, nor even to want to buy anything.

I know a shop in Tottenham-Court road where I have never, over a period of many years, seen anything that was not offensively ugly and another, not far from Baker-street, where there is nearly always something tempting. The first appeals to me almost as strongly as the second.

Another shop, in the Chalk Farm area, sells nothing but rubbishy fragments of old metal. For as long as I can remember the same worn-out tools and lengths of lead piping have been lying in the trays, the same gas stoves have been mouldering in the doorway. I have never bought anything there, never even seen anything that I contemplated buying. Yet it would be all but impossible for me to pass that way without crossing the street to have a good look.

Saturday Essay, Evening Standard, 5 January 1946