When I first moved to London in the late ‘80s, I lived in a one-roomed apartment on Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill – a stone’s throw away from our office, which, sadly, I have not worked in since the 17th March, when I came home for lockdown. Primrose Hill’s high street still fills me with delight (at the moment, it feels like one long summer fair), and I’ll always think that one of the most exciting aspects of London is finding those streets with interesting, quirky, one-off stores. So, what joy to have discovered Chiltern Street a number of years ago and to have met the quietly confident, friendly, warm and most knowledgeable man, Sandeep Garg, who owns the best newsagent in all of England (magazines have always been a passion!). This is no ordinary newsagent, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I spoke to Sandeep on Wednesday and he was extremely busy… due to the launch of VLogoSignature, the latest book from Maison Valentino at Shreeji.
Sandeep has owned Shreeji since 1982. “I got into it by accident,” he told me. “I was 17 at the time and my neighbours owned the newsagent and I would help them during the school holidays. I soon realised that I loved being there, being around the magazines and chatting to the clientele. When the owners retired I took it over, and that was 38 years ago!”
At that time, Chiltern Street wasn’t the bustling, glamourous destination it is now. “It was always quirky, but it was a bit of a backwater – you had to create your own traction,” he told me. “Many of the original stores are still here, like Howarth of London, the musical instrument shop or Crispins the shoe shop for larger feet. Then the premium independent stores arrived like Trunk, Monocle Café and Mouki Mou, bringing different people to the street. But it was only in 2013 when Chiltern Firehouse opened that influencer brands became interested in establishing a presence here, and travellers from all over the world arrived. Thankfully, it has still managed to keep its feeling of independent stores.”
Shreeji has grown and evolved over the years. “We were happily going along selling sweets, cigarettes and magazines – but I really wanted us to have a point of difference,” Sandeep told me. “So that’s when I started curating our collection of magazines. Shops dedicated to magazines did exist back then, but they tended to focus specifically on fashion, or music, or art – I wanted to provide a broader spectrum, and to be a pioneer in that field.”
“Today, much of our revenue comes from curating, providing and delivering magazine collections to our corporate clients – for advertising and creative agencies and other businesses around London. That’s the part of the business that I’ve always loved: talking to clients about the latest trends, discussing the topics covered and ultimately providing a service.”
In the last decade, we’ve seen media businesses move online and scale down their print operations at a rapid rate. I wondered how Sandeep felt about this shift? “I’m not worried,” he told me, “a lot of good publications have made the conscious decision not to go online – and smaller independent titles still make sure they’re available in print.
“I think of it in a similar way to social media,” he explained. “You can text and call your friends – but you still want to see them in real life every once in a while! You cannot hold a magazine digitally and the sense of closeness you get to something physical can’t be replaced. You can’t get the feel, sense and that smell of the paper and ink from a website.”
“I think of it in a similar way to social media. You can text and call your friends – but you still want to see them in real life every once in a while! You cannot hold a magazine digitally and the sense of closeness you get to something physical can’t be replaced.”
This year, Shreeji has undergone its most dramatic transformation yet. Collaborating with the designer/developer Gabriel Chipperfield, the newsagent and its adjoining rooms have been remodelled as a beautiful, multi-functional space for customers to enjoy.
“I’d been wanting to do a refit for a number of years,” Sandeep told me. “I wanted to add a space for people to read and have a coffee and a place for businesses and individuals to hold events. I thought to myself: ‘How can I extend the offering of print in some way that keeps us connected to the field, makes us a better place to visit but also helps pays the bills?’
“I met Gabriel through a friend and we immediately found an affinity with each other. I’d been wanting to do the refit for such a long time that as soon as I met him, I let my reservations go and took a leap of faith. It was a ‘now or never’ moment.”
Sandeep’s leap of faith has certainly paid off. During the six months of renovation, a salon, reading room and coffee and pastry bar have been created at the back of Shreeji, complete with sleek wooden cabinets, silk-striped armchairs and mustard yellow and pale green walls. The front is still the newsagent but is now elegant and inviting. The most outstanding coffee is made inside a cupboard in the front of the store and there are tables and chairs outside too.
“Something Gabriel and I spoke about was that I didn’t want to change the shop beyond recognition,” Sandeep tells me. “I didn’t want my customers who had been coming for years to feel out of place – it needed to be open and welcoming for everyone, not just a certain kind of client. I wanted the same Shreeji – just with a different feel.”
Shreeji has also collaborated (courtesy of Laura de Gunzsburg) with Airmail, (ex-Vanity Fair Editor–in–Chief Graydon Carter’s online digital journal) whose branding now covers the newsagent’s awning. Speaking on the choice, Sandeep told me he wanted to collaborate with a business that shared its values and was in the same space. “A fashion brand could have paid the big bucks – but I wanted to keep it aligned with print and publishing.” There is something unique about the coming together of the physical and the digital and meeting over coffee and croissants.
I wonder what Sandeep’s plans are for the future of his business? “We’re aiming to grow, but we have to be realistic. In the future there’ll be tie-ups with publishers and we will sell interesting books, host pop-ups and provide a space for events and exhibitions downstairs. We don’t want to become a bookshop; Daunt Books do that job very well already!”
The renovation was completed in the middle of the first lockdown and Shreeji became a destination for locals to meet and have coffee on the pavement. It has become a real community with the ‘street friends’ meeting most days of the week. Sandeep tells me that he has reconnected with the local community, as more and more residents explore their local area and visit the shop. While the reading room remains closed for now, Shreeji is providing its neighbours with a sanctuary of imagination and information. Speaking to Sandeep, and hearing about the evolution of Chiltern Street and his store reminded me that (beautiful refurbishment or not!), retail is really all about human interaction… sprinkled with imagination, a point of difference, theatre and a bit of pixie dust.
Quick fire questions:
Where were you born? I was born in India, and moved to London when I was 12. My father was a diplomat and he was posted here. We had travelled and lived in many countries but when I got to London, I knew that I wanted to live here.
Mentors? My wife, Charoo, is my mentor. Additionally, two people have shaped my life by teaching me Ayurveda: Jane Colebourn and Dr Vasant Lad. Very few people know but I have a Bachelor of Ayurveda Medicine & Surgery.
Your legacy? I think I want to be remembered as a person who brings joy in situations of difficulty and loneliness. This is why Ayurveda is important to me – it’s about bringing awareness and helping people reconnect with themselves.
What is your favourite magazine? It changes every day! But I must say I always go back to Apartamento.
Favourite book? I love Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.