If I were to have some sort of illicit secret affair, there are only a few hangouts in the city I’d be pretty sure I wouldn’t have a chance of meeting someone I know: the M&M store in Leicester Square , or one of London’s souvenir shops.
How romantic – form an orderly queue, guys.
There’s something extremely strange about being a Londoner and setting foot in one of the clusters of souvenir shops in the city’s most touristy areas.
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It’s almost like a foreign embassy, they’re built for anyone but us.
A shopkeeper in Oxford Street even asks me if I’m enjoying my vacation the second I cross the threshold.
Feeling like I’ve somehow cheated on him just by stepping foot in his store, I hit an American twang on my sunny response, “Yeah, thanks!”
It’s also strange to see London through the eyes of a visitor. I’m confronted with hundreds of small objects which, although I recognize their connection to London, make me feel as if I’m looking at the place through the distortion of a dirty rear-view mirror.
The Union Jack, The Queen, Churchill – all numbers that come to mind when tourists think of London, but those of us who live here usually only think of it when someone another evokes them.
There are red phone booths everywhere, of course – many of them adorning some seriously gorgeous notebooks, to be fair – and Cogsworth is so ubiquitous he even makes an appearance on top of a rubber ducky’s head.
The weirdest recurring theme in souvenir shops, however, is Donald Trump.
Mugs, topless bobbleheads, spitting image figurines – all hideous reproductions of that rubbery, cartoonish gurn when it’s in full swing.
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It’s clear that Londoners who despise that orange windbag (or as it’s known back home, ‘Jaffa the Hutt’) must now be as much a part of our national identity as Big Ben and the Queen (a show of solidarity, perhaps be, letting our buddies cross the pond knows that we realize that they were held hostage for four years).
Mirna Torres, 70, has worked at Lambert Souvenirs in Trafalgar Square since 1979, when she moved to London from the Philippines.
Since the business relies on tourists, she admits she has no idea how her employer survived the pandemic (several other gift shops I visited turned out to be closed).
“Rent must be high here,” she says.
“Before the pandemic we were making around £1,000 a day in quiet months and maybe £6,000 a day in busy times like Easter.
“Now some days we only take £100.”
The bestsellers are magnets and key fobs. Mirna says the biggest spenders are French and Italian tourists – although she says teenagers also steal from them quite regularly.
German tourists, she says, spend the least.
The most annoying aspect of Mirna’s job, however, is the discrimination.
She said: “We are all foreigners here, we don’t have English employees. Once a South African couple came in and the woman asked me if I spoke English. I said, ‘No, I don’t’ sarcastically.
“You don’t tell someone that – talk to him and see.”
When Londoners walk in, it seems like they’re often up to no good.
“Once a guy, maybe in his thirties, came in and grabbed a whole bunch of t-shirts,” she says. T-shirts, wrapped in plastic, most with “LONDON” written on them.
“He took so many, definitely more than 10. I chased him to the Strand. I didn’t catch him, but he threw the shirts down an alley and I found them. It was my worst experience.
A man comes to the counter and buys a postcard and a jar of preserves with the Houses of Parliament on the front.
After all this talk about foreign tourists, Mirna asks where he is from.
With a broad Birmingham accent, he tells us his trip has been pushed back from 2019, and he’s going to put the postcard in a photo album to commemorate his trip.
And the jam?
“It’s for the old maid,” he said.
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