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Treadwell’s Bookshop

Treadwell’s Bookshop


Words Vaneesha Ritchie

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“I want it to be a place for people to come and come back to and build a connection to and weave into their own histories.”

Where do curious Fitzrovians go if they’re wondering how people made sense of the world in the past? Or how they themselves might make sense of it today? Well, many of them head to Treadwells. Christina Oakley Harrington opened her now well-established bookshop back in 2002. It was named Treadwells after her grandmother, and its inception marked a point in Christina’s life where knowledge, ancestry, belief, strength and a desire to share and pass these things on all came together. Her father worked for the United Nations in the programme for developing nations, so the young Christina, brought up in West Africa and Southeast Asia, was exposed every day to the local forms of what Western culture might see as esoteric, or even pagan, practices and beliefs.

“In Liberia, the religions are very localised and mostly un-named, and my exposure was via playmates and through my family’s beloved cook and housekeeper Daniel, who took us to his village numerous times. We also had Liberian friends who kindly took us to parts of the country where most Westerners weren’t interested in going, to ceremonies for local village communities. The first religious ceremony I remember – in my entire life – was in upcountry Liberia, in a tiny village by the edge of the scrubby outlands from where there appeared a hundred girls marked up in white chalk. It was the final stage of the girls’ initiation into womanhood, when they came out of seclusion to be welcomed back to the community. There was dancing, drumming and the elders were in a state of trance possession and wearing masks. I was quite disturbed but fascinated, and clung tightly to my mother’s hand. In Burma, we lived in Rangoon and went with Burmese family friends to many, many pagodas, monasteries, shrines and community religious festivals.”

Eventually, when she was in her mid-teens, the family moved to the USA, where Christina noticed that, compared to the environments she’d grown up in, there was a certain ‘lack’. There were, of course, the formal organised religions, and while some traces of pagan heritage could be still found, as with Halloween, it seemed to her that while the customs had survived, their underlying meanings hadn’t. As a compulsively curious individual, Christina found herself on a quest to find meaning in her new environment, searching for the kinds of threads that run through most ‘esoteric’ beliefs: nature, ancestry, tribalism, community, symbolism, a language of meaning, and meaning within meaning. It was a search for magic – something you can harness, that’s already there, but isn’t yours.

So Christina voraciously read whatever she could get her hands on and kept searching. Eventually, during one of those long, late-night conversations at university, a friend told her about Wicca. This sounded like the ‘it’ that she had been looking for: so she packed her bags and moved to London. As with many alternative belief systems or ‘sects’, there was a certain element of secrecy involved, and Christina had to feel her way around the fringes, finding the ‘ins’ and the clues: the little hidden gem of a bookshop providing a pointer, the meetings with a contact. Finally, her persistence paid off. She found her way to the ‘centre of the flower’ and became first an apprentice to Wicca, and eventually a Wiccan high priestess – a white witch. Sadly, magic and witchcraft don’t pay the rent. So she applied her trademark sense of curiosity to a day job as lecturer in medieval history at St Mary’s University College. Medieval art and culture are filled with rich symbolism – those meanings hidden within meanings – the visible and the invisible. Christina became adept at understanding this particular era, interpreting the breadcrumb-trails of codes and symbols to arrive at a more complete understanding of how people thought at the time. Coincidentally, the study of esoteric beliefs and practices was having something of a boom at this point, at last being taken seriously as a genuine area for research and study.

One day, St Mary’s embarked on one of their restructuring drives, as universities are wont to do. And it was at this point in her life – with at least two demonstrable academic specialisms, a few good omens and a small inheritance from Grandmother Treadwell – that the bookshop was born. It wasn’t a straightforward birth. The young chap in the loans department of the bank was very sceptical about the long-term prospects for books, never mind bookshops – wasn’t it all going digital? But the plan was for more than ‘just’ a bookshop. It was to be a meeting place for practitioners and scholars, offering classes and lecture series, and a place in which like-minded and curious people could understand, communicate and experience rituals. It started in Covent Garden, with an orange box for a counter and volunteers to keep it open, but once again fate stepped in, or rents stepped up. Christina found herself drawn to Store Street – situated near the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, the Folklore Society, Fitzroy Square, the British Museum, SOAS (the School of African Studies) and the rich seam of curious people who frequented the Fitzrovia neighbourhood.

So, she mixed a great big potion, made a few incantations to the Moon on the third Tuesday of spring and – poof! – got a shop on Store Street. Ok, so that’s a fib; the truth is rather more prosaic, but she did get the shop, and people came. And that’s one of the surprising things about Christina and Treadwells: it’s not some kind of ‘cloud cuckoo land’ enterprise, but an extremely well organised and curated, research-rich resource providing history and information on anything you could possibly imagine (and plenty you can’t) about the beliefs and cultures of the world. It informs about magic and the occult, which are rooted in folklore and offer an alternative path to that of ‘Enlightenment’ rationalism. New Age, it is not: Christina is not of the school that believes that positive thinking can cure everything. She tells me that they often get people in the shop talking about how ill they feel and enquiring about books on healing. The staff ask gently if they have been to see their GP. To me this seemed (as one entirely clueless about occult matters) a contradiction, but as our conversation happily meandered I realised that the whole idea behind these fairly randomly grouped and quite disparate beliefs that are called esoteric is that they are quite willing to embrace what’s current and new; they don’t view it as a threat to their way of life or system of belief, but as a potential enhancement to their understanding of the world and the people living in it.

So what about the clientele? Who comes to Treadwells? “A very mixed bunch,” says Christina, ”but there are trends – like when Harry Potter was big in the early 2000s there was a lot of interest in magic. Interestingly, there is a strong feminist thread through many of these alternative beliefs which value the role of the female, unlike some strands of organised religions, which don’t; so we have a number of younger female participants who are seeking a strength from within themselves which is offered in alternative beliefs. So I’m pleased about that. My main wish is to ensure that we have what people need, or want, or are curious about, so that when have an interest, it doesn’t die on the vine.” With so much to find out about it’s hard to know where to start, but here are a few good recommendations for beginners: The Book of English Magic by Richard Heygate and Philip Carr-Gomm, The Secret Lore of London by John Matthews, and What is a Witch? by Pam Grossman. Asked what she wants for Treadwells in the future, Christina replies after some thought “Longevity. I want longevity for Treadwells. I want it to be a place for people to come and come back to and build a connection to and weave into their own histories.”

Orchidya

Orchidya


Words Vaneesha Ritchie

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“I love phalaenopsis because it has a long flower period, I like vanda because it has a special pattern on the petal like a wild animal.”

Between the screaming neons of Soho, the lively bustle of Tottenham Court Road and the studious calm of Bloomsbury lies Orchidya. Perfectly situated and perfectly hidden on the leafy oasis that is Store street. Behind the door of Number 42, a kingdom of mystery awaits you, and more to the point, mysteriously beautiful Orchids. The shop is arranged in two halves ‘to reflect the history and modernity of orchids’.  One half, the front room of an eccentric, Victorian, orchid grower indulging in a grand excess of ornament. The walls hung with rows of framed botanical prints, dark wood cabinets artfully cluttered with trifles, curios, gewgaws and orchids, orchids and more orchids! The other half a quiet, white, modern space perfect for the composition of beautiful bouquets, Orchidya’s other specialty.

It was a 20 million year old prehistoric bee preserved in amber, along with the orchid pollen on its wing tip, which revealed that orchids were at least as old as the dinosaurs. Given the fact that orchids have survived all this time, their incredible diversity should come as no surprise with over 30,000 recognised species so far, distributed around the globe, surviving in obscure habitats –  vertiginous slopes of dense rainforests, craggy outcrops of all but impassable Himalayan cliff edges, but also in plain sight –  water lilies, magnolias, avocado, black pepper and vanilla plants all belong to the orchid family.

Human desire to possess beauty plays out too in the field of orchids and like many a Greek tragedy it lead, in Victorian times, to a kind of madness dubbed Orchidelerium. Explorers and orchid hunters were sent to all corners of the earth on long and sometimes perilous expeditions to bring back the rarest, most exquisite, most unique orchids. Unfortunately, back then, despite the exorbitant expense showered on bringing back these rarities, many orchids withered and died upon arrival, making them, of course, even more desirable – madness indeed! Standing in Orchidya, one can almost feel the intrigue and exotic adventures these intrepid globetrotters lived seeking out these flowers. But here at Orchidya, the plants prosper in the hands of such dedicated specialists.

Orchidya opened four years ago “inspired by a love of flowers in general and a passion for orchids in particular. We stand out from other orchid suppliers because of our attention to detail: when we pick the plants we look at the roots as well as the shape, colour and direction of the flowers to make sure our customers get the finest orchids.” Orchidya, who’s nursery won three Gold Medals and two Silver ones from the Chelsea flower show, also specialise in orchid arrangements, bringing together incredible bespoke combinations to suit even the most demanding clients.

A slightly disquieting thing about orchids, which becomes obvious once you know about it, is that the flowers are totally and completely symmetrical. Theories abound about the significance of facial symmetry in humans – the more symmetrical a face, the more attractive it will be to others. The mesmerising symmetry of orchids appears to illicit the  same response – no wonky petals, no little bumps just perfect, impenetrable, spellbinding symmetry – the Grace Kelly of the flower world!

As a plant that symbolises luxury there is no shortage of clientele in London. Orchidya boasts clients from Russia, the Middle East, America and of course right here in the UK. “As London diversifies so do the clients. Their requirements vary; more established clients and collectors pre-order particular varieties, sourced and grown bespoke to add to their own cherished collections”. Sophie adds “Older clients like to specialise and collect, unusual, interesting orchids.  Young professionals like to buy large arrangements of orchids as luxury gifts.”

So how on earth do you care for such exotic plants? I had visions of elaborate nurturing techniques… crushed pearls hand picked in the Tuamotu Archipelago, to be gently dusted on the uppermost leaves at first light… or maybe mixtures of artisanal nutrients exclusive to Amazon rainforests fed to the orchid root system every 3 hours through an eye dropper… But no, apparently not, and that sort of nonsense would probably kill them. As my mental image of vintage laboratory glassware shatters, Sophie the store manager assures me that “the best way to look after orchids is not to look after them”, as several million years of perfectly competent evolution attests, orchids “prefer to be left alone, only needing to be watered sparingly at the root by spraying filtered or rain water. (Though I’m sure using vintage glass eye dropper, if you are that way inclined, would be just as effective!).

As a supplier of luxury plants, Orchidya offer a lot more than an orchid in a pot. Sophie explains that more recently, the shop has seen a huge expansion in its cut flower and bespoke bouquet arrangements with a variety of clients from the Sanderson and St. Martin’s Hotels to Sotheby’s and Senate House to mention only a few. Using only the freshest and finest flowers, Orchidya create imaginative and memorable arrangements. And much like the rest of the beautiful shops on Store Street – from restaurants and art galleries to independent coffee shops – they go that extra mile by way of craft and a depth of knowledge of their respective subjects to satisfy their customers.

Flower arranging is an art in itself, an ancient Japanese art to be precise, called Ikebana. Established in the 15th century and originally taught by Buddhist priests, it became a disciplined art form for creative expression which, by employing a series of rules the intention of the artist could be conveyed via the particular colour combinations, shapes and natural lines used in the final exhibit, bringing nature and humanity together. Sophie herself has extensively studied flower arranging in Paris learning how to manipulate organic materials and develop concepts and designs by utilising a variety of their properties. She then spent a further 6 months at the Orchidya greenhouse in Lincolnshire learning to care for and nurture the growing plants. Her enjoyment and depth of knowledge of Orchidya’s wares is evident not only from the lush, almost tropical feel of the shop but from her answer to my question: what is your favourite orchid? Sophie just about manages to stop herself at 5. And that’s five orchid families, not five orchids!

“I love phalenopsis because it has a long flower period, I like vanda because it has a special pattern on the petal like a wild animal. Slipper orchids look so unique and wild. Dendrobidium orchids are so elegant. Cambria orchids have a special fragrance, some of them smell like orange blossoms, some smell like delicate jasmine, and some smell like chocolate.” I suspect she could go list many more and luckily for those that visit Orchidya, funds notwithstanding, you too can choose as many as you like.