Tucked away among the buildings of London’s School for Economics is a small, wood-beamed shop.
Dating from the 16th century, its sloping roof, overhanging second floor, and uneven Tudor gabling mark it as one of London’s oldest shops. Dwarfed and out of place amidst one of the world’s most prestigious universities, the little creaking shop, constructed from salvaged ship wood, survived not only the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the devastation of the Blitz.
Living in neighboring Bloomsbury, Charles Dickens visited the quaint shop on a number of occasions. Although the name was added after the novel was released, it is thought to have become the inspiration for his 1841 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.
The Old Curiosity Shop of Dickens’s imagination was the home of a virtuous teenage orphan, Nell Trent, and her grandfather. The tragic tale took place in “one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust.”
The story was originally serialized in 1840, in his weekly periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock, along with Barnaby Rudge. The Old Curiosity Shop was so popular, legend has it that readers in New York, desperate to find out the conclusion, stormed the wharf of Lower Manhattan when the ship bearing the last installment docked. Oscar Wilde, however, was less enthused: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.”
The original shop itself started as a dairy, given as a present by King Charles II to one of his many mistresses. In the early 1970s, it was a bookstore specializing in Charles Dickens’s books. Hidden away on Portsmouth Street just south of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Old Curiosity Shop today is a retailer of high-end shoes and is still open for business, as it has been for over 500 hundred years.