A London Stationery Shop Where Choosing Paper Is a Sensual Journey
“That’s the nice thing about stationery. It’s about a feeling.”
Rounding the corner of Tower Street in London’s tourist-frenzied Covent Garden, you’ll come across the peaceful haven of Choosing Keeping, a red-brick storefront whose glass windows glisten as solar-powered light mills twirl. Step inside and you won’t be able to resist running your hands over rolls of wrapping paper resembling the finest brocade; a vitrine filled with every hue of watercolors and pastels; and a collection of sewn-bound composition notebooks that evoke cherished memories of back-to-school shopping.
While some visitors might catch sight of the shop as they stumble down the road, tourists obsessed with all things well-made and utilitarian treat it as a destination in its own right. After all, there’s a certain thrill attached to obtaining a notebook or pen on one’s travels.
“People buy stationery thinking they might use it during their holiday, when they’ll finally have time to sit down and write that letter,” says Choosing Keeping owner Julia Jeuvell. “We also have a lot of customers who will buy a notebook and then—graphically or in words—tell the story of their travels.”
Visiting a stationery shop is an excellent way to get to know a city’s local artisans, its cultural mascots (Hello Kitty in Tokyo, Miffy in Amsterdam), its signature materials (leather pouches in Florence), and its retail landscape. Plus, there’s something to be said about owning a brand of pencil that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else—what Jeuvell calls “the exotic nature of foreign goods that are otherwise available to you domestically.”
If you find yourself visiting one stationery store after the next during your travels, you’ll start to notice the same brand of pencil sharpener or mechanical pencil, even if it’s a so-called “specialty” shop. But not at Choosing Keeping, where each product is so distinct, you’ll likely never have seen it before. That’s because products undergo a rigorous selection process favoring small, mostly family-owned businesses. Thus, items painstakingly sourced from all over the world remain in their native packaging—i.e. tiny boxes of Kaweco ink cartridges that say “Since 1883 Germany,” or gummy erasers encased in Japanese labels.
Originally opened in 2012, the shop had tiny beginnings on Columbia Road, the East London street famous for its flower market. It was a time when the old-fashioned was making a comeback, àla vinyl records. Fast forward to 2018, when a new Choosing Keeping rightfully took up some space on Tower Street. The location is just the right amount of expansive, allowing you to spend hours mulling over that new notebook purchase without feeling like you’re being watched.
While the shop is an item to cross off the London to-do list, the store is a journey in itself. As a child, the French-born Jeuvell spent much of her life traveling. As a shopkeeper, she spends time visiting factories and family-owned businesses across the world: Germany for kitschy Christmas paraphernalia; Osaka for nearly-extinct celluloid fountain pens; Paris for Antoinette Poisson dominoté decorative papers.
For Jeuvell, stationery is a lot like wine, with its own sense of terroir. “I like to think the product is really a flavor of the people,” she says.
Take, for example, the shop’s collection of scissors, whose flat handles express the same archival design as vintage eyewear. The gold and silver beauties come from the northern Italian town of Premana, near Lake Como, and are one of Jeuvell’s favorite examples of how environment informs industry.
“We went to see where [they] are made in Italy—this very small village that's kind of hooked to the mountains. It takes a great deal of time to get there,” she explains. “We were thinking, ‘Why do they have this quite heavy industry in this very hard-to-get-to village?’ Then they explained to us that, historically, there's been iron ore in this mountain for thousands of years.”
The spiffy shears, which today are made from steel, are just one of the products that express a distinct locality. Customers are also enamored with the shop’s aluminum tins of glue, which have been produced in Genoa since the 1930s. It also helps that it smells of almonds.
“I just think, ‘Ooh, the Italians, they had to make things delicious,’” Jeuvell says. “[The owner] Mr. Balma, he's really the most socially responsible owner of a company that I’ve met in my 10 years of stationery. He will give a prize every year to employees who have been there for 20 and 40 years. I'm always blown away. How many companies have employees that they can say have been there for that long?”
The customer base of Choosing Keeping is as eclectic as the wares on display. Prop stylists and set designers search the treasure trove for unique objects to make movie magic. Jeuvell is always delighted when Japanese customers enter the store and are surprised to find the niche, old-fashioned brands that have fallen out of favor in their own country. “I had a Japanese customer who said, ‘It's Japan, but better than Japan,’" she says.
Then there’s the class of customers that Jeuvell likes to call the “stationery nerds.” She explains, “They're not flaneurs. They’re really sniffing out technical products, usually full of questions, and just generally very enthusiastic.”
The appeal applies to those who are on a chase for perfectionism, people who like things just so—how the pen feels on the page, how one notebook will feel fine, but the other won’t. “It's sensual as well. That's the nice thing about stationery,” she says. “It's about a feeling.”
Stationery provides an opportunity to disconnect, and goes hand-in-hand with the resurgence of interest in journaling as a means to prioritize mental health. “Stationery is now linked to ‘de-digitalising, or ‘going analogue’—to get off screens and give precedence to one’s internal feelings and meanderings,” Jeuvell says. And when we’re on vacation, ready to unwind, journals and sketchbooks aid in that relaxation. “It’s no longer really a work tool, but in fact a tool of idleness and aimlessness—in a nice romantic and metic way.”
When it comes to finding the best stationery abroad, Jeuvell suggests pinning neighborhoods that offer independent retail and, once there, seeking out domestic brands. “I'd always rather show a humble notebook you might find in a bog-standard mom and pop shop in a small village in Italy,” she says. “When you're there, sometimes it's hard to see that it's special. It takes taking it out of context to say, ‘Look at this—beautiful, simple, well-made.’”