The global power of Soho’s secret fashion bookshop
In front of me stands a dusty, coal-slicked door on Wardour Street, Soho. To my right, a choice of three buzzers: Hyphen Films, Dimello Coffee and, in the middle, the single word: IDEA. I choose the latter, and wind-up crusty office stairs which do not appear to have been touched since Sir Elton John called the building his office in the Seventies. It’s refreshingly grotty; a lesser seen sight in central London today. Certainly in Soho, anyway, which square foot by sweet square foot is having the gritty goodness corporate power-hosed away. That is what Angela Hill and David Owen, owners of IDEA, the rare bookshop and independent publisher, would tell you anyway.
The couple, who are both in their fifties, entered the book trade as a side hustle in the early Noughties, setting up shop at cult fashion store Dover Street Market in 2006, before renting in this building in 2009. Their obscure taste has cultivated an A-list Rolodex of clients that includes fashion designers, performers, tech bros and the global one per cent at large (they don’t let a student leave without something affordable, either). They have also gained internet notoriety by sharing unseen pictures from their finds: IDEA is dubbed “Instagram’s bookshop”, with more than half a million followers. But the magic happens in person.
Specifically, in the cramped, appointment-only, book room I’ve found myself in. It is stacked on all sides with books of every type, first editions, signed copies and ones you never knew existed. There must be thousands, but a sense of organised chaos prevails. A central white table, with thin black chequered lines, is decorated with five, sparkling white hydrangeas and piles of books. Kubrick, Supreme, Issey Miyake and Tracey Emin are familiar names that jump out; others look to be in foreign languages, are totally illegible or glow in hellish, lacquer red.
“When it comes to celebrity people, we don’t take their pictures, and we don’t make any reference to their coming. We figure that’s one of the attractions of this place in the first place,” Owen says. Hill agrees: “I like doing it that way — and I think people like being treated that way. We’ve had some of the biggest worldwide names, but we treat everybody exactly the same. They relax after a while here.”
The pair are in the midst of finalising a deal to expand from their one floor and lease this whole building — “apart from Bruno’s Cafe on the bottom,” Owen says. Au revoir, Hyphen Films and Dimello. It is part of a refocus. They want to bring their business back to bricks and mortar. “We’re not going to stop working through Instagram; it’s directly responsible for making IDEA happen in the way that it has. But we did 12 years via Instagram, now we’re going to use Instagram to do another 12 years in real life.” The rare book room will remain untouched, but a general shop space will be created; even if it is still protected by the unsuspecting black door. “We had a dalliance with opening a [window front] store. But they are like a public space. If you fell over there, you could sue them. In Wholefoods, if someone’s shoplifting, they can’t even say anything,” says Owen. Hill jumps in, only semi-joking: “Here we can just throw you down the stairs if you annoy us at all.”
And like stars relax in this treasure trove of fantastical publications, so too do Owen and Hill. The celebrity stories cannot help but come out of the walls. “The phone goes one day and this guy says ‘Hi, I heard you sell books.’ ‘Yeah’,” Hill says. “‘In Soho?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘101 Wardour Street?’ ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘It’s Calvin, I’m outside.’ Buzz. We were like, ‘Shit! It’s Calvin Klein’,” Hill says. “He was 70-something, and he ran up those stairs. He was so quick.” On check-out (designerKlein, the great purveyor of minimalism, was shopping for books on this subject for a hotel he was designing in Dubai) they told him the story of finding Sir Elton John’s archive up in a closet of the office, which they returned to him (Sir Elton is now a customer, Hill confirms). “Oh Elton! Elton! You know we had some wild times in the Seventies. I put on a concert for him in [Central] Park,” Hill remembers Klein saying. “He said it drifting off remembering, as if we didn’t know.”
Some stories have not aged as well. “There was the time Kanye West came round,” she starts, adding: “Oh — before he came out with various statements. He was a lovely person when he came around here.” Owen clips: “Hm. Ruined his anecdotal value for us, somewhat.”
The die-hard supporters of IDEA are creative directors looking for ideas. “There’s no major fashion designer in the world that we don’t have as a customer,” Hill says. It’s a bold statement. “Seventy-five per cent have been here in person. Sometimes we don’t get Tom Ford himself, or Victoria Beckham, but then they send their team. We get teams of 10 in here: the textile person, accessories person, et cetera. And they’re here all day.” Do they buy? She laughs. “Oh yes. It’s not a library. We don’t allow photographs inside the books at all.” Kim Jones, creative director of both Fendi and Dior Men’s, is one of their longest supporters. “We used to sell books to Kim Jones when we worked on eBay, way back,” Hill says. “He still buys something every week.”
Niche tomes are the USP. “We get really excited about books we didn’t know existed,” Owen says. “We just need to love it. We don’t have things we don’t. That’s the difference between us and a normal book shop. If they specialise in art books, they have to have Cézanne, Matisse, Degas and Rembrandt. We haven’t. We’ve got Hockney, and Kippenberger, Richard Prince, Andy Warhol and every Wolfgang [Tillmans] book, because he’s my favourite,” Hill continues. As she is speaking, Owen is pulling typical IDEA books off the shelves.
One is Apple T-shirts, which collects 1,000 T-shirt designs made and worn by the company’s employees. It caught the eye of Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer. And designers too: “Fashion designers are the best people to buy for, because they don’t buy books of dresses. That is the last thing they want. We don’t even have many. They buy the things that inspire them,” Owen says.
Other IDEA favourites include a mid-Seventies Cocaine Consumer’s Handbook; a late Eighties selection of heart racing portraits, called Men For Women Only; and a 1978 Japanese published book, with every variety of Louis Vuitton leather goods. “More than half the people that buy this are from Louis Vuitton. Whoever’s working in menswear or bags at Vuitton at that point buys it,” says Owen. This one catches their imagination, and together they fawn over an LV monogrammed pet carrier. Their mutual obsessions are obvious. How is it working together? “It’s quite fiery, yeah,” says Owen. “We live together, work together, have kids together,” Hill says. “And we have different ideas. But there’s some kind of synergy that happens and somehow it just works. We will both just gravitate to a book in a shop and know if it’s cool or not.” Today, they buy between 20 and 50 books every day, sourced online, and on shopping trips to Amsterdam, Japan, LA and New York. They try to keep prices reasonable. “We just have to sell it for more than what we bought it for. So we try not to overpay for things, but some are so scarce, if we see one we just buy it,” Owen says. “We would pay anything,” Hill continues. “We might only get 50 quid more in the end, but it would mean we got it.”
One of Hill’s personal ideas was launching the publishing sector of the IDEA, she tells me, as Owen steps out to see a regular. The first was in 2014, published under her name because Owen was unconvinced; 300 signed editions of a photo book called Crimea/Kids, by Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy. “We didn’t stop there, our second book was Collier Schorr [the American artist and fashion photographer], who I was a massive fan of,” she says. Since then, they have published books with everyone from photographers Willy Vanderperre, Derek Ridgers and Alasdair McLellan, to brand books with Gucci and, most recently, New York model and artist Richie Shazam. They also published stylist Bay Garnett’s Fanpages fanzine in 2017 and 2018. She attests to their influence. “They’ve been a game changer to the fashion industry by unveiling all these incredible images and genres,” she says, adding, “David and Angela are a real asset to London, they’re kind of underground but not.”
This year will see them put their heads a little higher over the parapet. But they are set on expanding without squashing the spark, or leaving Soho behind. “It’s like the heartbeat of London. I can’t imagine our shop being anywhere else,” Hill says. “These chains can earn a fortune by taking over.”
Not if this pair has anything to do with it. “You’ve got to have some sleazy, sexy, dirty elements here too. I hope Ann Summers stays forever. Why not?” she pauses. “I want the drunkards, and I want Pride. I want everyone here.” You can be sure of one thing, IDEA is not going anywhere.