Reminiscences of Wicked Old Soho

This nostalgic post will not mean much to most people – except perhaps to men of my generation who had to live through such a deprived era and have seen how the Internet has changed everything we know.

sohomapNow in my sixties I am sitting outside a cafe on Old Compton St in London’s notorious Soho district. Or it least it was notorious. Today, much like Times Square in New York – as I understand – it is completely cleaned up and un-notorious with only a few shops remaining of the once prevalent sex trade, now mostly catering for the gay pound. It changed not through any heavy legal crack-down but, like a lot else, through the changes brought by the onset of the Internet removing the need to go out to buy porn magazines, books and movies.

Over thirty years back it was completely different. Then I would never have sat outside a cafe and would have been very cautious of even coming in by daylight – but then I had a guilty conscience. A shopping trip to Soho was a furtive affair usually made under cover of darkness, armed with a shoulder bag, and planned with a clear itinerary so as to quickly move in and out of doorways.

My own particular interest here was for books, magazines and the predecessor to DVDs and videos – Super 8 films.

Moving swiftly inside the shop you’d be pressed against a heaving mass of tightly pressed male flesh with barely enough room to jostle your way through to the shelves. Many men – it was always just men- were simply browsing with no intention of buying. Occasional ineffectual calls from management failed to shift them. Of course I always bought something – even at the outrageous prices they changed. Kink commanded higher prices with 10 pounds being usual for a magazine -a lot for a young man in those days.

With my burgeoning interest in kink and the bizarre I had my own favourite haunts:-
1. Swish publications
My main port of call. CP with a femdom bias selling their own “Madame” magazine, “Sadie Stern” magazines and even a few ripped-off and pasted together collections of Namio Harukawa drawings.

swish2
Site of the Swish shop-now fashionable dining : Greek St.

2. Janus Bookshop
Mostly catering to CP erotica with more of an emphasis on subfem, stocking its own magazines including Janus, Roué and others.

janus
The Janus shop- now a trendy clothing outlet: Old Compton St

3. Lovejoys
Commanding a presence along Charing Cross Road, the ground floor was nominally a book shop but a discreet staircase downstairs led to a wonderful treasure trove. Not so much kink but best stocked general erotica.

lovejoys
Site of Lovejoys -still an adult shop but not half as interesting! : Charing Cross Rd

4. Unnamed
I cannot remember the name of this one. Cut off in an alley in Chinatown it was one of the first I discovered and may have been Swish before they moved. Can anyone enlighten?

swish1
Kinky sex shop -name unremembered-now Chinese souvenirs: Newport Court

5. Original Soho Bookshop One of the last bookshops now standing, stocked mostly with DVDs and a few magazines or books. Very little fetish and most gay-oriented. In the spirit of “research” I bought one product for old times sake but without much enthusiasm.

soho_original
The Original Soho Book Shop: Brewer St

 

23 thoughts on “Reminiscences of Wicked Old Soho

  1. This evokes many flashbacks for me as well. I love the internet for all of the liberty it has given my soul but I do miss the old days, the fear of being discovered, the butterflys, the perilous journeys into the scary unknown.

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  2. Loved this little tour! I wish I had been able to see Soho in those days. I’m under-traveled, to put it mildly, and I only caught glimpses of its former grandeur in location shots for movies like Peeping Tom and I believe, though I’m not 100% certain, in the Boris Karloff bizarro documentary Mondo Balordo which if I’m correct has a scene that takes place in the modeling studios that apparently once thrived in Soho. Or it might have been in another one of those “mondo” movies.

    All those publications you mentioned, like Swish, Madame, Janus, were best found in NYC at the late lamented Kinematics, for years at 47th and Seventh Ave. in Times Square, and later at 37th and Sixth Avenue near Macy’s. It is now a strip club instead of a fascinating (if pricey) scholar’s paradise of fetish erotica.

    Ah, “tempus fudge it,” as I like to say! 😉

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  3. Great writing Sardax.

    My own nervousness and guilty feelings stemmed from my attraction to the fetish publications – standing in front of this section told everyone there a lot about you, as they browsed the conventional vanilla porn shelves. The extent of the fetish publications taught me however that I wasn’t the only one interested in this genre and this alone gave me encouragement to accept how I was. I too would always purchase, partially out of fear of incurring the proprietor’s wrath.

    I now seek to find old copies of the magazines I browsed from that wonderful era. So little quality hard-print nowadays.

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  4. I have been following you through email for a year now and have loved all your drawings. I think we are of similar age and I very much identify with your comments on Soho. I live in Cheshire but went to London I always made sure I finished after lunch to give me plenty of time to wander round Soho going into the shops you mention before heading for Euston and the 6pm train home. Now as you say the Internet has changed all that but I remember those days bringing back books/mags. While emailing you I would like to commison a drawing/painting how would I go about this please.
    Best wishes – David

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  5. Definitely remember the Janus shop – and spending quite a bit of money on unique magazines and books with Sardax illustrations. Always unique and original material to explore in the “old” London Soho; now it’s trendy shops, restaurants and the occasional Starbucks.

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  6. I too remember the corner of Charring Cross Road and Old Compton Street. With the big Canadian fellow with glasses and a deep smoke filled voice. The hand drawn picture on one of the racks of a voluptuous woman. The silent shuffling but I always bought something in facts lots of things.

    The bargain bucket too. The other deep voiced former body builder and model in porn films including femdom ones. Looks like one of a 1960’s band.

    The lovely blonde Londoner who appeared in Madame and sold mags from swish who I used to talk too who said “they are strange people who buy this aren’t they”. The old fellow with the bad eye ad monocle who looked like something from a 1950’s kids show shuffling and slow. Slapping the change down with disdain knowing you were nervous.

    The decade before that where mostly people who were ex cons who had to be tough when protection racket people came round and when they were raided by the police. Buying John Bruno books.

    Ah many a happy hour spent there.

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  7. Great post. I remember visiting London my first year of university. I traveled into soho my first evening by tube and made my way to the Janus shop then in Greens Court. It was so small, so seedy and so wonderful .Four years later I was living in London and Soho became a regular haunt. I understand the “gentrification” but I miss it. Thanks for the reminder.

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  8. This is fascinating as I’m in the same age group and remember walking around the same area. I remember smaller shops around Old Compton St, one very small place near to Wardour St that was narrow and sort of “dodgy” but you would just nod at the guy on the till and sort of ignore the other punters.
    My favourite shop was Swish in Greek St where I generally bought “Madame” magazine but would browse other titles such as Smooth and one dedicated to Crossdressers. One time I left my wallet and came back a few minutes later thinking that I may have lost it but the guy at the till was preparing to post it to ( I must have something with my address in it) which was quite impressive really.
    I later found shops around the Praed St area of Paddington as well as shops in my home town which sold Madames and similar but it was always a thrill to go to the Swish shop.
    Anyone remember the TVs series Budgie with Adam Faith as the chirpy jack the lad and Charlie Endell the tough Glaswegian bookshop owner?

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    • Thank you for your comment John. Sleazy those shops were but I felt like you the people running them were rough diamonds operating against all the forces trying to close them down. Sure they never predicted that they’d close through people no longer coming to them!

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  9. In the 1980s I actually worked in Soho! Not in the sex industry, but sort of close by. About 5 years in total, based in Archer Street and loving every moment. I remember some of the places, walking under the arch by Foyles (World’s End Pub?) and coming out at the Swish shop. The eateries were great, the whole place jammed with parked cars, the model cards in the windows and the dingy temporary sex shops. Then at night, Madame Jo-Jo’s (just to the right of ‘sex shop alley’ and the ‘Original Soho Bookshop’ that is in a photo above) and a few strange bars. All tacky, all plastic, with a dangerous feel (I never had a serious problem, even as a young woman!) but sort of glorious. The only sex shop that I rated was sort of on the edge of Soho. Books upstairs and all the rest downstairs. It was the only one that was like a real shop. Exactly where the ‘Harmony’ shop is now at the end of Old Compton Street. An orange shop sign, but I cannot recall the name of the place. When I finally moved away from London and went to work abroad, I really missed the crazy place. I have been back, but somehow the glorious feel is gone, though it is far cleaner than it ever was in my time. The only time I really ‘went back’ was to write a novella featuring a fetish shop in Soho and indulged my imagination.

    So, where did I work?

    Smokey old Charlie Chester Casino and The Golden Horseshoe Casino opposite…

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    • Thank you Irene. Yes, no place for a lovely young lady in those days. But I’m sure you could look after yourself. And so different now from then -thanks for your contribution.

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  10. In 1966 I first visited Soho at the age of 18. Nearly all the bookshops had a back room, but it appeared that in order to gain admitance, the staff had to recognize you. This was the pre-Janus era, the era of the first spanking letters in Penthouse. I must have checked out every book shop in Soho, and there were many, before I found what I was looking for. In a small shop at the east end of Old Compton street, on the south side, just past the junction with Moor Street where Rambooks was located. The shop whose name I cannot recall, had a barn door leading to the back room. The top part of the door was open with a staff member vetting who was allowed through into the inner sanctum. On the lower part of the door was a narrow counter with a wooden box in which there were black and white 6”x 4” photo sets wrapped in cellophane so you could only see the facing picture. It seemed that anyone could browse through these, you did not have to be one of the favoured regulars, and I plucked up the courage to check them out under the watchful eye of the burly gate keeper. Most of the sets were straight vanilla sex, but then I hit pay dirt, a set depicting spanking at last. This was the first time I had seen spanking properly depicted in photgraphs. The facing photo showed a young woman in her 20’s being spanked OTK by a smartly dressed guy about the same age. The woman resembled Dusty Springfield, same hair style as Dusty and very similar facial features. She wore a white blouse and short skirt, which had been raised to reveal white airtex knickers. I was mre then willing to pay the £5 sticker price and could barely contain myself on the tube journey home not to delve into the brown paper bag and remove the cellophine to see the rest of the pictures. There were 5 photos in the set and I was pleased to see that the knickers had been taken down in 3 of them revealing a shapely slim bottom with a pleasing amount of crease where her bttom met her thighs. They were well posed with both participants appearing to enjoy themselves, and to this day I have rarely seen better.
    On my next visit I found another set from the same shoot but that was all, I have never seen the model in anything else. On my 3rd visit I was admitted to the back room. It was very disappointing. They had a very small section labelled ‘Flag’ for flagellation, and I struggled to find anything to my taste to make the obligratory purchase which was expected as the price of admitance. I found a zeroxed story stappled together with B & W photos of a girl being spanked with a 12 inch long bed or chair upholstery spring of all things. The marks on her bottom looked real. Soon after this, around 1969, came the era of spanking magazines and Bens Books openly displayed, making trips to Soho much more rewarding. Hunting down the latest publications meant visiting at least a dozen or more shops. The hunt was all part of the excitement, you never knew what you might find. Imported copies of Corporal from the USA or Sting from Australia. New UK titles, Swish, Roue, and eventually the whole Blushes stable which were sometimes oustanding. Then we had the video booths which ate up 50p’s at a rate of knots and even for a short time a spanking Cinema near rambooks as I recall, where you could sit all afternoon and watch nearly all the availble spanking films without spending a fortune in the booths. Of course that was too good to last. Farewell old Soho, thanks for all the excitement of my mis-spent youth.

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    • Thanks for your great description Steve. Obviously there is a shared nostalgia for those times which would have been unthinkable at the time! I just remembered those video booths that projected onto a back of a door. Converted loos weren’t they? Amazing what we put up with !

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