Tucked down a Soho side street, The Society Club, a bookshop-cum-café-cum-art gallery, is on a mission to discourage chain stores from invading this corner of London. Its romantic co-owners, Robert Pereno, his wife Babette Kulik and literary agent Carrie Kania, foster a staunchly individualistic spirit.
“There aren’t any independent bookshops in this area,” laments Pereno, who, resembling a 19th-century roué, fits the bohemian bill perfectly; as does Kulik, dressed in the style of beatnik icon Juliette Gréco. “There are several on Charing Cross Road, but that’s a little way from here.”
The trio relish Soho’s louche heritage and the history of hedonistic, ribald figures, such as Francis Bacon, long associated with it. Pereno’s own past – he first hung out in the area with school friend Howard Raymond, son of club owner Paul Raymond, then later as a promoter of ultra-trendy 1980s venues such as the Wag club – makes this passion all the more personal.
Priding itself on being community-minded, The Society Club is both hangout and shop. “An old friend of Dylan Thomas, called Vi, who’s lived here all her life, often comes in,” says Kulik. “The starting point was wondering how to make a bookshop work. We thought, ‘Why not bring food and books together to encourage conversation?’” Indeed, serving tea, coffee and shortbread, Florentines and toast with Kulik’s homemade jam on a refectory-style table, the shop might well have been called Babette’s Feast.
The store’s huge windows also happen to make it ideal for exhibitions. A recent one showcased John Stoddart’s images that capture “the sexiness and seediness” of Hollywood, while photographs of famous performers by Derek Ridgers will take over the space at the end of March. And The Society Club hosts a weekly film club every Monday at the Sanctum Soho Hotel in Warwick Street.
Naturally, the stock is decidedly non-mainstream, and the books range from 1950s pulp-fiction paperbacks (from £5), with titles such as The Bizarre Sisters, to a 1945 copy of Edward J Dent’s seminal book on opera (£20). There are also more rarefied – and rare – first editions, including George Orwell’s 1984 (£3,000) and Ted Hughes’s Prometheus on his Crag (£1,000). In the mix you’ll also find 1950s ashtrays from the Holiday Inn Los Angeles (£10 each), art-deco vases once sold at florist Constance Spry’s shop (from £125 each) and men’s grooming kits by Wax Industries (£18), containing “extra firm” moustache wax and scissors.
Completing this eccentric picture is a contingent of contented dogs: a Chihuahua, a King Charles spaniel and a bulldog. And while there’s not a roaring fire, several 1950s-style bar heaters dotted about the place manage to create a fittingly cosy atmosphere.