Every city has a toy shop. London has several. There’s years old and wonderful Benjamin Pollock’s; Notting Hill’s lovely Dotty Dot and Honeyjam; Traditional Toys, the wooden toy specialist in Chelsea Green; and of course, grand old Hamley’s, “the biggest in the world.” What sets Semmalina apart — a shop full of toys, children’s clothes, arty prints, vintage bits of kids furniture, a party/gift bag service and even a self-contained sweet shop — to make it a truly Unique Boutique, is the highly personalised customer service its owners provide.
The story goes like this: 10 years ago, Emma Forbes (now a TV and radio presenter) created Semmalina, only to sell it on, 6 years later, to her sister Sarah Standing, a writer and a journalist (The Telegraph, Tatler, the Evening Standard, and The Spectator), who now runs the shop with her friend, Diana. Diana and Sarah make a point of ensuring one or the other can be found behind the till, 6 days a week, serving customers. Sarah assures me that despite having very different personalities she and her friend have “the most perfect partnership.”
Sarah is, it would seem, the life and soul of the place. She’s a force of nature, one of those shopkeepers who will happily answer any question with authority and enthusiasm. “Do you have any temporary tatoos for boys?” an older lady asks, during my visit. “How old are the boys?” asks Sarah, hands already digging through a bucket “…hang on, I’ve got some really foul ones, here…” A young American tourist is unsure what to buy a friend who’s about to have a baby: “I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl.” Sarah sends her home with a beautifully-wrapped (and gender-neutral) animal bib, after pointing her towards these and some pretty printed muslin cloths: “so useful, but these are a little different from the usual ones you’ll find. Babies can get enormously attached to them.” Child development experts could learn something from Sarah; such is her knowledge of the interests of children aged nought to 16. So, what kinds of toys do kids like best, in her opinion? “Non-trendy” old-fashioned toys, such as balls, play-kitchens and food, even measuring tapes, are the things that never fail to please, says Sarah. “Girls are more acquisitive” she tells me, “they like all the little bits. Boys want the baseball bats, and…you know.” I don’t. But Sarah sure does. And her passion for all things fun is infectious. During my visit, for no apparent reason, I buy a transparent rubber ball full of brightly coloured confetti. Sarah approves: “Can’t keep enough of those at the moment. They’re completely mesmeric, aren’t they – like lava lamps.”
Sarah breezes round the shop, multi-tasking while she chats. When we meet, she’s wearing a flowing white kaftan and clomps about in fabulously high platform wedge sandals, terribly glamorous and posh. Somehow all this is not intimidating because Sarah’s just lovely – an arresting mixture of clever, gorgeous, and at ease with herself. Her conversation drifts seamlessly from the merits of Liz Hurley’s swimwear for children to the complexities of the UK general election. I put it to her that her careers make an interesting combination of high and low-brow, and she admits her work in the shop makes for a sharp but welcome contrast with journalism: “Often I’m sitting writing something incredibly complex during a quiet half hour, then I can flip into gift wrapping and making party bags and go right back to writing about the conservative government and what they’re doing or whatever. It is quite fun. The thing about writing is you can peck and peck at something and you need a bit of diversion.” Sometimes the shop provides fodder. Sarah’s currently writing a script for HBO about turn-of-century art dealers Berenson and Duveen, involving loads of somewhat obscure research. Semmalina provided an unexpected lead when a random customer overheard Sarah on the phone with the editor of the Spectator (her co-writer) and announced her uncle was writing Berenson’s biography: “He’s currently staying at Berenson’s villa in Florence. If you want I could give you his number as I’m sure he’d be interested to meet you…?” said she.
While sister Emma set up the business as her baby and was, according to Sarah, “fantastically talented and imaginative” in its creation, she eventually found that she did not enjoy working there, as such. Sarah, originally drafted in just to help, was surprised to find she adored it: “Writing is very solitary and I’m quite a gregarious person. I like people. I like the idea that you don’t know what each day will bring – it’s like the curtain goes up. . .it’s theatre.” Makes sense, this comparison. Sarah’s mother is actress Nanette Newman, father is Bryan Forbes (an actor, writer, director, producer), and she is married to actor John Standing.
Between them, Sarah and Diana have 7 kids. It goes without saying that they adore children and remain very close to their own, now all grown-up. Sarah tells me “All I ever wanted to do was to get married and have 8 children, and I had 3. Pretty good going, considering I married a man who had already been married and had a child and said 2 things: ‘I never want to get married’ and ‘I do not want to have more children.’ Well, I had 3 children in 4 years and I’m still with him; we are very happy.” I ask her what her own family was like, to have created such a brilliant homage to childhood in Semmalina, and she describes a rural English bliss (“I was part of that lucky generation that didn’t have to rely on television and electronic things for amusement”) with lots of independence. After a moment’s thought, she adds: “I had a fantastic, absolutely fabulous childhood. I guess you couldn’t do this if you didn’t, in a funny way.”
Semmalina is bright, colourful, cleverly laid-out – lots to see at child-eye level – and quirky. Sarah, who lived in LA for years while her kids were small, wants the shop to be “an escapist, adventurous place to come….I like futzing around, rearranging the shop and hopefully creating a magical atmosphere. All I know is it makes me happy every time I open the door and come to work, so I hope customers feel the same.” Escapist, it is. Show tunes and jazz are played (“Happy music!” I quip. “‘Horrible music’ that Diana hates,” laughs Sarah) and the shop is arranged with no nod to practicality, rhyme or reason. Clothes are haphazardly hung from hooks. Huge tubs contain endless small toys, bits and bobs. Miniature cooking aprons hang round the neck of a vintage hobby horse. Sarah loves vintage fairs and somehow manages not to get too attached to her exquisite finds: “There’s nothing I couldn’t get rid of. I love that doll’s house, it hasn’t got a price tag on it, but if someone walks in and wants to buy it, they can have it.” Unexpected items are liable to take one’s fancy: “People come here and say ‘Have you got any tights?’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m really sorry, I haven’t got anything practical.’ Do you have a completely-impractical-dress-made-of-vintage-Disney-fabric-with-Bambis-on-it-which-is-quite-expensive-that-my-child-has-no-need-for-but-I-just-have-to-have? Yes. You don’t really need anything that’s in here, but I hope people want a lot of things.”
During my visit I become entranced by an ancient wardrobe stuffed with girl’s ballet tutus, in nearly every colour under the sun. Except they’re not tutus. They’re BIGGER, with more layers of tulle and fabulousness than I’ve ever seen. My 3 year old daughter would jump up and down, if she saw them. “How would you describe that? A can-can skirt?” I ask Sarah. “God only knows. All I know is that one customer took her 5 year old skating – she said, ‘My husband’s going to kill me, I’m going to have to put these on 4 different credit cards, I’ve got 4 kids ice skating, I need to buy them all a skirt, just for the photo opportunity.’ And she did.” Sarah firmly believes that half the appeal of any gift is the way it is wrapped and presented. So if you wander into Semmalina looking for a child’s baking set, you might leave with a bright melamine cooking bowl containing a jar of cookie mix, a recipe card and cookie-cutters, all tied up with bright ribbons and a wooden spoon on the outside. The store is transformed every 2 weeks or so, as Sarah and Diana want local children to be surprised by something new each time they visit. And visit they do. In droves. My interview with Sarah is briefly interrupted at 4pm by the arrival of a gaggle of 10-13 year old girls, who swarm around Semmalina’s in-house sweet shop and proceed to fill their own paper bags with 10p, 5p, 24p worth of candy. What is interesting is that payment operates on an honesty system. One by one, they file out of the shop in front of Sarah, announcing “This bag is 16p!” “Mine’s 28p,” as she nods them past. She tells me later she’s known this crowd since they were little.
The engine of Semmalina’s business is ‘Starbags’ – party bags full of goodies for children and the young at heart – customized for each and every child by by the hand of Sarah or Diana, orders for which can be called in and left to their good taste and discretion. This is where the full force of Sarah and Diana’s attention to detail comes in. The bags can be themed, colour-co-ordinated, gender and/or age-specific and cost £2.50 per bag, which includes the shop’s time, wrapping, ribbon, cellophane and candy. On top of this base cost, customers can choose whatever they want to put inside the bags; as big or small or fantastical as required, which means cost can run from £5 each all the way up to the shop’s current record – £5000 total spend for a single order.
If you are new to the ‘party bag’ phenomenon, it might be difficult to imagine the powerful impact a basket-full of beautiful, bright, ribboned Starbags can have on a group of party-going children. Let me describe the contents of some bags awaiting collection in the shop during my visit. In one; a flashing ball, a whistle, a dragon’s egg, and a 1ft lollipop; another order featured vintage tin buckets filled with watermelon-shaped sponges, a bubble wand, jelly beans and ‘magic’ mermaid shells. In short, Starbags are ‘wow-factor’ party favours. As Sarah says, “the only limit is your imagination.” Every child visiting London who is lucky enough to be staying at the luxurious Berkeley Hotel with their family will find one of Semmalina’s Starbags on their pillow, its contents hand-picked to suit their age and gender by Sarah or Diana. “We try to do very British things for them, so we’ve got rubber ducks that are like London’s famous guardsmen, or crafty things that give kids something to do in a hotel.” Sarah and Diana never order the same stock twice, so in theory if one’s child went to three ‘Starbags’ parties in a year they would never receive duplicates: “Because that’s just boring. Boring for the kids, and boring for us.”
Life at Semmalina is indeed never dull, largely because its owners try so hard to keep customers happy. This summer, Sarah and Diana plan to set up tables, chairs and parasols outside the shop and pair up with a girlfriend of theirs who owns cupcake company Love Bakery to serve cupcakes and lemonade outside the shop for after school time. At Semmalina, the ultimate goal is to surprise and delight; to keep people coming back for more. “So many people have said to me, ‘Have you thought of opening another shop in Notting Hill or in Fulham?’ But we can only be in one place, because the success of a shop like this very much depends on being dependable. A lot of people ring up and say, ‘Oh I haven’t got time to come in, can you do me 2 presents for a 4 year old, I want to spend no more than £30,’ or whatever — and they trust us.” Sarah describes how she took a call one Sunday morning from a working mother whose flight home to London was delayed, making her unable to prepare for her daughter’s birthday the next day. She rang Sarah from a foreign airport begging for help with a party dress, party bags, and her daughter’s gift, and Sarah duly opened the shop at 3pm, just for her. “I’m lucky to live round the corner,” says she. At Christmas-time, the shop is inundated by people from London and beyond who complete all their children’s gift shopping in one supermarket-sweep. It is easy to see why. With the owners’ great skills at gift-choosing, and because wrapping is done in the store, all they are left to do is write the labels: “A lot of men that shop like that – come in and say ‘I’ve got 6 godchildren, I need something for this one, this one, that one…’”
Before I leave, Sarah gives me some positive reinforcement about what Unique Boutiques is trying to achieve, because she, like me, loves one-off shops. Moreover, she enjoys the freedom and independence that owning a single shop allows.”We have a ball, you know. It’s a bit crazy. Sometimes we have late evening openings at Christmas time. We had so much champagne one year and so much great music playing and so many mince pies, that at 10 o’clock at night we cleared the window and had my 2 daughters and 4 customers dancing in it.” Sarah and Diana, like many independent boutique-owners, have never been interested in profit as the end-game: “That’s not the reason we do it. The difference between having a shop [rather than a chain], is that you mustn’t go into it to make a fortune, you must just love the ride.”