I consider myself very lucky that not only do I get on very well with my mother-in-law, but she also lives somewhere I’m always very glad to visit. Whitstable’s rise from down-at-heel fishing port to trendy weekend retreat for media types and seafood devotees has been well documented, but fortunately it has also retained and added to a wide selection of independent retailers including several where I can easily lose much of a weekend and come back laden with goodies. For a start, there are a number of junk/antique shops that are always worth a poke around, though one or two tend towards the ‘it’s old, so it must be worth a lot’ approach which is a shame when it comes to fairly commonplace items that would otherwise see their stock turning over more quickly; still, maybe they can find enough customers to make that work for them.

Anyway, to a few absolute favourites, and for no reason other than it’s the first one I come to on my way into town, I start with Oxford Street Books – a fantastic selection of secondhand books of all ages, well enough organised to allow looking for particular subjects, but sufficiently juxtapositioned to mean that you can easily stumble across the book you didn’t even know you were looking for. The proprietor operates a very realistic pricing policy – as he described it to me, he’d rather pitch prices slightly low and see his stock turn over, than try for the maximum he could get and sit looking at the same items on the shelves for years on end. It certainly works for me and the only thing that stops me calling in on every occasion is fear of coming out with another year’s worth of reading!

In terms of vintage clothing and ephemera shops, there are a couple of really nice little outlets run by owners who are clearly pursuing a passion rather than jumping on a bandwagon. A relative newcomer having opened just over a year ago is Anchors Aweigh Vintageat the Harbour end of Harbour Street – not an extensive stock, but always changing, nicely displayed and reasonably priced – and it’s right next to a beautifully old-fashioned ice cream shop and opposite a traditional antiques shop, so definitely repaying a trip to that end of town. Definitely not to be missed is

Pearl and Hemingway, further up Harbour Street. The proprietor, Lesley West, is passionate about what she does. I’ll be writing a feature on the shop shortly, so won’t go into details here, but the shop is certainly a Whitstable vintage highlight and another it’s hard to leave empty handed (or, indeed, headed).

And so to the icing on the cake, and something that very few towns of the size of Whitstable could ever hope to boast: no fewer than two long-established independent record shops: Gatefield Sounds and Rock Bottom Records. You’d think that they’d be in direct competition, but there’s a neat separation – Gatefield majoring in new releases with an emphasis on re-issues and vintage sounds, and Rock Bottom featuring an extensive stock of secondhand singles, LPs and CDs (or at least that’s my impression – maybe there’s a very civilised record shop war going on after hours!). Gatefield also has a delicious selection of re-issues of classic albums on heavyweight vinyl with lovingly reproduced covers, whilst Rock Bottom has a very handy secondhand book and magazine section devoted to music and film titles; both have a good DVD selection, too. Gatefield Sounds gets honourable mention in Graham Jones’ ‘Last Shop Standing’ (page 133 if you want to check); I presume the only reason Rock Bottom doesn’t is because of the emphasis on secondhand stock, but a record shop it definitely is. Basically, this is music buying like it used to be and should be, and I challenge any self-respecting recorded music fan to come away empty handed, even if only for the sheer pleasure of buying from a proper record shop.
To add to the permanent shops, there’s a continuous round of interesting one-off events (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) in and around the town. On our most recent visit, St Mary’s Hall in the middle of town featured an antiques and collectors fair on the Saturday, which sent me away with an armful of rock’n’roll on 78s, and a record and CD fair on the Sunday – more CDs and ears caressed by a bootleg CD of tracks from Michael Caine movies playing in the background. Just on the edge of town, Whitstable Castle (or Tankerton Towers as it was once charmingly known) and its surrounding gardens features regular vintage fairs with a superb selection of stallholders offering a very wide selection of desirable objets at often remarkably affordable prices.
Needless to say, there’s no shortage of fantastic places to eat, from cafes to upmarket restaurants and with the Shepherd Neame brewery just along the coast at Faversham, it’s not hard to find a decent pint either! Now, when’s our next visit…..