Nestled in the shadows of Oxford’s historic All Saints Church, Lincoln – which is now Lincoln College Library – Scriptum Fine Stationery has made quite a name for itself over the years, fast becoming recognised as one of the finest luxury stationers in the country. And, while letter writing by hand might not be the everyday activity it once was, this long-held tradition is still one that is held very dear to many, and has won the shop a legion of loyal, letter-writing fans who flock from across the country to get their hands on some of the finest writing tools, papers and other essentials.
Founded in 2003 by director and creative head, Azeem Zakria, the shop premises date back to the seventeenth century, with Turl Street itself recorded to be over 650 years old. Scriptum, which normally only closes its doors to the public for three days a year, has recently reopened following this year’s ongoing lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions, and is now showing off the results of an airy refurbishment. Having successfully retained its the Victorian aesthetic and feel whilst getting a brighter, lighter upgrade, it’s looking and feeling better than ever – and its customers, as ever, are in for a treat.
Upon entering the shop, you will be greeted by the arias of Verdi, Puccini or Rossini, always recorded by Maria Callas. The array of journals, stationery, and writing instruments and the romantic, historical feel that comes with them will transport you to Italy in an instant. And, now that Scriptum has exclusive rights in selling Santa Maria Novella products, the scent of Florence which wafts down the historic Turl Street is attracting customers in their droves – only these days, at a safe social distance, of course.
The 201-day closure over the UK’s first blanket lockdown earlier this year gave director and creative head Azeem plenty of time to rethink how best to move the business forward – and it appears that it was time well spent indeed.
The shop front was painted black to mark the pandemic, but it was also an acknowledgment to H.G. Gadney, the bookseller who occupied the shop unit during the 1911 Spanish Flu. At the time, the bookshop had a black façade, so the latest update to the colour scheme takes it back to an earlier time.
Azeem’s eye for detail is visible even before you enter Scriptum, with the board beside the shop also designed in the same style as Gadney’s bookshop board and reminiscent of times gone by.
“My priority over lockdown was to keep all of my staff employed. In late-August, the shop unit next door became available, so I signed a new lease, and within a week a larger Scriptum was opened. The new premises is at least three times the size of the original shop, and it has been great for social-distancing and employing more staff”, says Azeem.
The Scriptum team is comprised of stationery experts ranging from artists, calligraphers and poets to creative-writers and also a classicist. Azeem encourages his staff to use their creativity to design products for the shop.
“As a luxury retailer, we are expected to know every detail about every item that we offer our customers. We are fortunate enough to spend quality time talking to them about their needs, and this, in turn, allows us to understand what customers want,” he explains.
Scriptum works with over one hundred different suppliers from all over Europe. Its selection of over 100 ink colours come from Liverpool, stationery sets from Florence, handmade paper from Prague, marionettes from Budapest, Zoetropes from Madrid, statues and busts from Athens, page anchors from Sweden, leather portfolios from France, masks from Venice, and the list goes on. And, within a few seconds of being inside Scriptum, it’s evident that no quality product is out of reach for Azeem.
“I always want the best quality, even in my staff,” he declares.
His longest serving staff member and manager of both shops, Holly Probert, learnt the art of calligraphy while working at Scriptum. She first started presenting Azeem with framed arias for his birthday, written on beautiful paper using a dip pen – a tradition which still continues today, to working on calligraphy commissions for royalty from around the globe. In 2016, Azeem and Holly joined forces on their Scriptum Opera Cards project, with Azeem selecting ten of his favourite arias. Holly then turned into beautifully written greeting cards, which are available to buy boxed or as single cards – and were such a success that they contributed to Scriptum’s ‘Vincero’ window display, winning the ‘Best Window Display’ category at the prestigious London Stationery Awards in 2019.
This year, Scriptum scooped another stationery award for ‘Best Independent Shop’ in the south, in part due to its charitable donations. Azeem, who openly talks about his depression, designed a journal for sufferers of Mental Health. ‘The Good Place’ is a pocket-sized journal that is designed for the writer to jot down positive thoughts that happen throughout each day.
“I sometimes find myself dwelling on the negative thoughts of the day, so I kept a journal, onto the front of which I had ‘The Good Place’ embossed. It really worked well for me, and that’s how this product came to life. We donate £3 to Oxfordshire Mind for each one we sell, and so far we have donated £1200 as a result”.
Scriptum has also started a weekly letter-writing meet-up to raise money for Oxfordshire Mind. The business provides stationery, tea and coffee, and a quiet space for people to write letters without any distractions. Azeem hosts the meet-up on his day off, and has found it to be therapeutic himself.
“We’re already thinking of new ideas to raise money for mental health sufferers,” he says.
With fewer customers visiting the shop, Scriptum has adapted its business by making the visitor experience more interactive. A corner of the shop upstairs has been dedicated to allow customers to use a typewriter and have their letter or poem wax sealed on the premises. Small glass bottles with pipettes are lined in a bijouterie for customers to make their own personalised ink colours. The bottles are found decorated with beautiful Italian labels for customers to hand-write the name they have chosen for their inks.
The personalised products offered in Scriptum are endless. Customers can design their own Ex Libris rubber stamp, wax seal or blind-embossing machine, have their family crest discreetly watermarked onto paper, which is handmade in Europe’s oldest surviving paper mill, or emboss their Oxford college crest or their name onto a leather-bound journal, or any other leather products they sell. They can even make their own personalised paperweight or even have their silhouette cut and framed. You name it, and at Scriptum, you can probably do it.
So, what are Scriptum’s most popular services? Wedding stationery and personalised writing paper, for starters. The 25 years of combined experience that Azeem and Holly have had in organising wedding stationery to suit any bride and groom’s needs have gained them a glowing reputation – not just within Oxford, but across the country, too. In fact, the shop now attracts the majority of wedding stationery customers from London thanks to positive word-of-mouth reviews.
“We are sensitive towards the cost of weddings, so we always work within the customer’s budget while offering a stylish result”, Azeem explains.
But of course, it’s the plethora of writing instruments found in Scriptum that attracts browsing customers into the store each day, with a vast range that includes everything from dip pens, quills and rastrum pens to reed pens and also a profusion of fountain pens – including an award-winning platinum nib fountain pen made out of lava from Mount Etna in Sicily.
Every single item in Scriptum is thoughtfully placed. The fountain pens share a cabinet with a collection of antique Swiss Carvings of bears and owls. A cabinet of Venetian masks is directly in view from the entrance. Walls of writing paper and journals are a backdrop amongst the antique inkwells and desk accessories. Life-size busts of Zeus and Lucius Verus sit amongst hand-made paper from Amalfi, and smaller busts of Raphael Monti’s Veiled Lady, Brutus and Beethoven can be found behind the candelabra.
While there’s no denying that Scriptum offers an unrivalled range of luxury stationery, it’s the knowledgeable staff that really make this place feel special. Whatever it is you want to know about an item they carry, they’ll be able to tell you – offering insight, expertise and impeccable customer service that are all second to none.
While many might consider letter writing to be a dying tradition, Azeem assures us that this is far from the case. In fact, all of his staff lead by example and write letters regularly, and consistently encourage others to do so.
“There’s never been a more important time to write letters to family and friends, and we are now selling handmade paper by the sheet so that everyone can enjoy the true art of letter writing”, he says.
One thing is for certain; in a time when we crave connection more than ever, there are few things quite as touching as receiving a personalised, hand-written letter from someone to show they care – it’s a certain way to make someone’s day. And in 2020, despite modern trends towards digital communication, it’s experiencing a renaissance for all the right reasons.
Address: 3 Turl St, Oxford OX1 3DQ
Phone: 01865 200042