The Oxford Blue presents Around Oxford, a new series dedicated to exploring independent businesses and enterprises connected with the Oxford area. Our first article takes us to Scriptum, in Turl Street, a fine stationery shop founded by Mr Azeem Zakria.
During the coronavirus lockdown of 2020, while many smaller businesses were downsizing, reducing their range of services, or sadly falling into foreclosure, Scriptum, the small, often-beloved stationery shop in Turl Street, seemed to be booming. In August 2020, they opened a second shop, adjoining their current premises, more than doubling the total floorspace available for stocking its collection of fine stationery, leather goods, soaps, candles, and other accoutrements. The expansion of the premises, rented from Lincoln College, was a response to pandemic necessities. The current Scriptum site is comparatively small: some might say ‘poky’; others might say ‘intimate’. Substantively, it is not big enough for much social distancing to take place, hence the move. The expansion of the premises presented a range of difficulties, but it is interesting that owner Azeem Zakria saw the biggest and most important challenge of expansion as being the replication of the original shop’s aura.
When one visits Scriptum – now as then – one is struck by the completeness of the sensory experience. There are so many beautiful things to look at, yes – but the experience engages all of the senses. It is olfactory, because the air is perfumed with candles and spritzes of Santa Maria Novella soap and perfume. It is auditory, because there is always Italian opera in the air, commonly including pop opera, which, Azeem declares, everyone can relate to: “Even if you aren’t familiar with opera, you’ve probably heard Nessun dorma or something in a spaghetti advert.” The Scriptum experience is tactile, from the smooth surfaces of wooden globes to the soft, dappled leather of notebooks. Scriptum prizes and esteems the sensory. The staff know the importance of tiny and even invisible details. Recently, the shop has started selling a neat box of ‘Letter Writing Requisites’, consisting of papers and envelopes of different textures and thicknesses, which allows customers to try out different writing mediums to suit their needs before making a larger purchase, for special occasions such as weddings or anniversaries.
Tailored, carefully-chosen products are at the heart of Scriptum’s offering. The shop curates a wide range of fine stationery made by artisans around the world, but the staff also produce a remarkable number of their own products. Azeem started this trend soon after the shop opened in Oxford in 2003, making bookmarks with the aid of a laminating paper machine. Nowadays, he is particularly keen to allow staff members to take the creative reins, in line with his categorisation of himself as a colleague rather than a boss. A number of items stocked in the shop are either produced by the staff or are part of a collection of products carefully curated by Azeem.
Scriptum takes as much care and pleasure in selling to customers as it does in buying and curation. The shop’s colleagues are extremely knowledgeable about all of their products, but Azeem stresses that this is not the most important quality he looks for in associates. For him, selling is about respect for the customer. Crucial to this is the belief that the customer looking to spend £5 on a bookmark or a postcard is just as important as the customer who wishes to spend £2,500 on one of the shop’s most premium fountain pens. Part of this philosophy is utilitarian – Azeem notes that the pen he uses for daily use is a simple £20 fountain pen, which certainly falls at the cheaper end of the shop’s collection. But Azeem’s approach to customer service is mostly driven by values he learned from his father, Syed Mohammad Zakria, who passed away earlier this year.
Azeem describes his father as a “charitable gentleman”, who frequently reminded his children to give money to charity. As the owner of a business which owes at least part of its success to the education and generosity of the people of Oxford, Azeem has redoubled Scriptum’s community efforts in recent years. Back in 2016, Azeem designed a ‘Good Place’ journal, in which readers are gently encouraged to write each day about one good thing that has happened to them. The journal is designed to snugly fit into a back pocket, and consists of sheets of plain paper so as to reduce the pressure of formality exerted by lines and guides. £3 from the sale price of each journal was donated to Oxfordshire Mind, with total charitable donations from the sale of products amounting to more than £1,200. Additionally, Azeem pioneered a new initiative, the Letter Writing Club, a weekly club encouraging young men to come together to write letters to friends and family, with the intent of setting their feelings down on paper. Azeem is eloquent about the value of handwritten letters, stating, “there are few things quite as touching as receiving a personalised, hand-written letter from someone to show they care.” He sees letter-writing both as a method of caring from afar, and as a tool for self-care.
Alongside more traditional charitable enterprises, Scriptum has also reconsidered its product offerings to suit the community. The shop now sells fine paper by the sheet, reacting to customer demand for materials to write a single letter, for example. Crucially, while Scriptum changed some of its product offerings as a consequence of the pandemic, it did not compromise on quality. Azeem explains that this, too, matches the desires of his customers: for example, in the pandemic year, “people bought fewer presents” at Christmas, but they “[didn’t] compromise on quality.” Indeed, compromises on quality would compromise Scriptum’s aspirations to sell products which always have a certain specialness and permanency. Azeem himself, tellingly, keeps every birthday card he’s sent. Purchases from Scriptum are intended as keepsakes, something I reflected on unconsciously myself when I bought a set of postcards at the end of my undergraduate degree and sent them on to my friends.
Azeem seems appreciative of this. He’s a wonderful advocate for the powers of communication and the written word. Indeed, the name of the shop, scriptum, refers to “the thing written”, from the Latin scrībō. What draws him to writing, it seems, and powers his work, is something almost philosophical. Writing is something which should be prized as a universal method of communication, especially valuable for its naturalness and to be prized for its imperfection. Azeem tells me a story to illustrate this, about the time when he, aged sixteen, bought his first leather-bound journal – and promptly made a terrible mess of writing on the first page, and an even more terrible mess of ripping it out. Now, thirty years later, he reflects that the memory of this imperfection is far more affecting and personal than whatever he was actually going to write.
Yes – you can rely on Scriptum for the finest stationery in Oxford, or anywhere in the region. You can enjoy the shop’s comfortable ambience, award-winning window displays, and cabinets of curiosities. You can rely on Azeem Zakria for his encyclopedic knowledge of artisan products. But to look at Scriptum as a luxury enterprise seems limiting. This is a shop run by people who are passionate about the universal powers of communication and education – as a means of self-care or care that can be palliative or restorative or loving.
This autumn, Scriptum is selling a new product: Zakria journal, named for Azeem’s father. The journal, designed in Emilia Romagna and blind-embossed with Islamic style-lettering, sells for £48. But for a little while at least, Azeem is trying a different approach, urging customers to pay what they can afford. In the end, money and prestige mean less to him, and to Scriptum, than community service and respect. The joy of it is enough: “I enjoy every second of my work.”
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