Words Kirk Truman
Portraits Astrid Schulz
“Soho is a place you can just be who you are, where the actual individual is of importance not the nonsense that is so much part of society…”
A Golden Retriever, a British Bulldog and two Chihuahuas wonder back and forth without a growl or a snigger, amid the lingering of absinth on in the air. Their tales brush the bookshelves where rare first editions of Winnie the Pooh and Trainspotting, along with much naughtier, less traditional paperbacks sit undisturbed, many of which are closely guarded behind panes of glass. Though, really, is this wonderful place a bookshop or a bar? The striking Babette Kulik tells me of her life in Soho and The Society Club: her distinctively elusive Bohemian bookshop/private members’ club.
Babette protests that she is something of a mongrel. She was born to a Spanish mother and a South-American father who originated from Uruguay, so seemingly to call her a mongrel is fitting. Having been born and raised in London, her first memories of Soho date back to when she was just six. “We used to go every week to Berwick Street market for fruit and vegetables, and then of course trips to the delicatessens in the area which used to be a lot more than now. Back in those days, Soho was the bastion of hard to get imported goods such as olive oil. The like was not available in the supermarkets, only in the high-end department stores like Fortnums and Harrods but, of course, Soho was a lot cheaper,” she explains of her childhood.
Though, as a youngster, Babette saw grocery shopping to be quite the bore. Looking back on it now she recalls the happy bustle of the Berwick Street Market, which at the time was on both sides of the street that has been narrowed down to a small stretch at the base of the road. “The gorgeous smells I remember particularly, they permeated the air as you passed the delicatessens and the coffee shops,” Babette reminisces. Babette has lived in Westminster all of her life, and Soho has been her home for the last 15 years. “Soho is a place where you can just be who you are, where the actual individual is of importance not the nonsense that is so much part of society.” Today she has come to see a change in the area. She feels that, where the creativity once oozed out from every crack on every pavement and every street, it has lessened so today. “Though don’t get me wrong, it is still here but not in such abundance. I remember how crossing Regent Street into Soho, and how instantly the air would change and crackle with just fabulousness,” she explains.
Most of all that intrigues me about Babette is The Society Club and its origin, and indeed its invention – how does one come to cross the concept of a bookshop and a private members club? Though perhaps not entirely the cause, the story of The Society Club began with the death of a close friend, Sebastian Horsley who died of an overdose. “With the death of Sebastian it somehow just made sense. I never set out to create anything intentionally, I just wanted to sell books and publish books,” Babette tells to me. The bookshop itself stocks an array of rare first editions, with a bar at its centre and a gallery in the basement. The bookshelves are made of explicit, often sexually charged books from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin, to Ken Loach Portraits of People in the Sexploitation Industry. “Essentially, the books we stock here are books that we like, though generally we do have a tendency to concentrate mainly on 20th century literature and some of the more cult classics,” I am told of the selection.
Babette is simply bleeding with character; an intriguing and familiar persona of the Soho neighbourhood. Her charm is uneasy to avoid; alluring and captivating, along with her wonderful array of dogs that walk in her shadow. Though, in contrast, Babette is beautiful and equally sharp, intelligent and wise. She is witty with a hint of mystery, with a seemingly black and white no-bullshit approach to every element of her life. Her taste for irony and wit is applied carefully to the year in which The Society Club were established; 1927, 1957 or 2011? “It’s for irony really, so sad that we thought it’d be funny at the time, it just sounds so much better than 2011 but I think the next date will be 1977, I liked that year,” She laughs.
The Society Club strikes me as a home for the Bohemian, a place where creatives thrive. “I hoped when starting out that it would be a home from home for artist writers and the like, thus Bohemian. There are so many stories from over the years and are usually about our incompetence.” Her stance confirming that this feeling is indeed not of coincidence. With her passion for Soho undying, Babette intends to live out her life here forevermore. Despite the various changes occurring in the Soho neighbourhood today; from the ever-shrinking Berwick Street Market, through to overdevelopment and the fall of Denmark Street, what feels to represent Soho still remains strong in her heart. With her array of dogs in tow, she intends for The Society Club to only grow stronger and stronger with time, and perhaps another dog or so.