Bookshops in London
As every seasoned traveller knows, it is quite literally impossible to go on holiday without forgetting to pack something. I’ve forgotten everything from toothbrushes to suncream, headphones to sunnies. I once forgot to pack any underwear at all for a two week trip. My dad forgets his passport so often they’re basically on first name terms at the customs office. But the real annoyance is forgetting to bring your book - the book you’ve been looking forward to reading for so long; the book recommended by dozens of friends; the book that for some reason cost you £20 even though it’s literally just pulped wood and ink. Well, if this is you right now, fear not! London is replete with excellent first- and second-hand bookshops where you can stock up on your Dickens and Christie without breaking the bank.
Hatchards has a claim on the title of oldest continuously open bookshop in London, starting business in 1797 and retaining the same premises on Piccadilly since 1801. A venerable institution indeed, with its three Royal Warrants, litany of high profile authors and rare first editions. This is a great place to browse and feel at home in a traditional (some might say old-fashioned) literary atmosphere.
Skoob (read it backwards) is a student favourite in the university area of London, Bloomsbury. It’s a cavernous place situated under the Brunswick Centre, a large modernist shopping block on Marchmont Street. Principally selling second-hand books, their vast fiction section is a sight to behold and the value is very good indeed. The shop itself is a quiet relaxing place, but if you want to get stuck in to your recent purchase straight away, take a few steps outside of the shop and you could find yourself in one of Bloomsbury’s pretty garden squares, perfect for a coffee and a story.
Some readers may recognise the name of this venerable old institution of the London literary scene from the ubiquitous tote bags one sees on the shoulders of hip young things all over town. But there’s a reason that people are proud to don their Daunt swag bag. The original shop in Marylebone is an Edwardian palace of second-hand travel literature. Hours slip away as you weigh up the relative merits of Burma and Bangor among the oak-panelled walls and towering balconies, and by the time you walk out the door you’ll feel almost jet lagged with all your mental voyaging. Lovely.
Broadway bookshop, on Broadway Market (obv), is a friendly, well-stocked affair nestled among pubs and produce shops in East London’s Hackney. Here, you’ll find helpful staff who can direct you around the maze-like shop floor to your desired section, which will always be full of both the classics and great recent additions to the genre. I like this place because the employees always have informed recommendations if you tell them what you’re after. And, on leaving, you can pop out to the fish and chip shop next door to mull over your Proust with a battered sausage. Just make sure you don’t accidentally go to the posh arts magazine shop up the road or you’ll barely have money for bus fare, let alone books.
Foyle’s is another of the Big Daddies of the city’s bookshops. Their flagship Charing Cross branch - the one really worth going to - is set over four floors with six-and-a-half kilometres of shelf space. The biggest bookshop to open in London this century also boasts a delightful cafe on the top floor with a wee roof garden and sections devoted to stationery, music and gifts as well. If you have no idea what you’re looking for, if you’re as open to a cooking book as a Tagalog thesaurus, then Foyle’s is probably the best bet. They have it all.
Roughly halfway up Charing Cross Road, just to the north of Leicester Square tube station, there are three well-renowned bookshops almost next door to one another. Quinto, Henry Porde and Any Amount of Books are all that remain of the famous Charing Cross bookshop district, but each of them is an Aladdin’s cave of delights, full of unseen cellars and doors leading to hidden rooms. They are all second-hand bookshops but they also sell rare first editions and signed copies, so expect a mixed crowd. It’s good fun to walk slowly up the street dipping in and out of each one, perusing the sale boxes on the street and talking to the merchants. And if you’re looking for something a little more specialist, pop round into Cecil Court and explore the music, map and magic bookshops along the arcade there.
Oxfam is a charity which raises money for poverty-stricken communities in the global South. One of the ways that they collect money is through their network of charity shops, selling clothes, books, music and jewellery. The bookshops are a great resource for editions old and new, and there are several in London worth a look. But the best, in my experience, is on Bloomsbury Street. Here you can find a great selection of art books, novels and foreign-language literature in a cosy, well-organised location not a minute from the British Museum. It’s great value and you can justify leaving with a bagful of tomes, knowing that the money is going to a good cause.