A London Bookshop Cornucopia


Word On The Water

If there’s one thing I miss when abroad, it’s the quality of English bookshops. As someone who has not watched live television since Winston Churchill’s funeral it’s important to know these places are still around. I miss the bookshops of Charing Cross Rd, most of which have been replaced by cake shops , but there are still an absurd number of great bookshops in London. Best for me, in no particular order, are;

Foyles, still the king of egalitarian reading (now that Christina’s brown-bread, anyway). Let’s not remind ourselves of the bizarre ticket/pay/receipt system they used to run and be thankful for the airy, delightful new space it occupies on Charing Cross Road.

Goldsboro Books is tucked in Cecil Court and specialises in signed first editions. The shop stocks more than 5,000 titles, including many rare editions, and has a secondhand department. If, for example, you were foolish enough to want to buy a signed copy of the hardback of ‘Strange Tide’, they’d be the ones to stock it. They also have a great annual event where the public can meet authors called ‘Crime in the Court’.

John Sandoe, the eccentrically stocked Chelsea bookshop is on everyone’s top ten list because it’s impossible to leave without a book you hadn’t intended to buy – the stock is piled on staircases and hides marvels. I bought ‘Fairground Art of the Soviet Union’ there.

Word on the Water (above) – London’s floating bookshop at Kings Cross is serendipitous, eclectic, charming and rather Victorian – there’s even room for a lounge, but mind your head! On a sunny day they also play great music, and will be happy to chat to you about all things readable. I’ve never worked out why there’s a chair on a pole, though. Must ask them!

Speaking of Victorian, Jarndyce in Gt Russell Street specialises in 19th century books and is a wood-panelled step back in time, with helpful staff and a wonderful selection for the deeper-pocketed.

I want to be nice about Daunt Books in Marylebone because it’s such a beautiful shop, but their filing system is so wilfully eccentric (by country instead of category) that it’s quite hard to find something specific – luckily their staff are very helpful.

Hatchards of Piccadilly is the Queen’s bookshop, and definitely the poshest-feeling bookstore in London. No riff-raff here, please, but a great selection with many of the rarer traditional titles stocked.

Another secondhand store, Skoob, can be found at the back of Waitress in Bloomsbury. It’s subterranean and chaotic, with rather offhand staff, but you can often pick up reasonably priced paperbacks there.

Waterstones Bloomsbury is one of the best-stocked branches in the chain, partly I guess because it’s heavily frequented by students, so you can often find quite surprisingly academic volumes on the shelves.

The Big Green Bookshop in Brompton Park Rd is a great example of how to make a small neighbourhood bookshop a real community asset. It hosts all kinds of family-friendly events and actively encourages reading by making it a fun destination.

Many people don’t realise that the British Library has a bookshop you can walk into from the street. It has a good stock of reprints from its own stacks, and quite a few fun book-related gift items.

The Wellcome Bookshop on Euston Rd stocks books about the human body and mind, and has a great cafe. Just walk into the Wellcome Institute and turn right.

A lot of readers dismiss Forbidden Planet for stocking so many toys these days, but its basement is still packed with terrific genre fiction and its staff are simply brilliant. They also host signings every weekend.

The Cartoon Museum in Covent Garden has a good selection of books about graphic artists and comics, with the added benefit of rolling shows about the art of comics.

If you’re going travelling you need to visit Stanford’s in Long Acre, Covent Garden. This 1901 bookshop has a huge selection of local and global maps, plus travel writing and guidebooks.

But truthfully, this is just scratching the surface. From the independent bookshops of Bloomsbury like the long-established and surprisingly entertaining Gay’s The Word, to Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit St, which publishes and sells neglected 20th-century classics mostly by women, it’s best to draw a list up for a day’s shopping and plan your route. You’ll miss too many otherwise.


9 comments on “A London Bookshop Cornucopia”

  1. Jo W says:

    That waitress in Bloomsbury must have a bloomin big backside to hide a bookshop behind!! 😉

  2. Roger says:

    I liked Foyle’s much more in Christina’s reign. You could never find what you were looking for, but you often found what you’d never known you wanted. The ticket/pay/receipt system meant the exploited staff could surreptitiously increase their wages. Still, give it fifty years…
    A friend of mine earned a few bob when they cleared out the ancient academic stock at £1 a go: he bought as much as he could carry and took it to the University bookshop (still Dillon’s then, I think) and sold them for £4 or £5 each and then went back for more.
    The University Bookshop is much less interesting now. Second-hand books mixed with new and a much smaller remainders section, but just North of Gay’s The Word, Judd Books has an interesting US remainders section. Since Notting Hill books closed though, there doesn’t seem to be a good British remainder/review copies shop.

  3. admin says:

    I like the stock in Judd Books but the owner always seems such a miserable old sod I often go elsewhere.

  4. Jackie Hayles says:

    I love Cecil Court and Watkins has some really quirky books. I also like the fact that people can have spiritual readings of various kinds in the front window, and you can buy little statues, pieces of jewellery and unusual gifts. I would not want to have a reading in that window, all the same (or anywhere else).

  5. Vivienne says:

    Yes, have bought at many of those, but like the idea of the floating one. Still have a remainder type shop in Chiswick and have often found quirky stuff there fairly cheap. Visited Sanderstead station not long ago where there was a stock of paperbacks for 20p and an honesty box. I overpaid.

  6. Roger says:

    The owner of Judd Books is a Scotsman. Being a miserable old sod is a national obligation.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    I can’t stand the owner of Judd Books either. He puts me off going in.

  8. Davem says:

    I love Daunt Books …it really is a beautiful shop.

  9. Davem says:

    Should have added, the Cartoon Museum is one of my favourite places on London … wonderful exhibitions.

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