On London Bookshops



Mooching early through central London in the rain turns up several unwelcome surprises; the number of rough sleepers (they can’t sleep in Chinatown, where Westminster has allowed massive homeless spikes), the sheer volume of care-in-the-community babblers about, and the roads/buildings being demolished on such a vast scale that Soho has effectively been wiped off the map. Not very long ago each of its streets had a specific identity; artists, film, the rag trade, music and so on – all gone.

But there are plusses. There are far more bookshops left than one can ever visit in a day, with bargains to be found. The new collectors are Chinese buyers paying high prices. At the lower end, Charing Cross Road is not entirely devoid of bookshops by any means, although the legendary 84 Charing Cross Road is now a McDonalds, with its delivery bay used by drug dealers. McDonalds in general is synonymous with drugs, fights, drunks and litter, but is not curbed. In King’s Cross yesterday morning we were stepping over pools of blood outside London’s worst outlet. Why would anyone grant a 24-hour licence to a junk-food shop on one of the city’s busiest corners?

So I turn back to bookshops for solace; in the Wellcome and the British Library, smallish but well-stocked, the ones in Cecil Court, forever placing Harry Potter books in their windows to lure in tourists, the London Review Bookshop, with its home counties-ish cafe attached, Word on Water, the floating bookshop, and Skoob, with its cavernous stock of secondhand books, the antiquarian and remainder departments of Foyles, where bargains are to be found but few ever venture, the mad mix of the book market under Waterloo Bridge, the small but perfectly formed Libreria in Hanbury Street, the Riverside Bookshop at London Bridge, Artwords at Hackney and Shoreditch, the leather bound volumes of Camden Lock Books at Old Street Roundabout, the delightful Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street.

For me bookshops remain a mark of civilisation, calm places in a mad world. I miss Fantasy Inn and the small specialist bookshops where you could sit on the floor and read unnoticed. For Samuel Pepys books were one of the saddest losses from the Great Fire. Here he is with the bookseller of St Fayth’s Church;

‘He do believe there is above 150,000 l. of books burned; all the great booksellers almost undone; not only these but their warehouses at their Hall and under Christ-Church, all being burned. A great want thereof there will be of books, especially Latin books and foreign books; and among other, the Polyglottes and new Bible, which he believes will be presently worth 40 l. a piece.’

So the fire forced up the price of books by their scarcity – and I wonder if perhaps those Chinese collectors know something we don’t…


32 comments on “On London Bookshops”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street is a personal favourite

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    And not forgetting John Sandoe Books – a parallel universe where the staff appear to have read every book they have in stock. And by just looking at you, seem to know every book you have read, and what you need next!

  3. davem says:

    I agree with the above post, I always enjoy going to Daunt Books when I am in the area.

  4. davem says:

    I should also add the Cartoon Museum which has a great selection of books which stimulate my interest.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Judd books in Marchmont is good, but I hardly go there now as I can’t stand the owner. And nearby Skoob books-run by pleasant people.

    Take a trip to Rochester, and there is a huge one in the main street-allegedly the biggest in Britain, (or England.)

    And next time you go to re-live “Brief Encounter” in Carnforth, go to the huge and very good one near the station. Notice I don’t say “train Station” yuk!

  6. admin says:

    Everybody hates the man who runs Judd Books. Sandoe is superb, worth the trek. I once read in a place in Rochester called The Hobbit or something like it, a genuinely bizarre experience.

  7. Brooke Lynne says:

    Thank you for the recommendations.
    Apropos of nothing except the decline of civilization, The New Yorker posted a video yesterday demonstrating how one of their editors would review Trump’s speech on Black History Month. Mr. Fowler has expressed admiration for the meticulous New Yorker style of editing. Enjoy! http://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/classic-rom-coms-rewritten-for-trumps-america.

  8. Tim Bryars says:

    I think you must be thinking of Baggins in Rochester, but near enough! I agree that bookshops are one of the marks of civilisation in a mad world, which I why I still have one despite the best efforts of successive governments – which are doing their level best to drive out the few remaining independent shops which don’t sell coffee. We’ll see what happens on March 8. Mind you, I’m always intrigued when I read other people’s impressions of how we make a living. Our shop is on Cecil Court, and only a couple of my neighbours routinely stock Harry Potter. One sells modern first editions and the other specialises in rare children’s and illustrated books, so it’s fair enough really. I wouldn’t have said tourists have much to do with actual turnover either. It’s a picturesque street and we’re all over Instagram, but most of our customers are living and working here in London, or at least come regularly on business. Of course, that means that they have come from or have ties with every part of the world, but they do tend to become Cecil Court regulars! I wouldn’t say that the market is driven by a particular ethnic group, but at this moment in time I’d say that the Chinese market is still more interested in recovering material of Asian origin (jade, porcelain etc) but we do see a lot of customers with roots in the Subcontinent or Indian diaspora, who have wide ranging literary and collecting interests. As long as more bookshops remain in London than one can visit in a day, I’ll be happy…

  9. Brian Evans says:

    For those not living in London, I should have said Marchmont St, Bloomsbury.

  10. agatha hamilton says:

    Another word of praise here for John Sandoe. Love it.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, Brian, anyone visiting here from abroad knows that Marchmont is Marchmont St. in Bloomsbury. I wonder how many shop owners are aware that their unpleasantness drives away business not matter how wonderful their wares. We had a little tea shop that served wonderful scones and was run by an eccentric lady who knew all her customers and welcomed them every time they came in. There was a constant stream of people. She sold it (to retire pleasantly, I hope) and the man who bought it was always glum and harsh. No more lines there.

  12. Roger says:

    “For those not living in London, I should have said Marchmont St, Bloomsbury.”
    It began in Judd Street, They changed the site but not the shop’s name. I rather like the owner. His motto, I suspect, is “If I’m going to be miserable I’m going to be bloody miserable.” There’s something magnificent and heroic about misanthropy on that scale, especially in someone whose job description ought to include bonhomie.
    .There’s an interesting and eccentric shop in a ex-railway station in Osterley and Walden Books just north of Camden Town has an interesting selection.

  13. Vivienne says:

    I thought the shop in Alnwick was the biggest (where the Keep Calm and Carry On was first unearthed), but I passed the shop in Rochester only the other day. It was fairly late in the evening so closed, or I would have visited.
    Walked into Daunt Books in Marylebone once and heard a voice I recognised: it was Anne Widdicombe signing her latest – I fled.

  14. SteveB says:

    Talking of bookshops and Soho, anyone remember “Dark they were and golden eyed” ? Was in St Annes Court.

  15. As nobody has boosted Heywood Hill on Curzon Street I will. There is an excellent barber next door.

  16. Donna Poppy says:

    Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester – huge but a long snoop round can produce glorious finds.

  17. David Birkett says:

    The Newham Bookshop is a model of community bookselling. Its owner and staff are passionate, knowledgeable and friendly, and the stock is always interesting. Proceed to the old West Ham United ground and turn the corner. Also, Housmans, near Kings Cross, for radical books and Waterstones Piccadilly for sheer size and beauty and intelligence of display.

  18. admin says:

    Before ‘Dark They Were & Golden-Eyed’ was in St Anne’s Court it was in Berwick Street, and run by SF author Stan Nichols (and his mum!)

  19. Brian Evans says:

    Helen, I’m sure you are right about people abroad knowing where Marchmont Street is. I was thinking more of we uneducated Brits.

    Vivienne, I’d forgotten about the one in Alnwick. I went there last year and it was fantastic, and very busy with queues at the checkouts. My mention of the one in Rochester claiming to be the biggest was based on me hearing it some years ago. I’m sure Alnwick must be the biggest one now. Though it loses 50 points if it invented the supremely irritating “Keep Calm and Carry On”

    Roger, it’s not that I find the bloke in Judd books miserable, I find him smarmy and he appears to have had a charm by-pass. The occasional assistant he has on the desk is usually just as bad.

    Tim Bryers-Cecil Court used to be a haven for people with specialised interests, as you know. There used to be a gay bookshop, but the bloke who owned it gave up the ghost as he was continually being raided by the police, (yes, this used to happen in Britain years ago) and more the once he arrived to find his window smashed in. And there was a very good model railway shop who’s prices were no higher despite being in the West End, and a excellent transport book shop, though the latter may still be there.When I’m next in town, I’ll stick my head round the door of your place-it sounds interesting. Oh, and there used to be a theatre memorabilia shop. I used to work in Leicester Square so used to hang around Cecil court a lot.

  20. SteveB says:

    That’s so cool that Admin remembers that! I did remember that it had moved from somewhere else, but not from where. Didnt know it was run by Stan Nichols. Back when I was still at school, there was a monthly meeting of sf fans at a pub called the One Tun, near Leicester Square, which could be quite jolly. I used to love the Dumarest series by Ted Tubb, and he was often there. There was a signing book with Arthur Clarke’sname in it and many others – apparently Tales from the White Hart was based on the One Tun’s predecessor.

  21. Tim Bryars says:

    Thanks Brian, drop in when you’re passing and say hello. There’s often a bottle of something open at the end of the day. The shops on Cecil Court are mostly pretty specialist (we’re too small to be anything else). Maybe sometimes a bit too niche, although I was sorry when we lost our specialist in poker and gambling… Our shop’s best known for maps, printed at any point over the last 500 years, although I’ve been doing a lot on 20th century material in conjunction with the British Library recently. Then again, we also have several shelves of 16th and 17th century editions of the Greek and Latin classics, and plenty of other things besides. The theatre bookshop you mention must be David Drummond’s. He retired after 50 years in the Court but his son still runs it; although his focus is more on counter culture I bought some interesting early 19th century playbills from him the other day. I’m sure you’ll still find plenty to interest you.

  22. RoyE says:

    Am surprised no one has mentioned Quintos. Motorbooks was the transport bookshop but it has been gone for two or three years now. I remember Dark They Were and Golden Eyed and a nearby record shop specialising in heavy metal rock n roll – the name of which escapes me. I have to admit that the internet is where I buy most of my books now as I no longer live in London – the postman has nicknamed our address the Library – but I do on occassion visit the old haunts…..

  23. Roger says:

    Forgot to ask: where are the antiquarian and remainder departments of Foyles, admin? There’s a small stock of first editions from the vanished and lamented Unsworth’s behind the literature counter, but that’s the lot in Foyle’s, as far as I know. Were you thinking of Waterstone’s University Bookshop, perhaps? The antiquarian and remainder departments are steadily getting smaller and less interesting, but they are worth looking at still.

  24. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks Tim, I been down next in a couple of months.

  25. Vivienne says:

    Brian, I know ho you feel about Keep C etc but they didn’t invent it, just unearthed authentic posters, not used as we weren’t invaded.

  26. chazza says:

    I thought “Dark they were and golden eyed” was owned/run by Derek Stokes and his delightfully vulgar and mouthy girl friend in Berwick Street late transferred from Bedfordbury off St Martins Lane? And who can forget the unique Fantasy Centre with Ted Ball and Dave Gibson?

  27. John Morgan says:

    To those for whom size matters:
    Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester, Kent, claims to be England’s largest second hand bookshop. Small at the front (a single Georgian shop-front in Rochester High Street) it has a large and less visually attractive two-storey extension at the back through to Corporation Street, visible from trains entering the city from London.
    Barter Books in the old railway station at Alnwick, Northumberland, claims to be “One of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain” (being in the contested borderlands, they understand the difference between England and Britain).
    The Bookstore at Brierlow Bar outside Buxton, Derbyshire, claims to be one of the country’s largest independent bookshops. Note: Independent, not secondhand, when making comparisons.

    Of the three, I have only visited Barter and find it hard to believe that Baggins is larger, even with its rear extension.

  28. Martin'O'London says:

    Sadly Waterstone’s University Bookshop – or Dillons, as I still think of it – have closed their second-hand section. And their cafe has taken over even more of the retail areas.

    There’s that other bookshop over in Leigh Street (Collinge & Clark; used for the external shots of ‘Black Books’), but the prices have always scared me away. That, and it always appears closed.

  29. John Griffin says:

    Brierlow Bar is extensive, boasts some occasional finds, good children’s section and good prices. And it sells bird food. And coffee and chocolate.
    I find the science and history bits to be good and there is an excellent popular music book section.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    I went to the Atlantic Monthly site and enjoyed wording the edit along with him. It’s too bad the result wasn’t read out because it seemed quite rational (except for that last para.)

  31. Helen Martin says:

    (Sorry, that’s working the edit)

  32. Chris Webb says:

    Several Daunt fans already; I like the one on Fulham Rd.

    At one time there were a lot of popup shops selling remaindered books, and I often bought quite expensive books for a few quid each. The only one like it I can think of these days is near Notting Hill Station. Which reminds me: the Cookery Book Shop off Portobello Road is worth a visit (if you’re into cooking, obviously).

    Bit of a moan: why does the Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road still look half finished after being open for months? Bare concrete blocks and ramshackle shelves are not a good look.

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