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The Complete Guide To London’s Best Bookshops

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THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO LONDON'S BEST BOOKSHOPS

WORDS BY KIT CALESS

London is a literary city. Books are its main storytelling medium, its mythology maker. From Daniel Defoe to Charles Dickens, Angela Carter to Zadie Smith, London’s representation is best in books. What’s more, in case you didn’t know, books are back. Physical book sales have been on the rise over the last few years. Novels are novel again. Lit is…lit.

Luckily for Londoners, the city is replete with hundreds of bookshops in which you can find these physical wonders of the world. Books are booming so much that there are even new bookshops opening (shout out Ink84 and Burley Fisher). Sure, Amazon can recommend something to you if you like, but in London we like walking around the city, popping into bookshops and browsing. We chose our favourite bookshops to visit in the capital, some well-known, some hidden gems, but all glorious.

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CURATION PERFECTION – LRB

London Review Bookshop is the place to go to if you don’t know what book you want until you see it. The staff at LRB are incredible – they’ve read more than you ever will, but they make you feel like you are discovering the books at the same time they are. Enthusiastic, informed and consistently funny, LRB staff are the reason to visit the shop, and their recommendations are hands down the best in the city. You’ll come out feeling like you’ve made a friend, bought a book that will change your life, and found a second home.

The shop emerged from one of the UK’s most prestigious and influential cultural journals. It also has lovely side café in which you can sit and read the London Review of Books for free. Events at the bookshop are excellent but often fully booked in advance, so check their website for listings.

London Review Bookshop, 14-16 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, London WC1A 2JL. Phone: 020 7269 9030

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LOCAL HEROES – BURLEY FISHER BOOKS

This is biased, but Burley Fisher are up there with the best in the business. It’s biased because I live very close to Burley Fisher. It’s biased because I have run events and publishing parties at Burley Fisher. It’s biased because Sam Fisher at Burley Fisher likes a pint. Sometimes likes a pint with me. Sometimes likes more than one pint with me. But that doesn’t detract from the facts. The facts are as follows:

Fact One: Great book selection

Fact Two: Great booksellers, happy to chat and advise, or leave you alone if you prefer

Fact Three: Brilliant literary events, often free or very cheap to attend

Fact Four: They’ve only been open for a year, and they are smashing it

Fact Five: Great basement, if you’re into basements

Fact Six: Also do coffee

Fact Seven: Very close to the Fox pub which has excellent beer and sofas for reading on

Burley Fisher Books, 400 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AA. Phone: 020 7249 2263

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MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF BOOKS – FOYLES

Foyles. Fabulous Foyles. Boss of Bookshops. Legends in Literature. A visit to Foyles is a must-do for any book lover in London. The old Foyles shop housed a rampant, ridiculous gallimaufry of books that had its own charm, but their new flagship store (opened just down the road from the previous site) is a magnificent, highly organised beast. Foyles is the place if you can’t find a book in any other bookstore. Foyles is the place if you want to keep on top of the latest trends in literature. Foyles is the place to find gifts, recommendations, books you thought were just figments of your imagination.

Foyles also has a brilliant café up on the fourth floor and an excellent space, Ray’s Jazz and Classical Store, where you can buy records or sheet music and listen to live bands. Foyles is all things to all people. King of bound, ink printed paper, long may it reign over London.

Foyles Bookstores, multiple locations across London.

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RADICAL BOOKS – HOUSMANS & 56A INFOSHOP & BOOKMARKS

Every self-respecting city has a radical bookshop, and London’s got more than its fair share. “Radical”, of course, is subjective. A bookshop like the marvellous Gay’s The Word could be considered radical, but for simplification, I’m sticking to a kind of lefty radicalism. Of course, “radical” doesn’t mean that traditional books aren’t sold at the shops either, just that there will be books at the radical end of politics and culture that you won’t normally find in a branch of Waterstones. I’ve written about my love affair with peace-loving Housmans Bookshop for The City Story before. Housmans is simply one of the greatest bookshops in the world that everyone should visit.

56a Infoshop is a social centre in Elephant and Castle that is entirely volunteer-led, completely unfunded, and utterly DIY. The fact that it’s been going so long is a testament to London’s radical resilience. Visit Infoshop for all the zines you could ever want, meeting people and hanging out (tea and coffee are free for anyone), and to find amazing books. Other than the Wetherspoons or the bowling alley, 56a Infoshop is the reason to head to the Elephant.

Bookmarks is the largest socialist bookshop in Europe. No bones about it, they are committed to the revolution. They cover politics, economics, trade unionism, labour history, the environment, black struggle, feminism, and loads more. On top of that, they also publish their own books addressing these topics.

Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, London N1 9DY. Phone: 020 7837 4473

56a Infoshop, 56a Crampton Street, London SE17.

Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3QE. Phone: 020 7637 1848

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JUMBLED MADNESS – JUDD BOOKS

Judd Books is a higgledy-piggledy, magnificent mess of a place. When you walk into Judd Books, you are almost assaulted by literature – books falling off shelves, books in piles at your feet, books holding the door open, books blocking the stairwell. It’s a cornucopia of literature, a mad tea party of writing. Judd has so many books that there are ladders in the shop to help you get to the top shelves that border the high ceiling. It’s like the library in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, only better and in London and not owned by some noble aristocrat who once insulted a witch for being ugly.

At Judd, you’ll find some of the best philosophy, sociology, economics, and history books available in the Big Smoke. Being situated in Bloomsbury and a stone’s throw from University College London, there are hundreds and thousands of second-hand and used academic books inside. Go to Judd on an empty prose stomach and feast.

Judd Books, 82 Marchmont Street, Saint Pancras, London WC1N 1AG. Phone: 020 7387 5333

jarndyce london best bookshops

ANTIQUITY AND RARES – JARNDYCE

Jarndyce is right opposite the British Museum. So next time you’re down there to look at the stolen relics from the age of Empire, sack off the BM and head across the road. Walking into Jarndyce is like walking into the past anyway, so you’ll get your history fix immediately. It’s beautifully lit with wooden interiors that’ll make you want to take all the books down from its shelves, dust off the dust jackets, and travel back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The building has been a bookshop since at least 1890, and Jarndyce has been occupier since 1969. Rumour has it, the building is haunted, but the booksellers assure you it is a benevolent ghost.

Over the years Jarndyce have published over 200 catalogues, and believe you me, there are some books in their store you never knew existed.

Jarndyce Booksellers, 46 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3PA. Phone: 0 20 7631 4220

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BEAUTIFUL TO BROWSE – DAUNT MARYLEBONE

Daunt, in Marylebone, is a simply gorgeous bookshop that makes you feel like reading as soon as you enter. It was built in 1910 specifically as a bookshop and retains its Edwardian charm. The centrepiece of the bookshop is a long, main room that feels like a gallery – with a stunning window at the back that is partly stained glass. There is a balcony running above this main room, from which you can view the shop below. It feels like a religious chapel, with books as the icon to worship. Daunt’s book selection is excellent, and they pride themselves on arranging books by country, rather than genre. Visiting Daunt is a fascinating, deeply rewarding experience.

Daunt Books, 84 Marylebone High Street, Marylebone, London W1U 4QW. Phone: 020 7224 2295

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SO FRIENDLY YOU WANT TO LIVE THERE – BIG GREEN BOOKSHOP

Look, they’re famous now, okay. The secret is out. The Big Green Bookshop is wonderful. The Big Green Bookshop is a small little place in Wood Green that has excellent contemporary fiction, great children’s books, and an eye for the independently published future classics. Walking in, you are greeted like a long lost friend and regaled with tales of the day, books of the week, or just booksellers Simon or Tim’s current personal musings. They do an excellent mail order service too.

But let’s not beat about the Big Green Bush. Something magical happened earlier in 2017, which put BGB on the map. Over a series of weeks, the Big Green Bookshop tweeted Piers Morgan every single word, in order, from Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone after Morgan claimed never to have read a word JK Rowling had written. A feat of severe endurance, but one of the noblest endeavours a bookshop has ever undertaken.

Big Green Bookshop, 1 Brampton Park Road, Wood Green, London N22 6BG. Phone: 020 8881 6767

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BLACK BOOKS – NEW BEACON BOOKSHOP

A London without New Beacon Bookshop is a London not worth living in. Which is why, in early 2017 a GoFundMe campaign established by the shop to ensure its survival as a business, smashed its target of £10,000 within 20 days. The people of London want New Beacon to continue, and so it shall be. If you live in this city, then New Beacon has to be on your map.

New Beacon was set up in 1966 by the late poet and publisher John La Rose and his partner, Sarah White. They specialise in Caribbean, Black British, African, and African-American authors but, like so many other specialist bookshops, they also publish books. New Beacon’s arresting new paint job (following the successful funding bid) helps the bookshop stand out on Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park. Inside it is packed with fascinating books, from classics like WEB DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk and CLR James’ Black Jacobins to contemporary work from the likes of Irenosen Okojie, Robyn Travis, and Reni Eddo-Lodge. The children’s section is a treasure trove of books for young people of colour, providing stories and illustrations that reflect their own heritage, something mainstream bookshops often fail to do.

New Beacon Bookshop, 76 Stroud Green Road, Stroud Green, London N4 3EN. Phone: 020 7272 4889

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MAKING YOU FEEL CLEVER – LIBRERIA BOOKSHOP

You can’t deny that bookshops make you feel smart. Walk into a good bookshop and you start to tingle with intelligent potential. All these books that could teach you something. All this knowledge, storytelling, language. It’s only after you walk out with a copy of Derrida’s Of Grammatology that you start to read on the bus home do you realise that bookshops will always be cleverer than you.

One bookshop that exudes intellectual feeling is situated on the east side of London, down a Brick Lane side street. Libreria is a beautiful shop, lovingly curated with a calming yellow hued interior. Rather than genre, books at Libreria are organised in subject categories such as “Wanderlust”, “Enchantment for Disenchanted”, and “The City”. Their aim – which works – is to pull you away from the usual browsing experience and encourage interdisciplinary reading. So that means you could find a copy of JG Ballard’s Crash next to Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Now that’s smart thinking.

 Libreria Bookshop, 65 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JP.

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OLDEST IN THE SOUTH – KIRKDALE BOOKSHOP

Not every bookshop can be in a glamorous part of London like Bloomsbury or Marylebone. London is a vast, sprawling megalopolis which takes several hours to travel across no matter what mode of transport you take. So if you live in the deep south, you need a bookshop in the deep south. Step forward Sydenham’s Kirkdale Books.

Yes, Sydenham is a place. It’s near Crystal Palace. Don’t worry; it’s on the Overground.

Kirkdale says it is “probably the oldest independent bookshop in South East London”, a typically understated claim from a wonderful little local space. Spread over two floors, the range of new and second-hand books is impressive. The basement is a particular delight; just being in there makes you want to own every book ever written. I’ve been told the shop’s book club is superb and, judging by their monthly recommended reads, their eclectic taste is second to none. Add an excellent Twitter account to the mix and you’ve got one helluva local bookshop.

Kirkdale Bookshop, 272 Kirkdale, London SE26 4RS. Phone: 020 8778 4701

HONOURABLE MENTIONS
  • Al Saqi Books in Westbourne Grove – Arabic book specialist and publisher.
  • Pages of Hackney – local bookshop where staff member Jo Heygate was nominated as Bookseller of the Year in 2016.
  • Waterstones Gower Street and Waterstones Picadilly – the best Waterstones branches in the capital.
  • Skoob – excellent second-hand bookstore in Bloomsbury.
  • Review Bookshop – Peckham-based store run by novelist Evie Wyld.
  • Brick Lane Bookshop – great events, unrivalled London literature section.
  • Stoke Newington Bookshop – located in one of north London’s most literary districts, it has an excellent selection and comes into its own during Stoke Newington Literary Festival.
  • Belgravia Books – lovely little contemporary store near Victoria Station.
  • Tate Modern Bookshop – brilliantly curated, and you get to wander around the Tate before you browse.
  • Artwords, Shoreditch and Broadway Market – you could spend a day looking at the books at Artwords.
  • Banner Repeater – a print and books space in the oddest of places, Platform One of Hackney Downs station.

All photographs by Juhi Pande except Big Green Bookshop by Alan Stanton [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

 
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Find Books Across Diverse Genres At Pages Of Hackney

 

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FIND BOOKS ACROSS DIVERSE GENRES AT PAGES OF HACKNEY

Pages of Hackney is an independent bookshop and event space on Lower Clapton Road. In addition to stocking a wonderful collection of books, it’s a local community hub and cultural centre that hosts talks and discussions with speakers and authors.

Pages of Hackney, 70 Lower Clapton Road, Lower Clapton, London E5 0RN. Phone: 0 20 8525 1452

READ MARTIN DEAN'S STORY

Cosy, welcoming, and sporting a fetching bright blue paint job that gives it a village-bookshop feel, Pages of Hackney is an independent bookshop and event space on Lower Clapton Road. It’s one of several such bookshops that have opened in Hackney over the last decade, offering spaces to while away an hour, catch a screening or a book signing, and maybe even have a chat with the owner — a bit of old fashioned, hands-on book-related action.

While Pages of Hackney is a lovely place to buy books across diverse genrescontemporary and classic fiction, children's books,  politics, environment, art, second-hand books, feminism, psychology, cookery, and more — it’s also a local community hub where there’s always something going on. It’s grown into something of a cultural centre for Clapton since it was established in 2008, and regularly hosts animated talks and discussions with speakers and authors, and screens such delights as animated graphic novels. Sadly there aren’t a lot of places like this left in London; when one appears, it’s good to make the most of it. After all, being able to pop to the local bookshop and ask the author of the book you just read what they really meant is something to be relished! Oh and make sure you check out the collection of vintage vinyl on sale in the basement too.

Photograph courtesy Pages Of Hackney

 
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Any Amount Of Books Feels Like Wonderland

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ANY AMOUNT OF BOOKS FEELS LIKE WONDERLAND

Any Amount Of Books is a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. They sell rare books, first editions, and leather-bound sets across genres and have a collection of over 55,000 books.

Any Amount Of Books, 56 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0QA. Phone: 020 7836 3697

READ AVANI UDGAONKAR'S STORY

Every broken spine and well-worn edge of a used book tells its own tale. There is history in these books; their words are not the only story they tell. Holding a second-hand book feels gentle and comforting, akin to finding a trail in the woods and knowing you are not alone. Someone has walked this path before you.

What first attracted me to Any Amount Of Books were the bins filled with books on sale outside the store. Before I knew it, I had abandoned my friend and was trailing my fingers along the spines of the neatly ordered stacks. When I did finally look up, into the wide, windowed front filled with books, I knew this was someplace special.

Stepping into the store for the first time felt oddly like coming home. It’s the kind of place you walk into, get hit with the beloved scent of old books, and cannot help but smile. It has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves overflowing with beautifully kept tomes and cheerful, knowledgeable staff. There are a few people wandering up and down the store, and the division between the new and the regulars is apparent. The new talk in murmurs, as if afraid to break the intimate silence of the books around them. The regulars laugh together, occasionally calling out jokes to the owner who sits behind the desk.

There is history in these books; their words are not the only story they tell.

I immediately make my way over to their poetry section – as I always do in bookstores – which surprises me. Every bookstore has the standard collection of poetry: Yeats and Wordsworth and other canonical writers, all the same editions by the same publishers. But here, between these standard tomes, I find some of the most beautiful editions: a sturdy hardback by Sir John Suckling, a copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay, thin pamphlets and slim editions of poets I have never heard of. I’ve been collecting and reading poetry books for years and always look for volumes that are unusual or rare in some way, a task I have often found difficult. Here, it is as easy as breathing.

But I know I have found something truly special when, near the bottom of the bookshelf, tucked away into a corner, is an absolutely gorgeous little hardback edition of Thomas Hardy’s poetry in blue leather and silver lines. Though Hardy as a poet isn’t awfully rare, I cannot look away from this book. I flip it open and find that not only does it contain some of my favourite poems by him, the print is beautiful, as is the price – £3. I don’t let it go for the rest of the time I’m in the store. After having combed the poetry section, I turn my attention to the rest of the store that weaves through fiction, biographies and cookbooks alike. A locked cupboard near the billing desk contains rare and first editions that my hands itch to possess but cannot afford to. Below that are shelves of critical theory that the literature student in me both desires and dreads instantly. Every way I turn, a book catches my eye, and I’ve soon collected a stack of books I cannot live without. I make my way down to the maze-like basement and, in the low warm light with ceiling-high shelves lining my twisting path, feel like Alice, fallen down a rabbit hole into my own personal Wonderland.

I’m not sure how long I stay down there. For hours, I hunt through piles and shelves, finding myself captivated by different books in a way I haven’t been in a long time. I stay that way until finally, a hungry (and slightly exasperated) friend pulls me out, forces me to make my purchases, and literally drags me away.

 
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Peter Harrington Is A Wonderland Of First Edition Books

 

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PETER HARRINGTON IS A WONDERLAND OF FIRST EDITION BOOKS

Spread across four floors on Chelsea’s Fulham Road, Peter Harrington houses only first editions of books, rare signed copies, inscribed covers, printworks, maps, and artwork. Prices go up to thousands of pounds, but you can find a first edition for as little as £125. A second Peter Harrington store is located in Mayfair.

Peter Harrington, Chelsea: 100 Fulham Road, London SW3 6HS. Phone: 020 7591 0220. Mayfair: 43 Dover Street, London W1S 4FF. Phone: 020 3763 3220

READ RASHI WADHERA'S STORY

Peter Harrington began selling rare books and first editions from Chelsea Antiques Market in 1969. Nearly 30 years later, he moved to the current premises in Chelsea – four stories on Fulham Road where you can find more than 20,000 volumes of first editions of books and rare signed copies such as Shakespeare first folio (1623). Perusing the old, high ceiling racks of leather bound, perfectly worn out rows of books, I knew I was in wonderland.

Yellowed paper, frayed corners and heartwarming notes on the front pages of some of these books; you know the investment wouldn’t be for the story. The more pricey editions (some books are priced at thousands of pounds) are encased in glass shelves – for good reason – but you can score a first edition for as little as £125 if you spend some time looking. Given the magnitude of history and literature that surrounds you, spending some quality time hunting for that affordable investment is hardly an odious task.

Each book has a label inside that explains the origin, where it was sourced, and the retail price. If you prefer something to hang on your wall, Peter Harrington also retails prints, artwork and original first edition maps. If you’re lost or confused, you can approach the staff, who are well informed about the shop, book editions and origins.

If you’re already an old-book connoisseur, you can contact them if you want to have your edition valued and/or put up for sale, or are in the market for the first edition of your favourite childhood story.

Peter Harrington is a mecca for bibliophiles and history lovers. A word of warning – you may never want to leave.

 
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Analog And Intuition

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ANALOG AND INTUITION

WORDS BY DIVYA SEHGAL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

I have fond memories of the first bookstore I ever visited. Walden, in Hyderabad evokes images of my mum and dad walking me through the different aisles of children’s fiction, which eventually led to the “Pepsi and Popcorn” section for quick refreshment. At the time and for many years later, I thought it was perfectly normal that a bookstore sold fountain Pepsi and salted popcorn to six year olds who were in the habit of leafing through glossy abridged versions of children’s literature. Libreria Bookshop in Shoreditch would heavily object.

Perhaps you’ll find your next favourite read beside the book you were actually looking for. The experience of finding your book is meant to happen by intuition.

Libreria could easily become my second home. With its soft ambient light, snaky pathways leading to shelves of books and buried little nooks with yellow cushions for comfort reading, it almost makes me wonder if it’s the library room in a stately home. But this isn’t the only way Libreria differs from other bookstores. While the newest addition of Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road has a basement café for comfort reading and boozy events, Libreria doesn’t serve their customers lattes…or anything else. And while we’re on the subject of food and drink, let’s not forget the other suspects – mobile phones and Wi-Fi – which are neither allowed nor available in this glorious world of books. No sir, you may only click photos from the threshold of the store. Don’t think you can bring your fancy iPhone 6 plus and obsessively start Instagramming those photos of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

For those of you who welcome the fact that books at Libreria are being given the due respect they deserve, here’s another bit trivia about the bookstore that might interest you: the books aren’t divided by genres but by themes. The layout tells its own story. Books about “The sea and the sky” are followed closely by books about “The city”. If you’re looking for something on philosophy or the metaphysical, you might find it under “Enchantment for the disenchanted”. Perhaps you’ll find your next favourite read beside the book you were actually looking for. The experience of finding your book is meant to happen by intuition. Some may even call it magic.

It was an entirely new experience to me. I didn’t have a particular book I was looking for, but while I was browsing I happened to notice Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance in the same area as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. And while the books are organised alphabetically, you’ll still find one particular book in two (or more) sections, depending on which “themes” they fall under. I found J.G Ballard’s Crash twice – once next to Moby Dick and then next to a book by Margaret Atwood – all in the hope that readers will find books attuned to their tastes.

I’m always amazed at the idea of curation, whether it’s in an art gallery (why did the curator pick this painting over another by the same artist?) or the display of books in shops. From big names like Foyles and Waterstones to the smaller second-hand bookstores of Charing Cross Road, there’s always a rationale behind the window display and curation of books. Libreria’s suggested themes celebrate a novel (pun intended) method of curation. It’s immersive and other-worldly. And in the world of Amazon’s algorithmic suggestions, it’s infinitely real.

Libreria, 65 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JP

 
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Pen & Eliot: A Love Story

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PEN & ELIOT: A LOVE STORY

WORDS BY TOMOÉ HILL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

Like the best love stories, it almost didn’t happen. We were looking for a pub to sip quietly in while we read, not a bookshop. But biblophiles that we are, how could we resist that striped awning, the white-painted old building front, the open door with shelves of old Penguins just inside? Do we turn left or right? Right, because there was no other choice, really. Delightedly picking up book after book, marvelling at the age of them. Orange Penguins. Green Penguins. Blue Penguins. They must all represent something, but we weren’t sure what, except perhaps the green were mystery and thriller. But there were high shelves laden with more old treasure, so we tore ourselves away and wandered further in down the narrow aisles.

As any connoisseur of used bookshops knows, not all are created equal. There are expensive ones that deal in large precious volumes with matching prices tags; messy ones that look like treasure troves but really just hold excess stocks of bestsellers from recent years past; not-so-expensive but specialist ones that deal with art or theatre. And then there are the gems. The ones that seemed to have been filled with you in mind, your tastes exactly. The bookshop of the story is my gem, even though I have only been in it once so far. But that one time was enough to know that it is mine - so much so that it will remain a secret. Unless I like you, that is.

The delight of it is to be surprised. You never know what you want until it calls out from the shelf to you.

To someone who isn’t a bibilophile, used bookshops simply smell dusty, old and something else they can’t quite put their finger on, although they know that they don’t like it. But we know that the “something” is vanillin, the scent old pages give off due to the wood-based chemicals breaking down. It is intoxicating to us book-lovers and will draw us into these shops, keep us there for hours.

I never look for anything in particular when used book shopping. The delight of it is to be surprised. You never know what you want until it calls out from the shelf to you. That day there was an incomplete set of hardback Prousts in curling pastel paper covers. A de la Mare whose spine was breaking away so that the title didn’t read Peacock Pie but "Cock Pie". And then, the Eliot. T.S., of course. Poems 1909-1925, a slim old Faber volume in good repair. A name pencilled on the inside that I didn’t pay attention to, not as much as the date written below – 1935 – and this in the back: “I have seen them riding seaward on the waves … when the winds blow the water white and black”. Something about the romance of this called out to me. The book was taken from my hands and purchased as a gift for me, a romantic gesture of another sort — again, one only the bibliophile really understands.

I left it round the other’s house but then received a message the next week: he had picked it up and, out of interest, begun researching the signature. It was signed “Pen Tennyson”. There was a Frederick “Pen” Tennyson who was Lord Alfred’s great-grandson. According to that font of online knowledge, Wikipedia, he was a film director who once assisted Hitchcock on his earlier movies. He had met and married his wife Nova Pilbeam, the star of Hitchock’s Young and Innocent and the first The Man Who Knew Too Much during this time. As it happens, the date in the book was four years before they married. Why do I mention Nova? Tennyson died in 1941. Nova died in 2015 near Hampstead, where my bookshop is. Of course this is all romantic guesswork, but it is not so farfetched to think someone donated her books after her death to a nearby bookshop, or that the owner happened to buy the books in the house as part of a typical clearance. More importantly, that this could have been an early token of admiration to her from Pen, one she kept to the end of her life.

This is the chance beauty of the used bookshop: more likely than not what I now own is not just Eliot’s marvellous poems “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, but the start of a love story that was remembered and cherished beyond death.

Quinto Bookshop, 72 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB. Phone: 020 7379 7669

 
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Housmans Is One Of London’s Last Radical Bookshops

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HOUSMANS IS ONE OF LONDON'S LAST RADICAL BOOKSHOPS

Housmans Bookshop, one of London’s last radical bookshop, was established in 1945 in King’s Cross as a permanent space to promote peace, pacifism, and progressive ideas post WWII. A treasure trove of alternative publishing, it is the only place in London you may find anti-novels by Stewart Home, magazines like Strike!, Race and Class or Structo.

Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, London N1 9DY. Phone: 020 7837 4473

READ KIT CALESS'S STORY

It seems like many years ago when I lived in King’s Cross. That’s probably because it was. Fifteen, to be precise. King’s Cross had a reputation back then. Sex workers openly solicited on the street, the newspaper stand outside the crumbling station was a specialist in pornography, Tony Hemp Corner on Caledonian Road sold weed over the counter, cocaine was everywhere.

Back then, I was on Swinton Street, paying £50 a week for a room in a broken-down shared house. I can tell you many a hairy story from Swinton Street. The time someone broke down my back door with an axe. The time the house next door got raided and cops chased people through our garden. The time we climbed onto the roof and hopped across our neighbour’s houses. The time we had a house party that went on for three days. I loved King’s Cross for its wildness, its apparent lawlessness, its drugs and parties. It had a criminal underbelly, for sure, but with youthful bravado, I never felt concerned. But this isn’t about number 8 Swinton Street. This is about a bookshop.

Housmans Bookshop has been in King’s Cross since 1945 and is one of London’s last radical bookshops; a place of wonder and dissent that was founded by writer and playwright Laurence Housman. He suggested that the space should be a permanent space to promote ideas of peace, pacifism and progressive ideas after the Second World War was over. It remains a beacon for those who seek alternative political theories and ways of living, a space to host events for debate and readings, shelves stacked with knowledge. Browsing Housmans is not like browsing a normal bookshop. There are no cynical marketing ploys. The big celebrity autobiography doesn’t dominate the window. Books are everyone’s bag here, and no one wants the tote version.

housman's

Housmans is a treasure trove of alternative publishing. With over 200 periodical titles in stock, the variety of pamphlets, journals, magazines, newsletters and small publications is unrivalled anywhere in the country. It’s genuinely the only place you can find certain publications in London. They also stock an incredibly wide variety of nonfiction books, novels, short story collections and poetry. Housmans’ London section is remarkable – you’ll find the usual Iain Sinclairs that you find at Waterstones, but you’ll also discover books like East End Jewish Radicals, anti-novels by Stewart Home or forgotten classics like Wide Boys Never Work by Robert Westerby.

So far so good: brilliant bookshop, central London, interesting past, rare titles stocked. But I could be writing about any number of bookshops that fit that bill: Judd Books, Foyles, Bookmarks, Gay’s The Word, Hatchards, Al Saqi. However, Housmans means something more to me than most bookshops in this city. What marks Housmans out is the way they treated my independent publishing house, Influx Press, when we started. Influx is a small press I founded with Gary Budden in 2012, and we publish around five or six books a year. We have all the usual stuff – distributors, sales reps, an assistant, designers – at our disposal, but this wasn’t always the case.

Gary and I started Influx from nothing, with no knowledge of the book industry, no money, not a clue about how bookselling worked. When we published our first book, an anthology of writing set in Hackney called Acquired for Development By…, we had no distributor. I cycled around London with a big bag of books on my back, visiting bookshops and trying to convince them to take 10 copies on sale or return. Luckily, some independent bookshops did. Once the books were sold they would then pay the invoice and I’d ask if they wanted more. Housmans, on the other hand, paid up front.

What?

Yes, that’s right. They paid up front, before even selling the books. They loved the book and saw us on an equal footing as any other publisher, despite the fact that we were carrying stock around in a backpack. This sort of faith in our book, and who we were as people, is very rare in London.

housman's

Getting a cheque upfront did wonders to our cash flow, something anyone who is starting a business knows is the worst thing to manage. Not only did Housmans pay up front, they displayed the book in the window and near the till and in the legendary London section. It sold quickly, so they ordered some more and paid up front for them too. I can tell you this was one of the most encouraging things a young upstart publisher could have experienced – a long established bookshop deciding to back you at the very beginning gives you confidence to go into other, more intimidating bookshops.

The rest, of course, is history. Housmans didn’t single us out for special treatment. They are, after all, entrenched in equality and fairness, radical and progressive thought. I imagine many other small presses have had similar treatment. Magazines like Strike!, Gorse, Race and Class, Structo will undoubtedly sing the King’s Cross bookshop’s praises too.

The morning after a big party at Swinton Street some friends and I went to Housmans via Ray’s Jazz Shop and the caff on the corner of York road, both sadly closed now. Hungover, depleted of serotonin, we sat in the shop for hours on end reading periodicals and half forgotten books. Cups of tea were made and we talked in circles of democracy, freedom and dissent. King’s Cross has changed completely since I lived there, but Housmans has remained a delightful constant.

Photographs by Juhi Pande

 
second-hand-bookshops-london

Dog-Eared – From Mumbai To London

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DOG-EARED - FROM MUMBAI TO LONDON

WORDS BY DIVYA SEHGAL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL HICKIN

I read over 20 books last year, and I devoured more than half of those on the Kindle. I usually find a book recommendation on the internet, check to see if the book is available in London’s consortium of libraries, log onto Amazon to see if they have a paperback and eventually go back to my faithful e-reader, buying the book with a single touch. In completing the whole digital process, I’ve missed the trip to the local bookstore, looking at their “top ten books of the month” list and paying with actual paper money. But clearly not missed it enough, and convenience has always won.

My earliest memory of a second hand “bookshop” is of my maternal grandfather walking me down Perry Road in Bandra, Mumbai to a roadside stall of books where he used to buy me comics and abridged versions of children’s classics. It soon became a yearly ritual for us. Every summer, he’d take my brother for some chicken lollipops near the local park and me to this non-descript kabadiwala or junk dealer who used to sell tattered books donated by someone in the neighbourhood. I won’t go into the clichéd and hackneyed reasons for why every book lover is attracted to the old, yellowing pages of their favourite books.

Second hand bookstores have been a favourite since then, and I’ve found myself veering towards used books, whether they’re in libraries or in shops. There might be a dozen Crosswords and Landmarks in India, but they won’t replicate the charm of Blossoms in Bangalore. And no Waterstones in the UK (whose Twitter pages I adore) holds a candle to the independent second hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road. In my early days in London I’d go to Quinto Bookshop instead of the multi-storeyed Foyles and down to its basement that held a wide range of second hand books, from the usual suspects to the niche variety of astronomy and homeopathy. In the days I had time on my hands between job applications and interviews, the bookshops of Charing Cross Road were my refuge in an otherwise unfamiliar London.

I won’t go into the clichéd and hackneyed reasons for why every book lover is attracted to the old, yellowing pages of their favourite books.

I recently decided to go back. Nothing much has changed except the iconic Foyles buildings has moved a few doors down, the old building and its empty shelves a mere shell of what they used to be. The sex shops are still there. The music shops are still around the corner. And the three second hand bookshops are battling the challenges laid down by their digital counterparts.

There were about six sales in the 15 minutes I spent inside the antiquarian Quinto bookshop. I was very aware it was the weekend in one of the most popular areas not only in London but also in the world, so I struck up a conversation with the proprietor. Yes, the footfall was just the same as it has been in recent years. No, he’s not afraid of a complete digital takeover. Yes, Quinto is definitely here to stay much like Foyles is, and perhaps more so. Their collection of the Arabian Nights books is impressive, and they have more than enough first edition books that have their own charm to collectors.

Surprised to hear that Quinto wasn’t a dying breed, I moved to Henry Pordes Books, another second hand and antiquarian bookshop next door. It’s a maze of a shop with corners at weird angles, always surprising even the most oft-visiting customer. It felt as if I’d landed in someone’s living room. There were at least four couples standing in pairs, having conversations surrounded by bookshelves. No one was browsing or asking the owner for any rare finds. It was an almost social occasion, and I wondered if these were regulars and had bumped into each other or couples that came together and decided to have an impromptu chat right in the middle of the small entrance. The wizened owner told me what I had expected to hear: the footfall had significantly reduced but he wasn’t worried. It helped that they were located in such a central part of Central London, but he also had faith in the kinds of books they sold. And he was right. As long as the sight of yellowing pages and the smell of dusty books is appealing, these old second hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road are here to stay. Oh, there’s the old clichéd and hackneyed lines again…

Charing Cross Road is home to some of London’s best-loved bookshops, including Foyles, and second hand bookshops.

Quinto Bookshop, 72 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB. Phone: 020 7379 7669

Henry Pordes Books, 58-60 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB. Phone: 020 7836 9031