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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
- 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.