Composing a comprehensive list of anything in a city as winding and varied as London is tough, let alone showcasing London’s best loved Bookshops. To properly index and explore the various nooks and hollows that make up the city’s streets is a task even the most disciplined of London cabbies’ limbic brains struggle with.
Add to this a vagabond newcomer, with knowledge of the underground, and street layouts, that is at best haphazard, and the result is a Conan Doyle like conundrum.
So rather than hopelessly striving toward collecting a knowledge of London’s literary haunts worthy of an encyclopaedia Britannica entry, I’ve chosen to go another route.
Venturing down nostalgia filled back streets and memory lined alleyways, I’ve composed my own ambling Taxi ride in an attempt to create a narrative of the varied sights, sounds and scents of London and it’s bustling boroughs, as seen through the windows of its book stores.
Along the way we’ll hopefully throw light on a few unlikely gems, as well as adding punctuation to some of London’s better-known sites of fact and fiction.
Included amongst them, is the first bookstore I ever stumbled into in London; young, bright eyed, bushy tailed and more than a bit bamboozled by Big Ben’s hometown. As we progress en route hopefully we’ll find a few sites of interest for more than just the tourists amongst us.
Books for Cooks
Just a pinch from the vivid cosmopolitan colour and scents of Portobello road, Books for Cooks is also positioned right across the road from another of London’s literary landmarks. The probably-much-better-known Notting Hill Bookstore. Made famous for providing the inspiration for the store featured in the 1999 movie named after the area.
Remaining faithful to my own taste buds (you have to admit Hugh Grant is a little like the cinematic equivalent of marmite) I’ve chosen to include Books for Cooks on our tour instead. The small store is a perfect slice of one of London’s most famous west end locations. A haven for pro-chefs and would-be cooks such as myself a like.
The store’s central tables are set with an abundance of the most recent big name releases. While the shelves that line the walls are lovingly stocked with a variety of geographically arranged delights, spanning everything your pallet could hope for. If you think it’s just the exotic recipes and place names making you feel suddenly hungry, it may also have something to do with the scents drifting from the in-store café tucked at the back of the shop.
4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 1NN
Ladbroke Grove or Nottinghill Gate Underground
Buried in the catacombs of one of London’s well known retailers of all things generally geek, is an extensive book section.
The tunnel-like passages that comprise the large basement of the shop go a long way toward mapping out the fringes of dark fantasy, other worldly fiction and illustration.
A staggering collection of everything from graphic novels, comic books series, extensive fiction collections of all sorts, specialist film and design books and all the imaginable accompaniments you might want to go with them.
A veritable modern day wizard’s cave, if you’ll excuse the kitsch metaphor.
179 Shaftesbury Avenue
London WC2H 8JR
0207 420 3666
Tottenham Court Road Underground
Foyles has had as oddly an eccentric past as any Londoner. Beginning as a second hand retailer, established by two brothers after failed exams saw them gleefully offloading their newly useless textbooks. It was passed down the family line through anachronism and eccentricity. Through its unique history, by accident or by design, Foyles has become a kind of beacon for independent booksellers in the face of rapidly mutating markets and ever more fickle custom.
Now a much more modernised affair, reminiscence of most high street book-stores it still maintains a pleasant sense of identity; with some more obscure selections and staff choices displayed throughout the store.
In a stylish segue connected to the food and cooking section is Ray’s Jazz Café, a reported favourite old haunt for the late BBC radio DJ John Peel. The top floor similarly boasts a comprehensive music section adjoined by Ray’s Jazz and Classical Music Store.
Charing Cross 113-119 Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0EB
Tottenham Court Road Underground
It would seem like teetering terribly close to the brink of heresy not to include London’s oldest established purveyor of literature and bookish pleasures on our tour.
Situated just a short walk from the spiralling centre of Piccadilly Circus, Hatchards opened its doors in 1797. Having been appointed several Royal Warrants over the years since, it also collected a faithful following, seeing everybody from Byron, Kipling and Wilde come and go through its doors. Most recent notables include Stephen Fry, J.K Rowling, Michael Palin, and Margaret Thatcher.
From its opening hall and central staircase, Hatchards is the equivalent of a gentle walk through the park. Passing down lush carpeted paths lined with colourful, hardback edition classics and signed copies of many modern UK authors. This timeless store is a classic an example of bespoke British booksellers as you dare hope for.
187 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LE
Picadilly Circus Underground
Charing Cross road is a stretch of London that is nothing short of spoilt for choice when it comes to bookshops.
Home to a plentiful stock of stores worthy of note, further toward Trafalgar Square the undeniably quaint Cecil court is also worth a mention. Amongst all this, Koenig Books is a uniquely sharp edged haven for anybody seeking out inspiring art or design work.
A store that is nearly as subtlety stylish as many of the books that line its shelves, all displayed with covers facing full front. It presents an immediate form of visual entrapment for any unsuspecting passer-by.
Housing a selection that is likely to include anything you might be hoping to find, or at the very least something else that will fire your creative streak. Visit this uniquely sharp edged haven to seek out inspiring art or design work.
80 Charing Cross Rd
London WC2H 0BF
020 7240 8190
Leicester Square Underground.
Mega City Comics
Stuffed amidst the brick walls and canvas over-hangs of one of Camden’s many famous (or infamous if you prefer) markets on Inverness Street. Mega City Comics is a well-stocked addition to the colourful anarchy of Camden’s Locks.
The walls are stocked with the latest comic series editions and current releases. Backing this up is an excellent back catalogue of most of your favourite Comic book underpants-worn-on-the-outside style adventures. There’s also a small well chosen range of merchandise and other comic connected trinkets to keep you browsing between the pages.
18 Inverness Street, London NW1 7HJ
Camden Town Underground
The flagship Oxfam branch situated on Bloomsbury Street is the first bookstore I ever stumbled across in London, and to that end, is included as much for nostalgia’s sake as anything. However, it does serve as a pointed side note on what an excellent resource a good second hand bookstore can be. Its browsers include students looking for bargain priced literature and assiduous collectors perusing for first editions.
12 Bloomsbury Street London WC1B 3QA
Tel. 0207 637 4610
…the kind of small store that has an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole feel and which you can happily lose yourself in for hours.
Opened more than 29 years ago, with a launch by none other than the Pythons who inspired the stores name; Michael Palin and Terry Jones. I happened across this small piece of wonderland some years ago on one of my northern rambles of London.
Ripping Yarns is the kind of small store where time disappears as it has you leafing through long lost volumes and descending past stunning ancient editions.
Pages of vintage music (a selection of NME back editions), travel volumes and any other form of escapism you might dream up all happily co-exist on the bulging bookshelves.
Throughout its well worn decades the store starting out specialising in Children’s literature and has now expanded to include a wider repertoire of Fantastical poetry, history and a mix of really anything else you might care to ask for. Hidden treasures don the walls in stunning pictorial covers, and beautiful hardback editions waiting to be discovered.
Amongst the flourishing canvas of Lewis Carroll inspired art and precisely chosen editions that make up the front window, there still sits a quote from intrepid python Palin declaring the store, perched on Highgate hill, as ‘one of London’s true treasures’. And frankly I’d have to agree.
020 8341 6111
355 Archway Road, Highgate London, N6 4EJ
England’s history has always been dotted with tales of mystery, magic and the occult, so as you would expect its capital is no exception.
Further north along Tottenham court road, Treadwell’s bookstore is an excellent documentation of much of this magical mischief.
Its long incense scented shelves conjure a mix of occult topics, herbal indexes, poetry, philosophy and religion from each corner of the world,. Amongst that already heady brew is also added a mix of incense, herbal oils, replica occult objects and other talisman.
J.K Rowling’s Diagon alley may have been the magic of fiction, but there’s witchcraft, wizardry and certainly a little magic hidden at the back of Treadwell’s.
33 Store Street,
London, WC1E 7BS
Russell Square or Goodge Street Underground
“Europe’s biggest and most exciting bookshop…five floors of beautiful, original, intelligent writing for you to explore”.
I’ll agree with anyone reading this, who inevitably feels including any kind of chain store on the list seems only a short flick from cheating. However as a fan of the big ‘W’ in general, if you’re looking for practicality, and generally a well-rounded, helpful staffed book shop – really there’s little space for argument. There are also a number of reasons why the Waterstones London stores qualify for a bookmark on the tourist trail.
The Piccadilly branch (Piccadilly Underground) is in the stores own words: “Europe’s biggest and most exciting bookshop…five floors of beautiful, original, intelligent writing for you to explore”.
If the five-floored touristic heights of Piccadilly sound a bit much for you, you might prefer an amble around their Gower street branch (Goodge Street or Euston Square Underground), note worthy for having been used in the filming of Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan’s hit TV series Black Books.
And thus we stop the meter and complete our journey. Your destination but the turn of a page away. Hopefully you’ll have enjoyed our A-Z tour and found some fresh insight into London’s book lined alleyways.
Undoubtedly there are many more chapters and tales to be told, many more quiet moments in softly leather bound corners to be sought out. Without doubt there are plenty more inky treasures to turn up that are not included on this list. But as a small suggestion for some essential reading, perhaps it will have given you some helpful side-notes. As for finding all the rest – happy browsing – do leave the rest of us a note when you get there, or at least send a postcard.