London’s bookstores punctuate the city
By MICHAEL HINGSTON | Special to The Washington Post | Published: September 20, 2019
The first time I went to London, I asked a friend who lived there for bookstore recommendations. “Well,” he said with a pause, “that depends. What kind?” I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t realize I had to specify. But given that I was in the center of the English-speaking literary world, it was an entirely reasonable question.
That sense of overload returned immediately on a recent trip back to the city, but this time I was better prepared for the depth and breadth of London’s literary marketplace. Looking for a first edition of “Brideshead Revisited”? No problem. How about a medieval map? You can find that, too. Want to pick up a stack of recent paperbacks -- from inside a boat? Step right this way (and mind your head).
No matter your interests, or your budget, London has a bookshop for you.
Located a short walk from the Baker Street tube station, the original branch of this travel-focused chain greets you with an impeccably chosen selection of new fiction and nonfiction (including the most recent offerings from its publishing arm, Daunt Books Publishing). But the real allure is at the back. That’s where the store opens up into three full stories of books, organized not by genre, but by country — meaning Javier Mar?as’s novels sit unusually but comfortably alongside “Lonely Planet Spain.” With wooden banisters, skylights and all-around Edwardian charm, it’s also one of the most photogenic bookshops in the city.
83 Marylebone High St.
Any Amount of Books
If I had to name a used bookstore that would appeal to anyone, the first place that comes to mind is Any Amount of Books. This shop is one of the few remaining on the booksellers’ row immortalized in Helene Hanff’s 1970 novel “84, Charing Cross Road” (that address is now a McDonald’s), and it’s a winning jumble of genres, formats and price points. Big-game hunters can browse the store’s antiquarian titles, while those looking for quantity will be drawn to the eclectic and constantly updated sales rack out front. Most shoppers, however, will be happy to browse the walls of general-interest titles inside — but if you have something else to do that day, you might want to set a timer, lest you accidentally spend all day there.
56 Charing Cross Rd.
This London institution, once infamous for its maddeningly archaic business practices (titles were barely organized and there were no cash registers), has in recent years reinvented itself as a thoroughly modern bookselling chain. Nowhere is that newfound sleekness more on display than the five-story flagship shop on Charing Cross Road. It’s thoroughly stocked, clearly and intuitively organized, and even has a dedicated cafe on the top floor, which is perhaps why the new incarnation also feels a bit lacking in personality. More adventurous book lovers will want to get their kicks elsewhere, but if you need to grab a self-help book with an expletive in the title, or a “Good Grammar Is Sexy” tote bag, then Foyles is undoubtedly the place to go.
107 Charing Cross Rd.
Peter Ellis Bookseller
Did you know that in the Harry Potterverse, the magical Diagon Alley is accessed via an abandoned-looking pub just off Charing Cross Road? The booksellers of the real-life Cecil Court do, if only because the alleyway in front of their shops is frequently clogged with tour groups learning that fact via megaphone. Once you weave your way through, however, an excellent assortment of cozy, higher-end bookshops awaits — including Peter Ellis, an old-school antiquarian bookseller who specializes in modern first editions. If your favorite book was published in the 20th century, here’s the place to treat yourself to that pristine copy you’ve always dreamed of.
18 Cecil Court
It’s fitting that there’s a Bat-Signal in front of Gosh!, as comics fans from all over the city will find themselves drawn to a graphic-novel selection that shows off just about everything the medium has to offer. The shop’s aesthetic is spare and understated, but the stock is not: Each table and bookcase is piled with titles of all sizes, formats and colors. You’ll find traditional superhero fare here (including “key creator” sections for luminaries such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman), but also a large selection of children’s comics, an entire wall of indie and small-press titles, and a general fiction section — the latter yet another compelling argument that the genre has long since transcended the funny pages.
1 Berwick St.
This shop does double duty not only as a charming retail outlet, but also as the office space for the publisher of the same name, which has been bringing neglected titles from mostly mid-century female authors back into print since 1999. At this point, Persephone’s backlist runs to more than 130 titles, each of which is available at the store on Lamb’s Conduit Street — and each arranged, to my delight, in numerical order. Staff members work both sides of the business, and their inside knowledge of the stock means they are unusually skilled at handselling. I asked whether they had any good novels about London and was being rung up for a copy of Norah Hoult’s “There Were No Windows,” from 1944, in a matter of seconds.
59 Lamb’s Conduit St.
Gay’s the Word
While North Americans are often familiar with Charing Cross Road’s literary reputation, the nearby districts of Bloomsbury and Saint Pancras are home to their own excellent cluster of bookshops. Start your visit here, at Britain’s oldest LGBT+ bookstore, which has been around since 1979. Gay’s the Word has enough stock that you might mistake it for a general-interest shop, and it has a particularly strong selection of queer history and politics. (Though its fiction is nothing to sniff at, either: Author Sarah Waters has called Gay’s the Word “Britain’s best outlet for lesbian, gay and trans-interest books.”) The shop has also long been a hub for London’s larger LGBT+ community, with a busy bulletin board, a range of in-store events and discussions, and even a mini-exhibit of queer pins from Paud Hegarty, a former store manager and gay activist who died in 2000.
66 Marchmont St.
Just around the corner from Gay’s the Word is the staircase down to Skoob Books (get it?), an underground treasure trove of more than 50,000 secondhand titles at hard-to-beat prices. At Skoob, the element of surprise is key, which is why the store is full of nooks and crannies to scour and get lost browsing in. The store boasts a wide range of nonfiction, including philosophy, history, politics and science, and its fiction selection includes the siren’s call that is entire bookcases of orange and black Penguin Classics. The low-hanging pipes and heating ducts only heighten the feeling that you’re about to unearth something special.
66 the Brunswick (off Marchmont Street)
Word on the Water
It might sound like a gimmick — and the ambiance of Regent’s Canal certainly doesn’t hurt — but this floating, century-old Dutch barge is a legitimate secondhand bookshop. Its stock ranges from classics to photography to contemporary fiction, and the farther inside you venture, the snugger it gets; when you reach the children’s section on the lowest level, you’ll find the L-shaped couch that attracts patrons and the bookshop dog alike. In warmer weather, the shop hosts live music on its rooftop stage. When it gets chilly, there’s a wood-burning stove to help keep you warm as you browse.
Regent’s Canal at York Way