From Brixton to Bloomsbury, we pick the best – or, at least, our favourite – booksellers in the capital
London boasts an incredible array of bookshops, independent and otherwise, and it’s impossible to name them all here. This is simply a list of personal favourites – from the huge flagship Foyles to the tiny Bookmongers in Brixton. That means we’ve missed out a couple of classics, including Soho’s unbeatable collection of comics, Gosh!; Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop; and, yes, the one from Notting Hill (helpfully named The Notting Hill Bookshop). Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, London’s bookshops were being priced out, which means now, more than ever, you should support those below and the 119 independent shops collated on this list.
Second-hand bookshop in the literary heart of London
Skoob is hidden away on the Marchmont Street side of The Brunswick, Bloomsbury’s Grade II-listed brutalist housing and shopping centre, just along from Waitrose. It’s everything you might want from a second-hand bookshop, with dusty tomes stacked high in each shelf-lined nook. There are more than 55,000 books crammed into its 186 m2 windowless subterranean space – from fiction to academic, with a particularly impressive philosophy and art section – making moving from corner to the next an enjoyable challenge. Emerging with the book you came for isn’t always possible but the rummaging is reward in itself and, given the affordable price, you always pick up something. Its huge million-book warehouse and partnership with PsychoBabel Books in Oxford means stock is regularly updated or you can order online if you can’t find what you’re after.
66 The Brunswick off, Marchmont St, London WC1N 1AE
London Review Bookshop
The bookshop of London’s best literary magazine with talks, cake and tea
Just up the road from Skoob is the London Review Bookshop, which opened on Bury Place in May 2003, across from the British Museum. Owned by the twice-monthly British literary magazine of the same name (https://www.lrb.co.uk/), it has placed itself firmly at the heart of London’s book scene, with popular (pre-Covid) evening openings, talks, signings, adjoined café and an irreverent social media presence. As its Twitter profile puts it: 20,000 titles on two floors in Bloomsbury, plus cakes and tea. What more could you want? You can also buy online where its booksellers recommend “books grouped around an eccentric and largely random collection of themes”.
14 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JL
Traditional book shop with knack for highlighting best new releases
One of East Dulwich’s two book shops, the other being the coffee-and-cake-serving Rye Books, Chener provides one of London’s most enjoyable fiction-buying experiences with an excellent selection of old, new and children’s literature. There’s a good range of classics, modern and old along the small shop’s walls, but its middle tables, which are always lined with the latest award-nominated books, literary journal-picks and other notable new releases, that make keeping up with the latest trends, emerging talents and instant classics easy. Its non-fiction selection is perhaps not an impressive, there is a similar selection of new and significant works on prominent display, while the staff are always friendly and helpful – another good reason to visit this leafy area of South East London.
14 Lordship Lane, London, SE22 8HN
Central London classic with (almost) record-breaking collection
Foyles’ shop at 107 Charing Cross Road contains more than 200,000 different titles on 6.5km of shelves – a one-time Guinness world record. Although Foyles is now a chain of seven shops and part of Waterstones, this flagship shop maintains much of the idiosyncrasies that made the company so beloved. Foyles’ original shop first opened on Charing Cross Road in 1906, moved to down the street to 113-119 in 1929 and eventually to its current location in 2014. The shop now boasts a range of gifts and stationery, an excellent collection of art magazines and printed music, while there’s a top-floor café, auditorium and, perhaps best of all, Ray’s Jazz record shop.
107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT
Edwardian bookshop for the intrepid reader
With oak galleries and beautiful skylights, Daunt Books’ original Marylebone branch, which opened in 1912 and claims to be the first custom-built bookshop in the world, may be London’s best-loved bookshop – certainly if its ubiquitous tote bags are anything to go by. Traditionally a specialist in travel literature, Daunt continues to arrange its sections geographically, with guides, phrasebooks, history and fiction listed by country, making holiday-reading easy – pick up your Buenos Aires Lonely Planet, Spanish phrasebook and Borges’ Labyrinths all at once. The company has branches in Chelsea, Holland Park, Cheapside, Hampstead and Belsize Park, London and Saffron Walden, Essex, while the charming Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town is no under its umbrella, but retains its original name.
83-84 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 4QW.
Gay’s the Word
England’s only LGBT bookshop,
Founded in 1979, Gay’s the Word is the only LGBT-specialist bookshop in England (and only one of two in England, the other being Category Is Books in Glasgow), it stocks a range of fiction and queer theory, “from the profound to the frivolous, the liberating to the indulgent.” The bookshop has a more storied history than most, with Camden council initially attempting to block its opening, while in 1984, Customs and Excise, raided the shop seizing works by the likes of Jean Genet, Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams. Today it’s a pillar of the LGBT community and the Bloomsbury literary scene; its 40th anniversary was marked by a special event at the British Library.
66 Marchmont St, Saint Pancras, London WC1N 1AB
Word on the Water
London’s only ‘bookbarge’
Permanently moored along this stretch of the Regent’s Canal, just down restaurants of Granary Square and fashion houses of Coal Drops Yard, is Word on the Water, a 1920s Dutch barge converted into a bookstore. Aside from handsomely priced books, there’s a woodburning stove and the occasional live jazz performance. There’s a good selection of new releases, classics, poetry and children’s and young adult’s fiction. It currently has an excellent selection of books authored by black writers under its Black Lives Matter section. Pick up a book and watch the barges go by.
Regent’s Canal Towpath, Kings Cross, London N1C 4BZ
Brixton mainstay that has survived gentrification
Bookmongers of Brixton and its owner Patrick Kelly have been a fixture on Coldharbour Lane for two decades while much of the heavily gentrified area has changed. On its crammed shelves you’ll find second-hand editions spanning across literature, plays, poetry, politics, history and sociology as well as of range of first and rare editions for the collectors among you. There’s a mural in the window to Kelly’s much-loved dog Leo, which sadly passed a few years ago. You can watch a great little film about Kelly, who was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and his secondhand bookshop here.
439 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8LN
Reprinted books from overlooked 20th century writers
Unlike many shops on this list, which are bursting with precariously stacked tomes, the books of Persephone have been carefully curated and elegantly designed. The book and publisher neglected by mid-20th century fiction and non-fiction, mostly by women writers. Each of the 137 books it has printed is covered in a grey jacket, with fabric endpaper and matching bookmark, making for a unique and quite serene shopping. Found on Lamb’s Conduit Street, home to some of London’s best clothes shops, it is a short walk from Skoob (see above), allowing for two completely different book-buying experiences.
59 Lamb’s Conduit St London WC1N 3NB
(Image credit: Markus Leo)
What is Clouded Hills?
Launched in summer 2020, Clouded Hills is a new platform dedicated to holidays in the UK, featuring news, expert advice, area guides and insider picks.
Clouded Hills is for anyone looking to take a break in the UK – whether that’s stargazing in Exmoor, wandering the beaches of Ceredigion Bay, exploring the historic docks of Belfast or browsing the record shops of Glasgow. Sign up to our newsletter here.