London is a book lover’s heaven, at least for English-language speakers. From specialist bookshops and book markets to second-hand and academic bookshops, they are all there.
Charing Cross Road is of course the well-known hub, the city’s major strip for antique and signed books (note that the correct tube station is not Charing Cross but Tottenham Court Road – walk south – or Leicester Square in which case walk north). These days one has to be careful when negotiating one’s way between the shops as the area has become quite crowded. The famous American book-collector A. Edward Newton has a wonderful thing about the bookshops on London’s Charing Cross. He was on the way to a trip up the Nile in Egypt when suddenly, in the middle of the Mediterranean, on a steamer headed for Alexandria, he:
discovered a feeling of homesickness stealing over me. I have spent my happiest holidays in London. Already I had tired of Egypt. The Nile has been flowing for centuries and would continue to flow. There were books to be had in London, books which would not wait … [W]e left the steamer at Naples, and after a few weeks with friends in Rome, started en grande vitesse toward London.
Foyles (no 107) is of course famous – first opened on Charing Cross Road in 1906, it has a special place in the affection of writers and readers alike:
Occasionally it received letters simply addressed: ‘Foyle’s, Largest Bookshop of the World, London, England'”.
This was reason 92 of the “107 reasons to love Foyles“, a blog entry celebrating the occasion of the reopening of the flagship shop, Foyles 107, in June 2014, one of the most seminal cultural events that year.
It is intriguing to see the new bookstore as the result of culmination of a series of discussions about the “future of the bookshop” in 2013. Interestingly, the architect, Alex Lifschutz, explained in an interview with the managing director of a UK publishing house, that he became aware of the same phrase being used repeatedly, that people wanted a “great place”. He talked about an “ecosystem for writing” in which bookshops play a vital part, that a sense of place, a physical point where this ecosystem could come together was an essential aspect of that culture, and that a mixture of things come into play: browsing, discovery and serendipity.
The spacious white-walled atrium in the former Central St Martin’s art school building, 100 metres down the street from the “old” labyrinthine premises after 85 years, is quite something. Lifschutz talks about the concept of “adjacents”, where something known so easily leads to something new, and the importance therefore of creating a same feeling of serendipity “bookshop of the 21st century”.
21st century or not, and old shop or new, one of my favourites – and I still go there just for this – is the translated and foreign language fiction sections, where books are separated by language and by country. One of the dangers of going into bookshops in London, given its famous short winter days, is how often one can enter the store in bright sunshine and suddenly it’s all pitch dark when one is finished with the browsing and the reading.
Outside Foyles, what distinguishes this stretch of the road (south of and opposite pavement to Foyles) is the line-up of every kind of bookshop you can imagine, selling new and secondhand books, art books, antique and rare books. Each of the shops has its own specialty and its own atmosphere.
My favourite was probably the long-established but now-closed Zwemmer’s which specialises in art books and is a meeting place for a cross-section of the art world – artists, collectors, academics, laymen. I yearn for this shop after it closed! The gallery showed Britain’s first Dali exhibition, issued the world’s first book on Henry Moore and the first English language book on Picasso, and, through co-editions, brought to the English-speaking world many French and German art publications. Indeed, the history of the shop has been celebrated in the book More than a Bookshop, a title taken from Henry Moore’s accolade.
Unfortunately, the area is now somewhat invaded by restaurants, but there are still a few gems around. Marchpane is an antiquarian children’s bookseller, on the charming Cecil Court off Charing Cross Road. This is the go-to shop for children’s literature. Cecil Court itself is a small cross-street that runs eastward from Charing Cross Road and with both sides of the street lined with bookshops, making it one of those little corners of London where you feel you want to own it. One could say that it holds out the promise of an adventure of the quieter, more civilised kind. Another noteworthy shop on this little corner is Goldsboro Books, which is the UK’s largest specialist in signed first editions.
Koenig Books (#80) is the place for design and coffee table books (it is in the old Zwemmer site), while Henry Pordes (#58-60) has leatherbound first editions. The famous Skoob Books (with its 65,000 second-hand books in store) has moved however to the Bloomsbury area (a 5 minutes’ walk to the east, at 66 The Brunswick, off Marchmont Street, WC1), though the piano sitting among books, the little quotes pinned to the bookshelves, and the postcards scattered about … all of these still mark the place with character.
In other parts of town, Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street (#83) has long oak galleries and soaring windows. Most notable is the travel section where guides, literature, novels set in the destination, historical walks, and others, are all organised by country. Under Greece, for example, along with a wide range of the hotel and travel guides one would expect, you will find maps, phrase books, travel writing, history, food guides and recipes, books on the flora and fauna as well as coffee table books on its interiors and photography of the country.
And then there’s World’s End Bookshop in Chelsea (357 Kings Road, SW3), with many review copies books, a very relaxed atmosphere, and knowledgeable sales staff. It is recommended for those searching for second-hand contemporary and classic novels. A great place to browse, with a diverse selection, and many are review copies that have not even been opened. Big discounts on Sundays and Mondays.
One of the most fun places to visit for books and has literally made a splash is Word on the Water, a “book-barge” in London travelling on the canal between Camden Lock, Angel, Hackney and Paddington, stopping for 2 weeks at each mooring selling books donated by the public and charity bookshops. With “quirky is the word” as its motto, it is run by Paddy “the Doctor”, and his 2 partners, “the Professor” and “the Captain”.
Finally, and not before time: perhaps one of the most beautiful and serene bookshops in London is Lutyens & Rubinstein, a wonderful little 2-storey gem on Kensington Park Road (#21) in Notting Hill founded by 2 literary agents in 2009. With large windows that display a new poem every few weeks, texts flying out of an old fashioned typewriter, sculptures made out of old books (or “paper-craft installations”) decorating and hanging from the ceiling, it is a bookshop designed with a vision. Its shelving modules, for example, have the ability to be transformed from seating alcoves to three different book display arrangements. Apart from books, it also sells what it calls “other necessities” which include locally made honey as well as, wonderfully and whimsically, a brand of perfume called “CB I Hate Perfume” which is perfume inspired by books – two of them called “room with a view”, and “Russian caravan tea”!
What is not to like except the weather?
P.S. There’s a London Bookshop Map that lists its 117 independent bookshops. It has information of an even wider range of independent bookshops. One interesting one is The Ship of Adventures (118 Kingsland High Street, E8), a children’s bookshop, café and events space run by the Hackney Pirates, a charity working to develop literacy, confidence and perseverance of young people in Hackney. See www.thelondonbookshopmap.org.