During our recent trip to London, we stepped into Waterstone’s at Trafalgar Square. It was big, beautiful, and inviting; a paradise for book-lovers. We traipsed inside, ready to be astonished, as we had already been by the beautiful and varied London sites leading up to this one.
We are a family of four, and we were visiting London together for the first time. Both Val and I had been to London before–he had even lived here for 6 months–but this was our first opportunity to introduce it to our children.
As we entered Waterstone’s, my 17-year-old bookaholic daughter was enraptured. She was drawn to the gorgeous cloth-bound covers of classics in bright colours, as well as her favourite series titles. I gravitated to the aisle on world cooking, my husband perused the nonfiction, and my 13-year-old son went for the games. In Waterstones, as in London, there is something for everyone, and our time was too short to explore it all!
Waterstones is a major chain, but there are literally (no pun intended!) hundreds of book stores all over London proper. According to TravelAwaits.com, “there are 112 independent bookshops in the British capital. But […] there are oodles more, mostly little secondhand shops tucked into corners all around the city. Then there are the non-independent stores, the regional chains, and the global powerhouses.”
Books are to London what books are to New York City. The entire English-reading world looks to these two literary capitals for ideological sustenance, publication, and guidance about what to feed the hungry mind. In a way they are the two capitals of the mind, one on either side of the Atlantic; a world of ideas has come out of these two cities, with powerful influence over the entire world. With such classic English authors such as Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jane Austen of the past, along with the contemporary greats like Zadie Smith, Paula Hawkins and Monica Ali, London is a Mecca for the English-speaking bookish pilgrim.
We ourselves read, write, and promote books for a living. Our small publishing company, Fly-By-Night Press has given us the opportunity to read and write new books, as well as to connect with the literary community like never before. We are part of a small group of writers called The Maastricht Writers’ Workshop, which enables authors who write in English to work together for improvement of their craft and community outreach.
Since most of the bookstores in our area in the southernmost part of the Netherlands deal primarily in Dutch books, it is a true honour to be in an all-English literary establishment, with all our favourites bound in our mother tongue, on fresh-off-the-press paper.
The word on the street in London is that the best place for booksellers is Charing Cross Road. This street in central London runs immediately north of St Martin-in-the-Fields to St Giles Circus, and then becomes Tottenham Court. A similarly-named street appears in the fantasy series Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (an English author you may have heard of). In this world-renowned series, Charing Cross Road is a street in London, located in a muggle (non-wizard) area, but it’s linked to Diagon Alley, the secret wizard street where Harry Potter makes all his pre-wizard-school purchases. Although no wizard mall is actually located here, Rowling obviously knows this part of London well, and probably frequented it as a reader long before she ever became an author.
Charing Cross Road is home to dozens of specialty bookstores which arrived after the appearance of the large iconic bookstore Foyles here in 1906. In the 1980s, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft starred in a film called ‘84 Charing Cross Road,’ about a friendship between a London and a New York bookseller that blossomed over the business of used books–a nod to New York and London as literary capitals, and the reputation of this street. Just around the corner is Cecil Court, another bookselling street where a number of antiquarian bookstores have congregated.
With so many options for bookstores in London, you as a reader may be wondering, which bookstores in London are most worth the visit. Answer: It really depends on your interests, actually! Here are a few recommendations, though:
- Daunt Books (Marylebone location) – This bookshop, housed in a gorgeous Edwardian building, with stained glass windows, is an experience as well as a book source. Here books are arranged by country instead of genre.
- Foyles (Charing Cross) – it’s the bookstore I mentioned earlier which turned Charing Cross Road into a booklover’s haven. With four floors on every subject, and a café, auditorium, and gallery, it should have anything you need.
3. Hatchard’s (at Piccadilly) is also a great choice for the general reader. An elegant shop, it is the UK’s oldest surviving book store, and hosts a popular ‘Christmas Customer Evening’ each year where readers can mingle with authors.
4. John Sandoe Books (King’s Road) is sometimes described as ‘like walking into a Dickens novel.’ Growing to more than 30,000 titles, what once was a tiny bookshop has had to expand into the two shops adjacent to it.
5. The London Review Bookshop (Bloomsbury) grew out of the literary periodical for which it is named: The London Review of Books. Part bookstore, part cake shop, it is popular with writers as well as readers.
6. Luytens and Rubenstein (in Notting Hill) is a chic bookstore which, having been founded by two literary agents, also serves as a literary agency.
7. Nomad Books (Fulham Road). If you are looking for a comfortable reading spot with cushy chairs and lots of events, this indie book store is a good choice.
8. Just a few streets away from the Waterstone’s we visited is Waterstone’s Piccadilly, which is Europe’s largest bookstore. Here famous authors, musicians, politicians, artists, and sports stars have been known to make appearances. Around the rest of the city, Waterstones are scattered, around 20 in all of London.
9. The award for most unique bookstore in London goes to Word on the Water (King’s Cross). It’s a somewhat quirky bookstore housed in a 100+ year old Dutch barge, often hosting musical and poetry performances. It’s an incredible place and highly recommended for a unique literary experience.
10. And if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, try one of the specialty bookstores in London: Persephone Books for female writers, Books for Cooks if you love cooking, Alice Through the Looking Glass for rare titles, Gosh! for comics and graphic novels, Stanford’s or Notting Hill Books for travel, or Travis & Emery for all books music related.
Of course this merely scratches the surface. There are so many more bookstores in London, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed! If you are a serious reader and have the chance to visit London, take a pair of good walking shoes, an umbrella, and a good-sized book bag. You’ll need a lot of time to read, peruse, have a coffee, and fully enjoy one of England’s greatest cultural achievements: