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Bookish Tastes: Browsing London’s Standout Independent Bookshops

by CB Cowling

posted on January 17, 2019

If Paris is for lovers, London is for bibliophiles. The city has always been richly steeped in literary history and imagination, so it’s little surprise some of the loveliest bookshops in the world call it home. The most beloved have a passionate base of local patrons, but many also do a healthy trade in canny tourists: visitors who are drawn as much to the shops’ estimable stock as to their endlessly Instagramable interiors and atmospheric charm.

Though these small, independent booksellers are something of an endangered species throughout the world, things have been looking up recently in London and across the UK. Last year saw record sales, with a growing epidemic of “screen fatigue” leading customers back to the pleasures of a good paperback.

Our favorite London bookshops include an an elegant champion of forgotten women’s fiction, a riverboat filled with secondhand gems, and a grand Edwardian homage to world travel. The one thing they all have in common is that each is the perfect way to while away a quiet afternoon in the capital.

Photo Courtesy: harriet_matthews

It’s official: Persephone is the prettiest bookshop in London. Set on the picturesque cobbled Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, the tranquil grey facade is home to the small store and office of the independent publishing house above. Specializing in resurrecting lost and forgotten female authors of the interwar period, they carefully seek out and reprint them with impeccable detail. Their titles are all works of art both in and out: cloth-bound in cool grey and set with intricately-patterned endpapers. Their selection includes over 100 memoirs, novels, and short story collections featuring gems by authors like E.M. Delafield, Marghanita Lanski, and Dorothy Whipple.

Photo Courtesy: louisagrogers

This floating bookstore might just be the most charming business in the city, full stop. Word on the Water’s hundred-year-old Dutch wooden barge is moored along Regent’s Canal in the newly-revitalized and thriving Granary Square area of King’s Cross. Step aboard to browse through a personalized selection of new and secondhand fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books packed higgedly-piggedly under low ceilings, then settle down to read in the coziest possible setting: complete with squishy chairs, wood burning stove, and a friendly resident dog. In fine weather the roof platform plays host to poetry slams and jazz and folk performances.

Photo Courtesy: prettycitylondon

This elegant Notting Hill location was founded by literary agents who used their considerable contacts and knowledge to line its shelves. Hundreds of readers, ranging from family to literary greats, were asked to recommend a favorite book to form the shop’s core stock. There’s no bulk marketing to the masses here: every title in Lutyens Rubenstein is there because it’s beloved by someone. The light-filled interior continues the creative theme, with creamy pendant lamps and ornate paper book sculptures hanging from the airy ceilings, overlooking rows of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art.

Photo Courtesy: abramschronicle

Venture further south in the city to leafy Herne Hill to find this whimsical wonderland filled to the rafters with a carefully-curated selection of children’s literature. Set along the quaint local high street of Half Moon Lane, the robin’s-egg blue shop’s beguiling window displays hint at the enchantment within. Children can flip through chapter and picture books at their leisure, curling up on the comfy sofas or heading into the storytelling cabin for reading events. Tales on Moon Lane’s friendly staff are a delight: they’re truly passionate about childhood literacy and helping young readers find their new favorite title.

Photo Courtesy: brightonessa

Right at home in bookish Bloomsbury, Treadwell’s is a must-visit for the mystically-minded literary fan. Both a bookseller and a literary salon for those interested in the more esoteric side of literature, the warm and welcoming little shop looks and feels like something straight out of Diagon Alley. Druids and white witches rub shoulders with academics and researchers while they browse shelves that heave with tomes on religion, spirituality, mythology, and anthropology. Brush up on a history of 18th-century witchcraft, flip through an ancient guide to divination, or venture into the otherworldly with a tarot reading.

Photo Courtesy: larsschmidt92

You might have trouble focusing on the reading material during your first visit to Marylebone’s iconic Daunt Books. Entering the shop’s main gallery is like stepping back in time, transported by its grand Edwardian interiors of oak panelling, emerald-toned walls, and soaring windows. If you can tear your eyes away from the interiors, you’ll be enthralled by the countless travel books that line its walls. The unparalleled selection of history, literature, guides, memoirs, and maps could keep you entertained for hours, and the store’s unusual way of arranging stock by country instead of genre makes for lots of new discoveries.

Photo Courtesy: gaysthewordbookshop

It would be hard to find a small business that means more to as many people as this beloved Bloomsbury beacon. Founded in 1979, Gay’s the Word is the UK’s first and only remaining LGBTQ focused bookstore, but the shop is a destination for more than its literary offerings. Over the years it’s served as an important haven and meeting place for people from all over the country, giving its patrons a safe space to feel seen and accepted when the rest of the world felt like a hostile place. Stocking a selection of titles that speak to the LGBTQ experience, including memoirs, fiction, guides, and histories, it also hosts regular discussions, meetings, and lectures.

Photo Courtesy: storefrontcollective

This Chelsea institution is a charming remnant of the area’s old bohemian spirit, tucked amongst the surrounding swanky boutiques and galleries. Set in a terrace of picture-perfect Regency-era buildings, John Sandoe Books is unmissable with its 18th-century black-and-white facade and bright window boxes. 30,000 titles are housed in a labyrinth of creaky floors and narrow staircases, somehow both riotously-crowded and perfectly-cataloged. The care with which books are considered and chosen makes this a bibliophile’s paradise. Make sure you sign up for their quarterly catalogues when you visit: they’re filled with fabulous recommendations for your reading list.

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