Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the 2018 London Annual, and while this special publication is now sold out, you can support great long-form writing about London by subscribing to the Londontopia Print Magazine, debuting in June 2018. Full details here.
London is the capital of good bookshops. And while there are dozens of bookshops to explore in London, there are a few key ones that every bibliophile should visit. I’ve been traveling to London for over 15 years now, and I’ve seen favorites close and new ones open. Here are my current favorite bookstores in London (and it was very difficult to get it down to just 10!). There are several great secondhand bookshops located just off Charing Cross road on Cecil Court. Some specialize in special antique books or signed first editions. Just window shopping here is a booklover’s dream, but these are not the focus of this article.
Located practically next door to Fortnum & Mason’s, Hatchard’s is London oldest bookstore (in fact the UK’s oldest) founded in 1797. It has been at its current location since 1801. When you enter for the first time, it’s exactly how you imagine an old bookstore in London to be – soft lighting, miles of bookshelves, wood paneling and oil paintings. Hatchard’s is famous for their knowledgeable staff across all subject areas. They can help you find any book on any topic that you’re looking for. They even have a customized subscription program where they will send you books every month tailored to your tastes.
They host many big author-related events throughout the year. Despite its unique character, Hatchard’s is not an independent bookstore and hasn’t been for many years. It’s currently owned by the major bookstore chain Waterstones (and they’ve opened a second location in St Pancras Station ). But this store is not like any other Waterstones, it is and will always be Hatchard’s. Hatchard’s feels like how you expect an old bookstore in London to feel. It’s old school, and they revel in that experience. They have the personal touch and are happy to ship your books back home. They’ll arrive wrapped in Hatchard’s paper.
187 Piccadilly, W1J 9LE
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus
(Note: There’s also a new 2nd location located in St Pancras International Station)
Foyle’s is probably the 2nd most famous London bookshop. Foyle’s was founded in 1904 by brothers William and Gilbert Foyle and established themselves as the literary heart of London. Under Christina Foyle, the store was known for its unique quirks – like forcing you to purchase your books in each department then collect them at a central location. The shop operated a payment system that required customers to get in line three times: to collect an invoice for a book, to pay the invoice, then to collect the book, simply because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash. Equally mystifying to customers was a shelving arrangement that categorized books by publisher, rather than by topic or author. It was said that “if Kafka had been a bookseller, Foyles would have been the result.”
When Christina died in 1999, the store began to modernize and act like a traditional bookstore, much to loyal customers relief (despite those who probably enjoyed the quirks). Foyle’s has also entered the cultural lexicon of Britain – Foyle’s War creator Anthony Horowitz has said that the main character Christopher Foyle is named after the store because the name evoked the 1940’s and the archaic practices of the store. Staff, who used to be fired for no reason and turnover was high, have now become experts in their fields and service improved at the store. They have since expanded, opening a few outlets around London and the rest of England. The new Charing Cross store is still their main headquarters.
107 Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0DT
Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road
(Note: There are also several other locations in London, this is the main one)
Daunt Books is a chain of bookshops in London, founded by James Daunt. It traditionally specialized in travel books. Their most famous location is located on Marylebone High Street branch and is housed in a former Edwardian bookshop with long oak galleries, graceful skylights, and William Morris prints. The older section of the Marylebone shop was completed in 1912 and was originally an antiquarian bookshop called Francis Edwards. A large, walk-in safe is visible near the entrance to the travel gallery and is where expensive volumes were once stored. The shop was bought by former banker James Daunt and renamed Daunt Books in 1990. It now focuses on first-hand titles (especially travel-related material). Daunt Books has changed the way books were sold in the capital, so much so that James Daunt was hired on as the CEO of Waterstone’s to turn it around.
83-84 Marylebone High St, W1U 4QW
Nearest Tube: Baker St, Bond Street or Regent’s Park
(Note: There are also several other locations, this is the main classic Edwardian store)
Stanfords is a bookstore that specializes solely in travel – guidebooks, travel writing, maps, etc. Edward Stanford started the store in 1853 as a map seller, and the store expanded from there. It moved to its current location on Long Acre near Covent Garden in 1901. Its stately building is a joy to look at – let alone go inside. Today, every floor of the Victorian building is packed with maps, travel guides and inspirational travel writing; with beautiful hand-made globes and detailed atlases, as well as essential travel accessories for every occasion. It’s very much a store of travel dreams. You’ll feel like an explorer about to embark on an expedition when you go in to buy a map.
The ground floor features best sellers and special offers (and you can often find non-travel related books that are currently popular). There’s also a great section dedicated solely to London related books. There’s often a special buy one, get one half off sale on the front tables – something I always take advantage of (last year I bought far too many books about British walks). Their British travel section is top notch, and you can find so many lovely books about travel in the UK that you cannot find back home in the USA. My favorite section is the Ordnance Survey Map wall – they literally have every OS map that is printed and a handy guide on how to find the ones for the places you plan to go. OS maps are a must if you plan to do any walking in the English countryside. You can even get custom maps printed in the store while you wait.
12-14 Long Acre, WC2E 9LP
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square
Oxfam is known for their charity shops, but they also run Oxfam Books charity shops in many of Britain’s major cities. These are used bookstores with very reasonable prices for many newer books. You can also find older treasures that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. My philosophy is that if you see an Oxfam Books, you should go into it. You’ll always find something inside that won’t break your wallet, and all the money goes to a good cause.
Forbidden Planet is a chain of sci-fi themed stores. They offer the latest merchandise for all your favorite franchises (every Doctor Who fan must visit at least once for this alone), but they also have a huge selection of sci-fi books and graphic novels. They focus on sci-fi, fantasy, horror and other genres that are generally ignored by regular bookstores. It’s a sci-fi fans dreams. Their main store on Shaftesbury Avenue is a mecca. The upstairs is dedicated to merchandise. Downstairs is dedicated to books and graphic novels. It’s fantastic.
179 Shaftesbury Ave, WC2H 8JR
Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Rd or Leicester Square
Persephone Books is a publisher that reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. All of our 122 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial. They also have their own bookstore where you can buy their books. They’re a center of knowledge for important female writers, and they often hold events in the shop. The Persephone shop and office is in Lamb’s Conduit Street; it’s a Grade II Listed building that was built in 1702-3. It’s definitely how a bookstore should feel.
59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1n 3NB
Nearest Tube: Holborn or Russell Square
GOSH! is similar to Forbidden Planet in that it caters to the genre crowd. The big difference, though, is that GOSH! is focused solely on graphic novels and comics. And not just any graphic novels, but GOOD graphic novels. The stuff put out my small presses that you can’t exactly find anywhere else. The spirit of book discovery is alive and well in this charming shop located in SOHO.
1 Berwick Street, W1F 0DR
Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Rd, Holborn
Southbank Book Market
Located underneath Waterloo Bridge on the Southbank is a great little book market. Laid out across many tables are hundreds of secondhand books. The market is there every day; some days have more sellers than other. Browse some books, enjoy some banter with the booksellers and enjoy the views of London from the Southbank. I’ve never regretted a stop here. The only danger is buying more books than you can fit into your luggage.
Outside the BFI Southbank
Nearest Tube: Waterloo
Waterstones is basically the Barnes & Noble of the British book scene. They’re the biggest chain of bookstores, and you will find one in most major British cities. But they’ve changed in recent years. Now that the aforementioned James Daunt is in charge, each store is focusing on their own neighborhoods and caters to their own audience. It’s made it so that each Waterstones is a bit different. Their headquarters is located on Piccadilly in an old Art Deco building. Waterstones Piccadilly is Europe’s largest bookshop offering a peerless selection of titles across every genre with over eight miles of bookshelves. There are eight floors of books and spaces to enjoy. On the top floor is a great bar & restaurant with great views of central London.
203-206 Piccadilly, W1J 9HD
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus