Amazon is convenient, to be sure. But nothing beats the smell of fresh paper and that moment of discovery when a great bookseller hands you a book that you didn’t know that you wanted, but you absolutely need. The very best bookstores in London deliver just that.
There are tons of niche and independent bookstores in London. But even for such a literary city, the nine listed here are noteworthy for their well-curated staff pics, highly specific offerings, and cute and comfy surroundings.
You can trust me.
I’m a former bookseller myself and I know what a bookstore needs to elevate itself from a mere service provider to magic maker. I’ve scoped out the best bookshops in San Francisco, Dublin and Salt Lake City. I’ve had a literary slumber party in Gladstone’s library in Wales and chased down literary haunts in Dublin. And– I went on the prowl for some Central London bookshops that you can’t help but fall in love with. Let’s get cracking.
Map of Independent Bookstores in London
Most of these independent bookshops are in central London and all of them area fairly easily accessed via Tube and bus.
Click here or on the map image below to get an interactive map of the bookshop locations.
(Marlybone High Street)
Daunt’s flagship store in Marlybone was built in 1912. It’s not only one of the best bookstores in London for content, but its Victorian atrium makes it one of the loveliest. You’ll stroll in, pausing at the graceful wooden staircase and gape at a delicious vanishing point lined with books.
What’s cool about Daunt’s layout is that they encourage you to explore by country rather than by genre. So you can just stroll up to France or South Africa and simply skim for a book that interests you about the region. be it fiction, memoirs or travel guides. It’s a brilliant tactic for serving customers like me who tend to get stuck in a genre and need a nudge to make a lane change.
London Review of Books
The London Review of Books is a literary periodical but it’s also a bookshop in Russell Square. The store feels pretty cozy but they manage to stock over 20,000 titles across a range of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. After you’ve picked up something unexpected from the staff pics table, head over to their cafe for some home made cake.
The Libraria Bookshop is doing two things that are utterly unique. The first is that they shelve their books according to esoteric themes or topics, such as “brain and being” or “ways of seeing”. And while that might sound kind of chaotic (it is a little), and prone to creating disagreements among staff as to where to shelve the books (it definitely does), it also forces a delightful browsing induced serendipity.
The second unique aspect of Libraria is that, for them, it’s not just about literature, but it’s also about literacy. When the store is closed, they offer the space to a literacy and language learning social impact organization which supports the local immigrant community.
Go in with an open mind and be sure to chat up the staff, they are friendly, knowledgeable and will point you in the right direction.
Word on Water
Too often, “cozy” bookshop conjures the ghost of Angela Lansbury wandering dusty shelves, scratching the ears of a disdainful cat while indiscriminate instrumental music softly fills the atmosphere. Scratch that! Because cozy takes on a whole other meaning when the store is housed in a 100 year old Dutch fishing barge…and the resident pets are a tennis-ball obsessed dog and cranky bird.
Word on Water stocks (mostly) used and (some) new books ranging the spectrum from hot fiction to quirky books for kids. When it’s not raining, the guys who run it hang out in chairs on the wharf, throwing a ball to the dog and and answering questions if needs must. But otherwise, you are on your own to bump your head on the hatch and browse at will. Word on Water deserves to be patronized because quirky places like this need to exist in the world of books.
The Second Shelf
The blackboard sign in front of The Second Shelf bookstore tells you everything you need to know about what they offer: “Read Women”. Many rare and antiquarian bookshops are owned by men and feature primarily books by men. In 2015 owner A.N.Devers set out to upend that particular gender applecart. The Second Shelf carries female authors of rare books, signed firsts, modern lit and other ephemera.
It’s also located on an adorable little Instagrammable lane in SoHo.
Persepone is also pushing back on gender bias by resuscitating forgotten books by female authors. They are both a bookstore and a publisher and they surface neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century women writers. The booksellers know their stock and the store itself has a pretty feminine vibe.
Cecil Court Bookshops
Cecil Court was originally laid out in the late 1600’s as a throughway between St. Martin’s Lane and Leicester Square. It’s had a checkered past as a bit player in trial transcripts from the Old Bailey (lots of villainy, fires and salubrious stories about that time here). But Cecil Court started gaining a reputation as a literary location just before the first World War. Booksellers and publishers had moved in, and in 1904, Foyle’s opened their store. Foyles is now on Charing Cross Road, but the tradition of book-selling remains in Cecil Court.
With Cecil Court, I’m not talking about one specific London bookshop, but rather a gauntlet of shops. And you can treat modern day Cecil Court as one big bookshop and browse all of the stores in one glorious afternoon. Here’s what’s on offer:
- Goldsboro Books: Signed firsts and lots of fiction.
- Watkins: Spirituality, self-help and the occult.
- Peter Ellis: Modern firsts, literature and philosophy.
- Alice Through the Looking Glass: Rare edition children’s books and gifts.
- Marchpane: Children’s books.
- Travis & Emery: Books on music and sheetmusic.
- Tender Books: Rare and out of print books related to art, design and the avant garde.
- Bryars & Bryars: Antique maps, books and prints.
- Tindley & Everett: 20th century literature.
In the early 1800’s, Victorian England was flush with a fever for travel. The itch was fueled by colonialism, enabled by the development of railways and funded by the well-to-do on their Grand Tours. Enter Stanfords. They cornered that market by providing atlases, maps and ordnance surveys.
Stanfords is still at it today, and for any traveling bibliophile, Stanfords will hit the white hot center of your wheelhouse. They have an mindbogglingly vast selection of travel guides and memoirs, along with pretty maps (like the ones pictured here) and practical maps like the UK hiking ordnance maps. They have a small amount of fiction and gift books upstairs along with a cafe where your spouse will wait patiently while you complete your browsing.
The Tate Modern Bookshop
The Tate Modern’s bookshop goes way beyond the usual museum gift shop fare. Yes, they carry compilations of whatever’s on exhibit. But they also have a lot on artists that they don’t necessarily exhibit, books on photography and architecture, a super cute kids section and quite a few provocative philosophy books that make you go “hmmm”. Treat it like an exhibit and you’ll be surprised by what you might find.
There are several gift shops in the Tate Modern, but the best bookshop is on level one by the south entrance.
Read More: The Tate is an important stop on my 3-day London Itinerary which give you an alternative to the typical Rick Steves suggestions. The top floor also offers one of my favorite views of London.
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