The English do love to read. And nowhere is this more evident than in London Town’s plethora of bookshops. Although I long ago tapped out London’s most noteworthy tourist sights (and many of a lesser degree) I still schedule a hedonistic day or two taking a book tour of London when I’m passing through.
My Book Tour of London
Bookshops are spread widely throughout London’s suburbs, so you can waste a lot of subway time zipping back and forth between them if you don’t plan your browsing carefully. But by far London’s best bookstore bang for your buck is around Charing Cross Road—possibly the most ‘literate’ mile anywhere in the English-speaking world.
At my last count, there were 43 bookstores along or immediately off Charing Cross Road. A few close their doors each year as digital publishing and the recession have hit brick and mortar bookstores hard. However, never fear—there are still plenty of thriving bookstores in London to lighten your wallet . . . and weigh down your travel bags!
I start my annual London bookstore rampage at Trafalgar Square and proceed up Charing Cross Road, with side excursions along the small, quaint Victorian bookstore alleys like Cecil Court, and Lisle St and Earlham St.
My tour focuses on a few of Charing Cross Road’s most eclectic and interesting bookshops including Davenports, Forbidden Planet, Koenig Books, Lovejoys, Mysteries, W. H. Smith, and of course the blockbusters—Foyles and Waterstones.
Although you, as a bibliophile, may be seduced enough by the smell of printer’s ink and binding glue and oh, so many books, to want to explore each and every book shop in the Charing Cross area, you are well advised to briefly slip through the smaller book stores in order to save time for the larger bookstores that await at the Grande finale of this book lover’s tour de force.
Warning: You will buy books! This tour can, and probably will, reduce your bank balance substantially. The author of this book tour article is held harmless for, and takes no responsibility for, any financial damage inflicted upon any hapless bibliophile who follows this tour. London’s bookstores are fraught with financial peril. Proceed at your own risk.
Why So Many Book Shops Clustered along Charing Cross Road?
The area’s storied association with the book trade started in the early 1900s, when William Foyle set up shop here. In its 1950s heyday, writers like Dylan Thomas and Auberon Waugh would stagger from the nearby Soho drinking dens into the bookshops, no doubt calculating the royalties from their books on the groaning shelves.
Over the years, Charing Cross Road has become renown for its specialist and second-hand bookshops. The section from Leicester Square tube station to Cambridge Circus is home to specialist bookshops, and general second-hand and antiquarian shops such as Quinto Bookshop, Henry Pordes and Any Amount of Books.
Smaller second-hand and specialist antiquarian bookshops can be found on adjoining Cecil Court. The northern section between Cambridge Circus and Oxford Street features more general bookshops like the venerable Foyles and Blackwell’s.
Watkins Books will give you your fix on all things mystic, the occult, tarot readings, oracles, crystals, eastern religions, astrology, channeling, spirituality, and all related paranormal topics. It’s London’s largest and oldest esoteric bookshop
7 Charing Cross
Underground Shopping Arcade,
London WC2N 4HZ
From budding Harry Potters to dynamic David Copperfields, Davenports is a haven for magicians of every level and ability. The oldest, family-run magic business in the world this is a friendly, fun environment to while away an afternoon. Rummage through the diverse collection (from limited edition collectables to books, cards and accessories) and enjoy the well-executed demonstrations from their team of magic professionals.
179 Shaftesbury Avenue
Forbidden Planet is the world’s largest and best-known science fiction, fantasy and cult entertainment retailer and the largest UK stockist of the latest comics and graphic novels. FP specializes in action figures, books, comics, DVDs, and graphic novels.
Any Amount of Books
56 Charing Cross Road
AAOB has books as cheap as £1 and rare books at many thousands of pounds. With 19,000 books in stock—which explains where the shop gets its name. Rated “Favorite Second-Hand Bookshop” by The Times Literary Supplement.
Rare books, first editions, modern literature, art, poetry, scholarly/academic, antiquarian, leather bound sets, general stock. First editions of fiction by known or collected writers, art, children’s and Illustrated books, science fiction (also fantasy and crime) architecture, design, military, transport, serious history collections, poetry, plays, music, theology, philosophy, pulps, erotica, sport, natural history, photography, science and travel.
58-60 Charing Cross Road
Henry Pordes has been a famous name in the book trade for more than fifty years as a bookseller, publisher of learned periodicals, academic titles, Jewish books, as well as a wholesaler of remainders.
The Porde’s staff is helpful, knowledgeable, and carries the whereabouts of most of the book stock in their heads. It’s an old-fashioned shop with old-fashioned service but with modern methods.
72 Charing Cross Road
This second-hand bookshop shares the same entrance as the Francis Edwards bookstore.
80 Charing Cross Road,
London, WC2H 0BF
An inspiring German-owned independent bookshop specializing in art, architecture and photography tomes. Done out stylishly in black with every book given respectful prominence – products are displayed with their covers rather than spines facing customers to ensure full effect. Koenig stocks the most up to date monographs by the big name publishers plus a wide variety of lesser known and rare titles, as well as many independently published artist books and zines.
Charing Cross Railway Station
I have a soft spot for W.H. Smith; so I always drop by this busy little shop for a quick browse of their mainstream publications.
113-119 Charing Cross Road
Few bookstores move me enough to kneel on the sidewalk and genuflect to give thanks for a book lover’s Nirvana, but Foyles is one such temple. The renowned and legendary Foyles has a long history. The five-storey Charing Cross Road branch is England’s best-known bookstore. Its dimensions and contents are staggering: 200,000 different titles, 37,000 square feet of retail space, and four miles of shelves. Whoever said size doesn’t matter has obviously never visited Foyles.
This world-famous flagship bookstore boasts the widest range of titles of any bookshop in the UK, plus a Café, Auditorium, Gallery and year-round literary and music events. The impressive full height central atrium and large windows fill the space with natural light, while the layout allows for easy navigation and the serendipitous discovery of new books.
Founded in 1903 by brothers William and Gilbert Foyle, this store first opened on Charing Cross Road in 1906 and moved to the current site in 1929. Declared by William Foyle to be ‘the world’s first purpose-built bookshop’, it quickly became one of the capital’s most well known literary landmarks.
My Favorite Foyles History Anecdote
When Hitler started burning books in the 1930s, William Foyle immediately sent a telegram to the Fuhrer requesting that he be able to purchase them instead, and would offer a good price. The Nazi response quickly came back that Germany had no books to sell and the burning would continue.
Years later at the start of the bombing Blitz of London, Foyles filled sandbags with old books to protect the shop from damage and William announced that he was covering the roof with copies of Mein Kampf to ward off bombers. Then a near miss by a bomb left a giant crater just outside the shop, destroying the front of the Sun Electric offices across the road. William Foyle treated the sappers to sandwiches and ginger beer while they worked and when the bridge over the crater was complete the engineers happily let him name it the Foyle Bridge, complete with ribbon cutting ceremony!
If Foyle’s isn’t enticing enough, Waterstones is another monstrous, money-devouring shrine to the goddess of printed matter. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, and take out a second mortgage to pay for those weighty tomes. This place is huge. In fact, it’s touted as the largest bookstore in Europe!
This multilevel bookstore offers a fine Studio Lounge Bar cafe (lower ground floor) and city views of the London Eye and Parliament buildings from the top (5th) floor. Perfect for escaping the Piccadilly Circus madness outside and spending a quiet weekend afternoon reading. The book selection here brings tears to my eyes. It has an outstanding array of fresh and classic readings. And despite how busy it appears, Waterstones is large and spacious with 8 stories and plenty of comfortable seating (if you can snag one).
You’re likely to find whatever book you’re after in this flagship branch – whether it’s the latest novel or fiction best seller; a travel guidebook or a biography of your favorite celeb.
My Favorite Waterstone’s Anecdote
An American tourist from Texas made the BBC news by being locked in this store for a couple of hours after the 9pm closing time. He had lost track of time. Being a good millennial, he tweeted that he was locked in the store and the post went viral. At 11:20pm, local police released him from his print penitentiary.
After I wrap up the Charing Cross section of London—and if I still have time and energy—I take the subway across town to the flagship store of one of the most famous and comprehensive travel bookstores in the world, Daunt Books, at Marylebone. Often, I’ll save Daunt’s for another day because it’s such a pleasant haunt for browsing.
A Treasure Trove of Travel Books at Daunt Books
83 Marylebone high street, W1
Across town, on posh Marylebone Street, is the world’s most thorough travel book collection and one of the country’s most beautiful bookstores. This gorgeous Edwardian building seemingly houses every travel book printed. I find myself drawn repeatedly to this travel writer’s nirvana to browse its thousands of guidebooks, travel stories, and sumptuously illustrated pictorial travel books.
Daunt’s is regarded as THE travel bookstore and has rightly earned its’ world famous reputation. From the moment you walk in the oak paneled wooden front entrance—past racks of books stacked high in the display windows—and smell the binding glue and printing ink, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. This is not your grandma’s bookstore!
Daunt’s books are lovingly displayed on magnificent Edwardian style shelves with long oak galleries enticing you in all directions, and over three floors. The mezzanine level in particular looks like an old college library, with a quiet atmosphere to match. Wide glass skylights brightly light the deep bookshelves.
For a better idea of the layout at Daunt Books, go to their website and take the virtual tour. It displays the bookshelves in all their glory. Be warned: you WILL drool when you see the bookshelves and you WILL want to book a ticket to London after you take this virtual tour. The books are arranged geographically by country, and every type of book is thrown in together. So you’ll find Guidebooks, novels, books about hotels and resorts, phrase books, maps, books about travel writing, books on flora and fauna, history books, recipe and food guides, travel poetry, biographies, and colorful coffee table books all side by side here.
If you can’t find a book or two (dozen) about any country you’re planning on visiting, they simply don’t exist. And that includes the more obscure countries and principalities like Seborga, Lichtenstein, Monaco, and Luxembourg.
Daunt Books has a quiet hushed atmosphere and the knowledgeable and well-informed staff is very helpful. Daunt’s hosts frequent public readings by authors. It also has a cozy little café, a used books section, a children’s section, and plenty of standard fiction books at the front of the store.
Written by and photos by Roy Stevenson for EuropeUpClose.com