|The shop front with the Royal Warrant and Nancy Mitford commemorative blue plaque prominently displayed. Some past and present notable patrons include Alec Guinness, Ian Fleming, Evelyn Waugh, and Daphne Guinness among many, many others.|
|by Delia von Neuschatz
Chain stores, Amazon and eBooks haven’t managed to kill off the independent bookshops ... not in London anyway. Though inevitably, there have been some closings, a good number of small (and not so small) independently-owned bookshops continue to delight bibliophiles from all over the world. These havens from the “madding crowd” are staffed by attentive men and women who are passionate about books and have actually read the volumes they recommend. Whether browsing for yourself or looking for a unique gift (and not just of the literary kind – think perfume, original artwork and customized maps, among other things), the bookshops I’ve come across in London will not disappoint.
Below are my favorite ones – a dozen in all. The list is by no means exhaustive, however, and there is even a map that points out the locations of many more. A quick perusal of thelondonbookshopmap.org shows the breadth and depth of literary choices that abound in this erudite city.
10 Curzon Street, Mayfair
Tel: +44 (0)20 7629 0647, heywoodhill.com
|The blue commemorative Nancy Mitford plaque and the Royal Warrant appointing Heywood Hill as booksellers “to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”||Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill – their gossipy, witty letters attest to their close friendship which lasted until Nancy Mitford’s death.|
|Celebrating its 76th anniversary this year, Heywood Hill’s eponymous Mayfair shop has been known as the “society bookshop” ever since the well-connected Nancy Mitford joined its ranks in 1942 during World War II. When her legion of friends were in London on leave from military duty, they would lunch at their club and then totter up to Heywood Hill on Curzon Street for a good gossip and to find out what to read.
The shop’s role as a gathering place for social and literary discourse continues to this day, enhanced by its gregarious majority shareholder, Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and charming Managing Director, Nicky Dunne, the Duke’s son-in law. Its customer base is vast and varied. Queen Elizabeth II has been buying books from Heywood Hill for a number of years now. Indeed, last year, the shop was awarded a coveted Royal Warrant. Heywood Hill is also beloved by many Americans, catering to about 500 American account customers alone.
|Nicky Dunne, Heywood Hill’s Managing Director.|
|There are a few things which distinguish Heywood Hill from its competitors. First, true to its social reputation, its book launches are often big parties held in picturesque venues all across London. Not long ago, I attended one for Deborah Cavendish, the dowager Duchess of Devonshire at the beautiful Garrick Club, where Camilla Parker Bowles was among the guests.|
|The inviting back room at Heywood Hill.|
|Second, it provides a couple of unusual services which make for great gifts. Signing up for its Children’s Service results in the shop sending one book per month to the designated child. The child’s name is inscribed inside the books and they arrive beautifully wrapped. This is an affordable and popular service among grandparents and godparents alike.
And, for the man (or woman) who has everything, there’s the (rather more expensive) Subject Service which results in the creation of a “wall of books” on a particular subject. Say your loved one is passionate about fishing or sailing or gardening – Heywood Hill will source 300 – 400 books on that topic, produce a catalog and commission a notable author to write an introduction to the collection. What more could a bibliophile want?
|Some Winston Churchill first editions. Heywood Hill is also an antiquarian bookshop.|
|Well, if it’s a whole library you’re hankering after, the shop is well equipped to offer guidance with that too, having created “gentlemen’s libraries” all over the world.|
|The London Library – the world’s largest independent lending library – together with Heywood Hill, form “two of the bastions of the printed word in Mayfair” according to Nicky Dunne. Heywood Hill sponsors the “London Library Literary Award” in recognition of “a lifetime of contribution to the enjoyment of good books.” The winner receives £10,000.|
123 Gloucester Road, South Kensington
Tel: +44 (0)20 7370 3503, foxedbooks.com
|Slightly Foxed used to be a second-hand bookshop, owned by Graham Greene’s nephew. Today, it sells an eclectic range of current fiction and non-fiction titles.|
|Slightly Foxed is run by a Heywood Hill alumnus, Tony Smith. Not only is Tony extremely knowledgeable and passionate about books and thus, adept at creating libraries (and is called upon with some regularity to do so), but he will also go to great lengths to secure virtually any special request. If, for instance, you must lay your hands on a uniform edition of Roald Dahl’s collected works in pristine condition for your precious little ones, Tony is your man.|
|Tony Smith, Slightly Foxed’s dapper manager. Displayed behind him is a collection of tea towels on offer amidst the books.|
|The shop is publisher-driven, owned by Slightly Foxed: the Real Reader’s Quarterly, a well-regarded and beautifully printed book review which remains “unaffected by the winds of fashion and the hype of the big publishers,” and strives to introduce “its readers to some of the thousands of good books that long ago disappeared from the review pages and often from bookshop shelves.” Given the Quarterly’s mission then, it’s not surprising that the shop’s collection of general fiction and non-fiction titles is well edited. Not to be missed at Slightly Foxed is its antidote to the eBook – its “Charming Section” – replete with books that are well … charming, either by virtue of their covers or illustrations.|
|The “Charming Section” at Slightly Foxed.|
|Some literature-inspired mugs also available for sale – perfect for some afternoon tea.|
|Lutyens & Rubinstein
21 Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill
Tel: +44 (0)20 7229 1010, lutyensrubinstein.co.uk
|Artwork and books on display.|
|Lutyens & Rubinstein has been a hit in its chic Notting Hill enclave ever since it opened its doors a few years ago. Owned by two literary agents, the pretty shop delights not only with its careful selection of fiction, non-fiction, art and children’s books, but also with its merchandise. Proffers include a selection of locally made jams and honey as well as CB I Hate Perfume, a range of perfumes by the Brooklyn-based Christopher Brosius, a former New York City cab driver. His award-winning, natural-smelling fragrances have evocative names like “In the Library” and “Burning Leaves.”|
|Some of the CB I Hate Perfume fragrances on the middle shelf. I bought one which smells like the beach and is appropriately named “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” after the satiric French film which takes place at the seaside. L&R is the line’s only stockist in London.|
|One-of-a-kind trompe l’oeil wooden blocks hand-painted by Leanne Shapton – author of Important Artifacts, the story of a failed love affair told through a couple’s accumulated possessions – are some of the artworks on offer. £100 each.|
|Books for Cooks
4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill
Tel: +44 (0)20 7221 1992, booksforcooks.com
|The shop front in an appetizing red.|
|The front window beckons.|
|A hop, skip and a jump away from Lutyens & Rubinstein is probably “the best-smelling shop in the world," the self explanatory Books for Cooks. Not only does the shop carry over 8,000 cookery books (all in English), but it tests the recipes on hand, serving up a daily and seasonally-fresh lunch from its tiny test kitchen at the back. At £5 for two courses and £7 for three courses, this has got to be the best meal deal in town. Come early because seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis and continues until the food runs out. The shop also conducts cooking classes in a larger kitchen upstairs.|
|The test kitchen – small in size, but not in output.|
|Over the years, customer demand has prompted the shop to put out its own cookbooks – compilations of its most popular recipes from the test kitchen.|
|A sampling of the shop’s own cookbooks showcasing the most successful recipes tested in its kitchen.|
83 Marylebone High Street, Marylebone
Tel: +44 (0)20 7224 2295, dauntbooks.co.uk
Daunt Books has an impressive six locations throughout London. I mention the Marylebone shop because it’s the original one (it opened in 1990) and because it’s also the most beautiful with its large skylights and long oak galleries (although the shops are all very pleasing with their dark wood paneling and light and airy interiors).
|The building which houses Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street was built as a bookshop about 100 years ago during the Edwardian era and has remained one ever since, making it the oldest purpose-built bookshop in London.|
|Originally conceived by James Daunt as a travel bookshop, the store has evolved to cater to the general interest reader with a large selection of fiction, non-fiction, art, children’s and business-oriented books. And oh yeah, they still have plenty of travel books organized, as always by country. But you won’t find just travel guides in say, the Australia section. There, you will also find fiction, history, art and cookery books pertaining to the Land Down Under – everything to inspire your wanderlust.|
|The back of the shop is light-filled due to its large stained glass window and beautiful skylights.|
|Daunt Books is partial to four-legged creatures. Clixby, pictured above, is peacefully waiting for his master to finish browsing through the shelves. The four-year-old golden beauty has been frequenting the shop since he was a puppy.|
|Primrose Hill Books
134 Regent’s Park Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7586 2022, primrosehillbooks.com
|This small shop packs a wallop not only in terms of its popularity in the family-friendly and über-fashionable Primrose Hill neighborhood but also in terms of the number of books on offer. Incredibly, some 20,000 new and second-hand books, all carefully chosen by the owners, Jessica Graham and Marek Laskowski, line the shelves of this vibrant neighborhood gathering spot. The shop isn’t popular only with the locals however, as it sends books all over the world, many of them to America. Speaking of locals, Primrose Hill counts numerous notables among its past and present residents including Gwen Stefani, Helena Bonham Carter, Kate Moss, Jude Law, John Cleese, Sienna Miller, Robert Plant and Martin Amis, among many others.|
|Jessica Graham. She and her husband, Marek Laskowski, form the husband and wife team behind Primrose Hill Books. Jessica had owned the shop for a short while when Marek wandered in, looking to buy a book or two. The rest is history. The shop has been under the present ownership for the past 25 years. The couple has sold books to some children from when they were toddlers right on through to university.|
|Some of the advance uncorrected proof copies publishers have sent to Primrose Hill Books. They are considered with great care when it comes time to decide which books to buy for the shop.|
|Primrose Hill’s picturesque Regent’s Park Road, the hub of this “urban village.”|
|Regents Park Road is lined with pretty shops and cafés.|
|This book just about sums it up.|
|These telephone booths in Primrose Hill are an endangered species, driven to near extinction by mobile phones.|
113-119 Charing Cross Road, Soho
Tel: +44 (0)20 7437 5660, foyles.co.uk
|A little bit of trivia: the title of the excellent British detective series, Foyle’s War, was inspired by the shop.|
|The first thing you notice about Foyles is that it is huge. I mean HUGE. Its flagship location on Charing Cross Road (there are five London locations in all) is five stories high. But, don’t let that put you off. The second thing you notice while perusing the store directory is that there is something for everybody. I’m not kidding. The shop not only carries over 200,000 books – probably the largest number of volumes in the world in any one shop – but it also has movies and music.
Aside from works of general fiction and non-fiction, at Foyles you will also find plenty of material on the subjects of business, law, medicine, crafts and even DIY, among others. It truly is a one-stop shop. Should this embarrassment of riches not be enough for you, there are another 17 million titles to choose from on their website. Not bad for a business that is still family run. This independent operation has been in the Foyle family since 1903.
|The sheet music department at Foyles contains scores from classical symphonies to contemporary jazz.|
|Jazz concerts are held in the café. Foyles also has an art gallery which hosts classical concerts.|
|Foyles also happens to be the UK’s largest foreign language retailer, covering every living language from Afrikaans to Zulu and even some dead ones to boot. It’s in the foreign language department that I came upon Giles Armstrong. Having worked at Foyles for no less than 42 years, he knows a thing or two about the book business. According to Giles, the old adage that you can’t go wrong by publishing books on “goth, cats and the Third Reich” is absolutely true. To that list, he also adds the topics of vampires and gardening. As for foreign languages, English as a second language continues to be a perennial favorite.|
|Giles Armstrong has been with Foyles for more than four decades. In his spare time, he writes plays and just had his first one staged this year. The Visiting Professor was put on at the Old Red Lion Theatre as part of the REDfest London fringe theater competition.|
|The extensive foreign language department at Foyles even carries Latin translations of Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.|
12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden
Tel: +44 (0)20 7836 1321, stanfords.co.uk
|Stanfords travel bookshop is a destination in and of itself. The store, which has been in its present Covent Garden location since 1901, carries the world’s largest stock of travel books under one roof.|
|Stanfords is a travel bookshop nonpareil. But it’s more than that. It’s a “travel specialist” because, aside from the obligatory maps and guidebooks, it seemingly carries every necessity you would ever think of for your trip and then some. History books and novels related to your destination? Check. Insect repellant? Check. Walking stick, biodegradable body wash and dopp kit? Check, check and check. Famous customers, past and present, real and fictional, include David Livingstone (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”), Captain Robert F. Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Florence Nightingale, Michael Palin, and Sherlock Holmes.|
|Stanfords is known for its wide selection of globes.|
|One of the best things about Stanfords, in my opinion, is its “bespoke cartographic” services which make for great gifts. You can commission a map of an area, chart your travels or outline an event. The shop also offers historical maps of London and its suburbs. Let’s say you want a map of Kensington as it appeared in 1856. Provided it exists and Stanfords can secure the rights, it will reproduce it for you.|
|Reproductions of vintage tube maps.|
|John Sandoe Books
10 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea
Tel: +44(0)20 7589 9473, johnsandoe.com
John Sandoe boasts a cadre of sophisticated internationals along with many celebrities among its customers. It’s been suggested that a note be put on the door saying “Only two celebrities at a time, please.” Indeed, Elton John and Gwyneth Paltrow have lightened their wallets on its premises.
|Books cover every available surface at John Sandoe.|
|The beloved shop manages to cram an impressive 25,000 or so books on three tiny floors of an 18th century building which it has occupied since 1957. It carries many titles for the general reader with an emphasis on the arts, but you will also find a wide variety of esoteric books. During my visit, I spotted a privately published book on wooden Russian churches and lavishly illustrated books on, among other things, gypsies, gothic arches, Islamic art, Boulle furniture and chickens. Yes, chickens. This serendipity makes it a pleasure to browse at John Sandoe – if you can squeeze yourself in among the stacks, that is.|
|The view from the second floor.|
|London Review Bookshop
14 Bury Place, Bloomsbury
Tel: +44 (0)20 7269 9030, lrbshop.co.uk
|The London Review Bookshop is appropriately located in Bloomsbury, the neighborhood called home by several literary giants including Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and William Butler Yeats. More recently, Ricky Gervais lived within its confines, but that’s another type of writer altogether.|
|The London Review Bookshop was opened nine years ago by the prestigious London Review of Books to fill a gap in the marketplace that wasn’t being addressed by chain stores, according to its Manager, John Creasey. Fittingly, the shop focuses on the types of books favored by the Review – those on history, philosophy, cultural studies, poetry and literature.
So, if you’re looking for discounted books or books by and about celebrities, then this is definitely NOT the place for you. The shop carries about 22,000 titles in all, but if you don’t find what you’re looking for on the premises, check out their comprehensive website which ships books all over the world.
|The London Review Bookshop covers a wide range of topics.|
|The LRB Cake Shop is a popular neighborhood hangout due to its freshly made sandwiches, salads and desserts.|
|John Creasey, Manager of the London Review Bookshop.|
159 Lamb's Conduit Street, Bloomsbury
Tel: +44 (0)20 7242 9292, persephonebooks.co.uk
|The shop occupies a building built in 1702-03.|
|This flower-filled, pretty-as-a-picture feminine sanctuary carries mostly its own imprint made up of early 20th century books which have been largely neglected for the past 50 years. The carefully curated list of 96 titles focuses on novels written by women and taking place during World War I, the interwar years and World War II. With their distinctive dove-grey covers inspired by French publishing houses and thematically relevant, colorful endpapers, the books are a joy to behold.|
|Persephone’s unique-looking books.|
|The shop also sells titles put out by other publishers which fit into its catalog.|
|Cushions inspired by period fabrics and vintage posters at Persephone.|
|It’s difficult to walk out of the shop with just one book and I ended up buying two of their most popular titles: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson and Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. The only thing that kept me from acquiring more is the fact that I had already bought a dozen books on this trip and had no idea how I was going to add them to my already overflowing luggage. If you can’t get to the shop, you can purchase the books online or by mail order. The six or twelve-month subscriptions make for great gifts.|
|Colorful crockery on offer at Persephone Books.|
|A shabby chic corner.|
|A flower shop on picturesque Lamb’s Conduit Street.|
Tel: +44 (0)20 7439 9921, hatchards.co.uk
|Hatchards has occupied its present building on Piccadilly since 1803.|
|Last, but certainly not least, there is Hatchards. All the shops mentioned above are independent ones as those are the ones I favor. But, I must point out Hatchards. As it’s owned by Waterstones, Hatchards is not independent, but it is rather special nonetheless. Perhaps the shop’s most distinguishing aspect is its 200+-year history. Incredibly, Hatchards has been in existence (and always on Piccadilly) since 1797! It is almost as old as the United States. How many stores can boast the same today?
Second, Hatchards holds not one, not two, but three Royal Warrants (from the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales). It is the only bookshop in the United Kingdom to do so.
|The shop carries about 150,000 books spread out over five floors. Popular genres include fiction, biography, history and art. Their children’s section is well-regarded for its emphasis on tradition. Read: no Hannah Montana, but plenty of Beatrix Potter.|
|And third, Hatchards is a great favorite with writers. For many new and established authors, the shop is the first port of call for their book signings. It is also where they frequently purchase books. Literary patrons, past and present, include Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, John Le Carré, P. D. James, Antonia Fraser, Ruth Rendell and Joanna Trollope. Hatchards even has some famous fictional customers - Virginia Woolf has Mrs. Dalloway visit the shop. Other customers of note (among many others) are Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and Noёl Coward.|
|The books of the renowned travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, hold pride of place in front of a portrait of the Queen.|
|If you happen to find yourself in London during Thanksgiving, make sure to stop by Hatchards because it is on the last Thursday of every November that it holds a “Christmas Customer Evening.” During this informal gathering, fueled by mulled wine and minced pies, upwards of 40 writers – pretty much anyone of note who’s has a book out that year – comes to the shop and rubs shoulders with the customers. As the writers don’t at all mind signing copies of their books, it’s a great opportunity to do some Christmas shopping.|
|Stephen Simpson has been selling books at Hatchards for 40 years. A conversation with him quickly reveals that his enthusiasm for the job remains undimmed.|