29 March 2017 | 12 °C

London's Most Fabulous Literary Bookshops

London's Most Fabulous Literary Bookshops

If you can’t find the book you want in London, the chances are that you won't be able to find it anywhere.

But it isn’t just the millions of volumes available that makes this city such a joy for bibliophiles – it’s also the fact that so many of the shops selling them are worth visiting for their own sake, each one packed with history, charm and mystique.

The Atlantis Bookshop

This esoteric epicentre has been going since 1922, when it was founded by Michael Houghton, a practising pagan, occultist and friend of the paranormally-inclined writers Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats.

The Atlantis Bookshop.

Houghton wanted Atlantis to be a meeting point and social hub as well as a place to buy things. With this in mind, he filled the shop with homely occult bric-a-brac, transformed the basement into a meeting place for, among others, the druidic Order of the Hidden Masters, and also established his own printing press. His first publication was the grand master of Wicca Gerard Gardner's High Magic's Aid — published two years before the repeal of the last Witchcraft Act.

These days, The Atlantis Bookshop still produces its own editions, including an illuminated version of Aleister Crowley's Book of the Law.

It's owned and run by Geraldine Beskin, who inherited the shop from her father. Geraldine’s father, in turn, began life at Atlantis as a customer; he had no thoughts of buying it or becoming a bookseller – until, that is, he reached the till with a pile of books, and upon handing them over found Michael Houghton squinting up at him. "You'll own this shop one day," Houghton told him.

And so it was.
The Atlantis Bookshop, 49a Museum Street, WC1A 1LY

Big Green Bookshop

The Big Green Bookshop is not to be missed, set on an unprepossessing side street in London’s Wood Green.

Big Green Bookshop.

Since its opening in 2008 the Big Green Bookshop has gathered a legion of regulars who call themselves 'Big Greenaholics'.

Owned by Simon Kay and Tim West ("Two blokes," they like to say, "with one bookshop and no idea"), the well-stocked, community-orientated store found itself at second place in the Independent's Best British Bookshop list in 2012.

Tim West and Simon Kay (l-r), Big Green Bookshop owners.

More recently, Londoners proved just how much they love their books and their independent booksellers when a theft left the store £600 short of cash. An online crowdfunder was set up, and within hours over £5,000 was raised.

The additional money was used to set up a reward scheme whereby 10% of book sales go to nominated schools in the area.
Big Green Bookshop, Unit 1, Brompton Park Road, N22 6BG

Foyles

One of London’s best-known and best-loved bookstores, Foyles first opened in 1903 at the home of its founders, William and Charles Foyle.

It quickly moved on to the antiquarian book paradise of Cecil Court before, in 1906, scaling up again, this time to a longer-lasting home on Charing Cross Road, where it earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most shelf space of any bookstore in the world (upwards of 30 miles).

It was just as famous for the fact that it was very hard to find anything on those shelves.

Inside Foyles today. Photo by David Butler.

In 1945, Foyles was handed down to Christina Foyle, daughter of William.

She was responsible for several successful innovations, such as a long-running series of literary luncheons with famous authors (including Arnold Bennett, who showed her a crumpled five pound note, which he had been carrying around for 20 years, to give to the first person he saw reading one of his books).

Christina also created a fair bit of chaos. For a long time she refused to install electronic tills. There was instead a convoluted payment system in the shop that made customers queue three times: first to collect an invoice for a purchase, then to pay the invoice, and then to pick up the books. Why? Because Christina, who was snooty about the 'lower orders', didn’t trust her sales staff to handle cash.

Meanwhile, shelves were organised by publisher, rather than author or topic. The shop acquired such a reputation for confusion, in fact, that Dillons book chain ran an advert of a bus shelter on the Charing Cross Road: 'Foyled again?' it read: 'Try Dillons.'

The Foyles Cafe. Photo by Stephen Morris.

These days, Foyles has thankfully embraced technology. It's still on Charing Cross Road, albeit in a gorgeous building at 107, where, as well as stocking enough books to retain its moniker as the 'alternative British Library', there’s also a fifth floor gallery and a large, bright café to relax in.
Foyles, 107 Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0DT  (and other branches)

Hatchards

Hatchards is the oldest, and arguably also the grandest, bookstore in town.

The shop has been around since 1787, when John Hatchard, a humble bookseller who until then had been plying his trade around the coffee houses of London, was granted a royal warrant by George III.

Based at 173 Piccadilly, the store quickly became a regular haunt of the great and the good, with Disraeli, Lord Wellington and Jane Austen among the following century's regulars.

Hatchards bookshop today.

It was also Oscar Wilde’s favourite bookshop – and, tragically, the place where his wife (Constance Wilde) later ordered her copies of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Today, the shop retains the same refined air of centuries past. The Queen has an account there, as does Prince Charles – and customers might be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled across some fine old gent's living room, with sweeping staircases, gilt-framed oil paintings, and open fires.

Inside Hatchards.

Not everyone has behaved well in this refined setting, however. Noël Coward liked to regale people with a story about how, as a teenager, and short of cash for Christmas presents, he shoplifted a suitcase from Fortnum & Mason. Taking it next door to Hatchards, he then proceeded to fill it up with books.

The whole enterprise was so wonderfully easy that shoplifting from Hatchards became an enjoyable side-line. Until, that is, he was caught. "Really!" Coward apparently chastised the shop assistant. "Look at how badly this store is run. I could have made off with a dozen books and no-one would have noticed."
Hatchards, 187 Piccadilly, W1J 9LE

Heywood Hill

Another one for lords and ladies, the Mayfair bookshop Heywood Hill, which opened in 1936, proudly represents itself as a 'literary landmark in its own right'.

Heywood Hill Bookshop. Photo by Herry Lawford used under Creative Commons licence.

Writer Nancy Mitford worked there in the final years of the second world war – and, according to her sister Deborah, had 'the best fun in the world'.

Nancy also forgot to lock up one night – and when she returned the following morning, found the bookshop full of confused people, 'trying to buy books from each other.'

Other members of the smart set were regulars through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s: Cyril Connolly, Osbert Sitwell, and Evelyn Waugh, who called it "the centre of all that was left of fashionable and intellectual London."

The shop's very first catalogue included the first English edition of Ulysses. More recently, it appears in John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Heywood Hill, 10 Curzon Street, W1J 5HH

Housmans

If you prefer your literary landmarks – and your literature – to come with a pinch of rebellion, then head to Housmans in King’s Cross, which, like Hatchards, prides itself on its age – only this time as 'London’s oldest radical bookshop'.

Housmans.

Launched by a group of pacifists in 1945, including Laurence Housman, the younger brother of the poet AE Housman, Housmans has been not just a terrific progressive bookseller – stocking everything from biographies of Trotsky through to esoteric gay literature, with sections such as 'Situationism' – but a dynamic meeting place.

It was at Housmans that CND dreamed up and designed its legendary peace sign. Peace News, likewise, has operated for many years from the upstairs offices.

Inside Housmans in King's Cross.

These days, you can pop in and find yourself at readings from the likes of Naomi Klein and Billy Bragg – and, for less politically engaged book-buyers, there’s a brilliant range of poetry and literature too, as well as a children's section stocking some appropriately dissenting titles (A is for Anarchist being a particular favourite).
Housmans, 5 Caledonian Road, N1

Jarndyce

If you fancy stepping back into Victorian London, then Jarndyce Booksellers is the place to head.

Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers.

A stone’s throw away from the offices of Faber & Faber, Jarndyce is also, appropriately given its focus on 18th and 19th century literature, very close to Charles Dickens' House at 48 Doughty Street, where he wrote Oliver Twist.

The bookseller specialises in first edition Dickens books and other authors of Dickens’s era, together with what is delightfully known as 'Dickensiana'.

It also has a proper Dickens name: Jarndyce v Jarndyce is the interminable court case which takes up most of Bleak House.

Inside Jarndyce.

The proprietors have taken great care to model themselves on a 19th-century bookseller. This is a shop with dark green panelling, a working fireplace, and wooden floors. Sombre busts of dead old men, artfully framed paintings, oak desks and soft lighting complete the effect – to the point where you can imagine rounding a corner and bumping into The Inimitable himself.
Jarndyce, 46 Great Russell Street, WC1B 3PA

John Sandoe Books

Chelsea's John Sandoe Books, which has been going since 1957, is the place to head if – as well as reading – you're also partial to a bit of celebrity-spotting.

John Sandoe Books in Chelsea.

The website alone sports quotes from literary heavyweights such as Tom Stoppard ("the best browse in London"), and any single day will find the shop full of not only writers (Philip Hensher, Alain de Botton) but also Manolo Blahnik ("the best bookshop in the world") and Terence Conran ("a bookworm's dream"), alongside coteries of thespians, musicians and film stars.

John Sandoe himself passed away in 2007, and the store is now run by Johnny de Falbe – but when Sandoe first set it up, back in the 1950s, it was with Felicite Gywnn, sister of the food writer Elizabeth David.

Inside John Sandoe Books.

The initial bookshop involved 'three planks of wood laid on bricks, upon which were laid out all the books one could ever hope to find in one place'. As well as quickly expanding, the place soon earned a unique reputation thanks to the tempestuous Felicite, who refused to suffer fools gladly and was known, on occasion, to throw books at customers she didn’t like.

These days, the shop assistants are far more welcoming. The shop now takes up three houses, and every Christmas it gives away its own printed book – usually a short story, written by authors such as Muriel Spark and Edna O’Brien – to its customers.
John Sandoe, 10 Blacklands Terrace, SW3 2SR

Persephone Books

In centuries past, it was usual for London publishers to double up as booksellers. John Murray, for instance, not only published Lord Byron, he was the poet's bookseller too (his shop in the City famously sold out of Childe Harold in five days).

Today, the double occupation of bookseller-publisher has all but disappeared – but a few publishers do also have bookshops, one of the most notable being Persephone Books.

Persephone Books.

Based deep in Bloomsbury, on Lamb's Conduit Street, Persephone Books stocks mainly Persephone titles, and both the publishing house and the bookshop were founded by Nicola Beauman, who used a small inheritance to bring back neglected, out-of-print early 20th-century female authors.

Beauman did this with style: the books all cohere to a series design, with soft, dove grey covers and endpapers sourced from vintage material. The stripped back elegance of the books is matched by the shop itself.

Inside Persephone Books

At Persephone Books, you'll find bare wooden floors, artfully ramshackle tables and bookcases, vintage prints on the walls, classical music in the background – and superb literature front and centre.
Persephone Books, 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1N 3NB

By Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison.

Literary London by Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison is out now, priced £12.99 (Michael O’Mara Books)

Last Updated 14 December 2016