From the outside, Hatchards is a true book lover's bookstore. The moss green exterior, curved bay windows and wooden frames are positively Dickensian. The knowledge that it's London's oldest bookshop makes it all the more delicious.
Hatchards was opened by a chap called John Hatchard in 1797, and has been in its current Piccadilly home for over 200 years. It's not quite as lavish as its next door neighbour, Fortnum & Mason (unsurprising, as Fortnum is almost a century older), but it holds its own pretty well, the Royal Warrant stamped over its door showing that it's not a shop to be messed with.
Inside, another royal crest sits behind the ground floor counter, this one bordering on the garish. They want to make it known that this is the store where the Queen stocks up on Agatha Christies (probably). Straight ahead, an eye-catching wooden staircase offers the choice of up or down. The stairs are carpeted, with metal stair rods — a nice touch, and one you don't see that often anymore.
The Royal Warrants of the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of Wales grace the walls of the stairs, bringing the total of royal approval stamps up to three, while just below sits a painting of a man we can only imagine is Hatchard himself — no explanation is offered. Whoever he is, he's in salubrious company — Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother also have portraits on the store's walls. Before you ascend the stairs, pause to take a look at the display case on the ground floor. It's full of old shop photos (including one of the shopfront being rebuilt in 1912) and old Hatchards' catalogues.
Beyond the eye-catching staircase though, it seems disappointingly like an average branch of Waterstones — no surprise as it's owned by the same company as its perkier younger cousin down the road, which in turn is now managed by James Daunt, the man responsible for founding Daunt Books. Ah, the incestuous world of the London bookstore.
Further exploring reveals that Hatchards does have more to it than first meets the eye. Dotted among the promotional tables highlighting this week's bestsellers, painstakingly arranged by staff with sales targets to hit, are hints at the store's lengthy history.
Narrower corridors link the two sides of the building, adding a touch of character, and are made use of as a mini museum, with old photos and memorabilia, including a shop receipt dating back to 1815. In fact, almost any bare surface has an old photo or a snippet of Hatchards' past proudly displayed.
That's not to say Hatchards is stuck in the past. Audiobooks on CD format are available from authors as varied as Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, Stephen Fry and Helen Fielding. Pleasingly, Roald Dahl features in both the kids and adults audiobook selections — worthy of his enduring writing, or perhaps a tribute to a bit of local history. Literary themed toys are available in the children's department too, Moomins wedged between Paddington and Peter Rabbit.
A highlight of the store is the olive green sofa on the first floor. Sporting a look that antique experts would pontificate as 'well-loved', it lends an air of longevity and invites you to sit, your back to the hubbub of Piccadilly, the feast of books in front of you. Top tip: there are two more sofas on the third floor, slightly less... rugged, and usually empty. Even on the third floor, the single glazed windows mean the roar of Piccadilly can be heard.
The mint green and royal blue fleur-de-lis patterned carpet is the sort of thing you'd find in your granny's living room, but Hatchards carries it off well — classy without toppling over into eccentricity. Naturally, every other floorboard creaks beneath the carpet, the sound of the building trying to prove its worth and longevity. Makes you think — these very floorboards have been supporting the written word for over 200 years.
Towards the back of the store, territory of the more intrepid bookworm, the harsh black Waterstones-style bookshelves fade into a more gentle oak wood. It feels less like being given the hard sell, and more like being invited to browse.
The basement is the only spot where you can't hear the drone of Piccadilly traffic outside. Instead, it's replaced with the overhead creak of floorboards as people go about their business on the ground floor above. Incessant, but comforting. It's tempting to curl up in one of the armchairs in the basement, pull a Jane Austen off the shelves and get stuck in, but the harsh lighting makes it impossible to leave the 21st century behind, even for a moment.
You're unlikely to find a tome for sale in here that you wouldn't find anywhere else in London, but for books with a side of nostalgia, head to Hatchards. On a drizzly day, with the sound of buses splashing through the puddles outside on Piccadilly, it's a warming place to be.
Hatchards, 187 Piccadilly, W1J 9LE (with another store in St Pancras station).