Top 10 Bookshops
Camden - and the Bloomsbury district in particular – is chock full of bookshops. The multiple branches of Daunt, Foyles and Waterstones take a big chunk of the market, but there are also loads of little independent bookshops scattered around, all with their own particular slant and all worth a visit. Here are my top ten.
In no particular order:
1. Black Gull Books, Camden Lock
Tucked away on the north canalside of Camden Market is a browser’s paradise. Black Gull Books is two rooms of terrifically well-organised used books, covering a huge range of subjects. The shelves can skew a little New Age, with well-stocked sections on spirituality, psychology, and one titled “Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’roll”; but there’s also great offerings in the history, poetry and arts, and I managed to score the Vonnegut novel I’ve been looking for. They buy books, too. With another location in East Finchley.
2. Housman’s, Caledonian Rd
Looking to get woke? Housman’s is the original leftist bookshop in London, supplying rabble-rousing Camdenites since 1945 with books on popular movements, political philosophies, social history and calls to action. They also host regular events, including a book club and a pacifism discussion group. Find a new manifesto on the cheap in their bargain basement as well, and pick up a protest button for 50p on your way out.
3. West End Lane Books, West End Ln
Way out on the northwest corner of Camden lies West End Lane Books, the very model of a little neighbourhood bookshop: the staff shine a light on their favourites with quirky recommendations, they regularly hold author events in the shop, and they take their window displays VERY seriously. They even run a children’s story-time every Monday and Thursday in their beautiful kids’ section. Definitely worth making the trip to West Hampstead, for solitary browsers and family groups alike. I’ll be there on 9th October to see Tom Cox read!
4. Gay’s The Word, Marchmont St
Marchmont Street is a reader’s magnet, with at least four shops for the bookish and a load of cafes and pubs to relax in with your new page-turner, but Gay’s The Word is pretty special. The only surviving LGBT-specialist bookshop in the UK has a fascinating history as part of the gay acceptance movement, and stocks everything from art history to memoir to teen fiction. While it’s disappointing that lesbian fiction - both by subject and by author - is squashed into the back, in contrast to the prominence enjoyed by their male counterparts, in all respects Gay’s The Word is a great book-browsing experience. Pick up the latest Bowie biography and spend the afternoon in the Lord John Russell’s up the street - your Saturday sorted.
5. Walden, Harmood St
Down a quiet residential street halfway to Kentish Town you’ll hit Walden Books, one for the specialists. Stocking used and rare books, mostly from at least twenty years ago, Walden does excellent package deals (3 for £5, etc) and also offers a few gems from its collection if you know what you’re looking for. Not necessarily for the casual visitor, but a rewarding experience, and they also sell a bookshop map of London for a pound. Open part-time.
6. Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town Rd
My favorite thing about Owl Bookshop is its super-inclusive picture book section. The staff have clearly made an effort to include lots of different ethnicities and social groups in their stock, which is both rare and admirable; I salute them for it! They also offer a great selection of travel guides, an oustanding lit crit section, and recent hardbacks starting at £2. A great shop for the family - an early reader is a lifelong reader, and the selection at Owl Bookshop can keep them going for years.
7. Persephone Press, Lamb’s Conduit St
Persephone Press is a combo bookshop and publishing house: the company prints a highly selective list of “new and rediscovered” books by women authors, and their distinctive dove-grey spines are an instant indicator of quality. Their shop stocks every one of their titles, and the booksellers even have a “present list” pairing books with the type of person - the newlywed, the traveller, the dog-lover, etc. - you’d like to give to. An absolute don’t-miss, especially for teenage girls and young women.
8. Friends House Bookshop, Euston Rd
Directly opposite Euston Station is London’s central Quaker meeting house, which also runs a bookshop and cafe. They stock subjects including social justice, activism, history and environmentalism, which reflect the Quaker commitment to peaceful political action; their children’s section is a great place to go if your kids are starting to ask hard questions about the world. The cafe is cheap and cheerful, and in the autumn this is a great place to pick up a white poppy for Armistice Day if you don’t care to wear a red one. Open part-time.
9. Treadwell’s, Store St
Don’t be put off by the smell of incense and the witch’s cauldron: Treadwell’s is an occult bookshop, but there are loads of associated titles for the non-magical, including loads on world mythology, poetry, sociology and psychology. If it’s the otherworldly you’re after, there are books galore on alternative spirituality, as well as a small section in the back for jewellery and tools. Always worth a browse, no matter what you’re looking for.
10. London Review Bookshop, Bury Place
A stone’s throw from the British Museum, for many this is the bookshop to visit in central London. The staff are incredibly knowledgable about their titles and there’s always something to tempt even the most jaded of browsers. Their biography and politics sections are particularly strong, but really you can’t go wrong anywhere in there; just make sure you pay for your books before slipping into their gorgeous café to wolf down some cake. If you’re lucky you may even stumble in for one of their many book launch parties.
10.5. Arthur Beale, Shaftsbury Ave
Not a bookshop, technically, but a marine outfitter - Arthur Beale famously supplied the Shackleton expedition with ice axes and other bits of Arctic gear. Located just on the southern border of Camden, where they’ve been for 400 years (!), Arthur Beale’s first floor boasts a great little library. You’ll find it includes a great selection of adventure narratives and books on all things seaworthy, from signalling manuals to shipping memoirs, and a comprehensive stock of the great sea novels from The Riddle Of The Sands to Captains Courageous. Definitely a place to pick up a present for your dad (and then maybe just keep it for yourself).
West End Lane Books
Gay’s The Word