The best bookstores in London
London is one of the best (if not THE best) cities in the world for booklovers. From dusty old shops with books stacked to the ceiling, to secondhand stores with £1 books, to beautiful mahogany panelled booksellers, you can find it all.
London is one of the great literary cities in the world, and boasts more bookshops than even the most fervent reader could ever hope to frequent. If you love to read as much as we do, it’s almost impossible to pick a ‘favourite’ because London has so many beautiful bookstores for every mood and taste, and we are constantly discovering new ones. Below is a limited selection of the places we return to time, and time again. If you have any favourites please get in touch as we always want more recommendations. One additional note: in a world increasingly governed by the ‘gram, bookshops offer us a reprieve from technology, and a way to connect with our favourite analog passtime. We loathe e-readers, have never read a book or magazine off of anything other than paper, and don’t plan to amend that any time soon. London bookstores are paradise for us luddites. As such, we’ve hardly taken adequate photos of these bookstores, and we’ll go a step further to say that while some are undoubtedly beautiful, that is not our primary criteria. There are plenty of instagrams devoted to book porn as it were, but these often leave us cold. Show me a true reader who has ever organized their library by color? It seems an asinine way to find the book you want, that is if you actually read those pretty books. We are scrooges about ‘books as props’ artfully arranged under teacups and flower vases, gathering dust by owners who don’t know their Mitfords from there Ferrantes, and haven’t picked up a book since they were assigned to in school. A key component of this list of favourite booshops, is that they actually serve the needs and literary hunger of voracious readers. Do the booksellers make thoughtful and informed recommendations (that go well beyond current bestsellers)? Do we discover new authors when we frequent this shop? Do we find ourselves not planning to buy anything and walking out with a bag of books and a new reading list? Is there a heap of £1 books we’ve been meaning to read? Does the shop overwhelm us with the desire to stay put, start reading, and never leave? These are just a few of the places that meet such criteria.
Higgledy Piggledy shops: These are the chaotic, romantic bookstores with leaning towers of tomes that threaten an avalanche at any moment. We don’t come here for anything written in the last 100 years. But there’s substance behind the quirky style. There are booksellers who work in these shops seemingly for the sole purpose of reading all day long, occasionally looking up to answer a question, or ring you up at the till. They might be able to locate a specific recommendation among the chaos, and at the very least, the shop offers a lovely atmosphere of kinship with readers who relish a disorganized library bursting at the seams, and the sense of discovery when you pull your next novel from the dusty heaps.
Black Gull Books in Camden Market: in the middle of the busy swarm of food stalls in Camden market, this is the kind of second hand bookshop you duck into to escape the rain, or the crowds, and end up staying for hours, leaving with a bit more weight in your bag. A wonderful selection stacked floor to ceiling.
Keith Fawkes in Hampstead Heath: on charming little Flask Lane in Hampstead, this shop is literally bursting at the seams with books stacked floor to ceiling. There isn’t room for more than 5 or 6 people in the shop at the most, and we half expect the books to eventually take over so no one can enter. The man behind the counter is always nose deep in several books, but happy to try to help you find what you’re looking for, or more likely, to leave you alone as you browse the substantially stacked shelves. They have all the classic authors in abundance here, and the prices are quite inexpensive.
Beautiful, historic shops that combine style with substance: These are the bookstores that we would recommend to tourists visiting London, but they back up their beautiful settings with real passion and knowledge. We’ve received some of the best recommendations from the booksellers here, so these are go to’s when we don’t know what we want, and hope to discover a new author or genre to venture down the rabbit hole. These are the shops we can’t help but pop in to every time we’re in the neighbourhood.
Heywood Hill in Mayfair: This is one of the most famous bookstores in London thanks to its illustrious past and its blue chip clientele around the world. Nancy Mitford famously worked here as a bookseller, but its most unique claim to fame is that Heywood Hill specializes in building private libraries. Have you inherited a stately pile in the countryside recently? Waterstone’s isn’t going to cut it, so Heywood Hill explores your personality, tastes, what you’ve enjoyed, what you haven’t been exposed to, and can build from there. We first read about Heywood Hill in this New York Times article, and had been dying to visit ever since. It’s a bit of a challenge to visit, only because the hours are clearly geared towards the type of person who has inherited a stately pile, and not those bound by a 9-5 (they are closed weekends, and only open 9:30am-6pm Monday through Friday). The shop is small, relative to their broad International clientele, and their booksellers are among the most passionate, and most well-read of any we’ve ever found. If your library needs are more modest than the Lords and Ladies they serve, their Year in Books subscriptions are the ultimate indulgence (they make an amazing gift, we tried to drop hints about this for years before buying it for ourself). After a reading consultation with your expert bookseller about what you like, dislike, or want to read more of, you’ll receive a beautifully wrapped jewel of a book selected for you every month. It’s a wonderfully personalized service, recommended by their expert staff of true booklovers. They ship all over the world, and it makes you feel part of the incredible heritage of this little bookseller.
Daunt Books in Marylebone: Boasting one of the most photographed rooms in all of London, and shops scattered throughout the city, Daunt is hardly a tiny independent shop. That said, they have some of the best recommendations arranged on tables in the front of the shop. The way they organize and feature certain books means that we find something new every time we’re here. Daunt is where we first were introduced to the Italian author (and in some ways predecessor to Elena Ferrante) Natalia Ginzburg. It’s where we first discovered the brilliant food writer M.F.K. Fisher and their non-fiction recommendations are the only ones that bring us out of the fiction section from time to time (Bullshit Jobs was a recent discovery). However, the most valuable feature at Daunt for us gallivanters, is the way they organize their travel literature. In the infamous oak panelled gallery of instagram fame, they have organized guidebooks based on destinations along the top panel of shelves; however, the bottom panel is dedicated to novels and literature written in that location, or by authors in that location. We come here before almost every trip. Heading to Trieste, Italy? This is where we picked up Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo to read on the trip. Heading to Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains? Daunt Books made Paul Bowles fans of us. A weekend in Amsterdam? How about Astrid Holleeder’s devastating portrait of her infamous criminal brother. If you love to travel, and you love literature, you’ll love Daunt. [Aside: For an interesting read on how the founder of Daunt Books has been hired to turn around Barnes & Noble, read this NY Times piece]
Hatchard’s in Piccadilly: Claiming to be London’s oldest bookshop (established 1797), Hatchard’s is the best example of large, well-stocked bookstore that has a bit of everything, but manages to retain charm and heart. If you’re looking for contemporary bestsellers, you’ll easily find them, but their selection runs deep, particularly into fashion, art, gardening, and mystery books. If you’re looking for anything specific, this is the place to come track it down. We also love the fact that the store is arranged into a series of smaller rooms, some with couches and places to sit and read, which keeps it feeling smaller and more personal than its footprint would suggest. The staff are knowledgeable and helpful.
Modern bookstore with contemporary taste: Clean, well lit, well organized, and brimming with living authors, not those who are long dead, this is the place to go to attend a reading, or find a book that’s been published within the last 100 years.
London Review Bookshop in Holborn: Located just a stone’s throw from the British Museum, this bookshop, owned by the famous literary magazine, is a bright, beautiful place to pick up books by living authors. There is a bustling café attached, and they have one of the best literary event calendars in town, so this shop always feels very buzzy, in contrast to the many quiet, dusty bookshops in London.
Not too chaotic, not too sleek, but just right: If the floor to ceiling stacks at the higgledy piggledy shops give you nightmares of hoarders, but you don’t want your bookshops to be too sleek and modern, this is the perfect middle ground. There is plenty of character and charm, but the shop is clean with an apparent method to the madness. There is quirkiness and personality, but you can easily find what you’re looking for. There are oriental rugs and places to sit down, and of course the staff are well read and quick to make recommendations. This is the easy crowd pleaser of a shop.
John Sandoe in Chelsea: Located just off Sloane Square, this is one of the more popular small bookstores in London. And for good reason, the shop is charming and the kind of place you want to spend an afternoon browsing, and it strikes the right balance of style and substance. Everyone from Tom Stoppard to Alain de Botton has sung its praises, and yes, it even makes frequent appearanes on instagram roundups of London bookshops.
Specialty bookstore with a rare selection: A shop that does one thing, and does it well, this is a place to find unique gifts for readers who have covered their bases, or to expand your own reading repertoire.
Persephone Books: Perhaps no neighborhood in London has more literary associations than Bloomsbury, home of the infamous association of 20th century writers, intellectuals, and philosophers known as the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia Woolf was one of its most famous members, and it’s fitting that Persephone books should take up residence in this part of town bringing neglected female writers back into print. They specialize in reprinting female authors you’ve never heard of, spanning novels, short stories, diaries, memoirs, and cookery books, and all swathed in their elegant grey jackets with patterned bookmarks. They have a catalogue that’s worth subscribing to, and the fresh flowers and dreamy street make this one of our favourite places to spend a few hours, before venturing across the street to read our new book over a glass of wine at Noble Rot.
Artwords: This Shoreditch shop is a must visit for fans of visual art, fashion, graphic design, and independent magazines. They have a beautifully curated selection that manages to carry titles you won’t find in other, much larger, bookstores and museum gift shops. They also have sections covering modern visual culture, gender, race, and a few well selected contemporary fiction titles. This is a fantastic place to buy gifts since you’re likely to find more obscure coffee table books and small press publications to impress even your most knowledgeable and artistic friends.
The go-to bookstore that supplies the majority of our library: There’s quaint, there’s dreamy, there’s dusty and charming, and sleek and efficient, but what bookstore do you actually visit and purchase from the most often? In our case, proximity to home, cheap pricing, and excellent selection have come together in this unexpected place. We’ve probably bought close to 100 books here in the past two years, and we’ll happily recycle most of them back to the shop when we move flats. In that case, it’s a bit more like a long-term library isn’t it…
Oxfam on Portobello Road: For some reason, the ever-changing selection at this clean, well-organized Oxfam is unparalleled among charity shops across the UK (based on our extensive visits). The jazz music is always playing, the same old men are always working there, and yet the books seem to turn over week after week. We know, because we stop by about once a week, and never leave empty handed. Contemporary bestsellers that are still in the front of Waterstone’s are here, as are classics, and little known authors you’ve been meaning to get to. The fiction selection spans genres and decades, the biography and poetry sections are robust, and the art books, travel literature, and old magazines and art auction catalogues are worth a special mention. This is the workhorse that supplies ~75% of our bookshelves, and at £1-£3/book, we could afford to build our library from scratch here.
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