I don’t know about you, but I cannot walk past a bookshop without walking in. It doesn’t matter if I scoured the shelves the day before–I always walk in. It’s like walking past a pet shop with tiny puppies with their droopy eyes begging you to take something home.
But because we live in a tiny shoe box of a flat, we don’t have ample space for my book habit. It also doesn’t help living like nomads. We have to be portable and able to pack up our things quickly and cost-effectively. Even with Jeff’s voice in the back of my mind saying, “Don’t do it,” I can’t ignore the siren song of knowledge. But to appease him, I’ve reverted to taking photos of book covers so I can remember to find them at a later time.
Something that London has in spades is second-hand book shops selling a wide array of novels, history books, antique books for pennies (or pence)! It’s astounding the things I’ve found for a couple quid. For example, I walked into a charity shop to donate some old clothes, and I walked out £3 poorer by picking up a book that was given to a child on August 1, 1890. I couldn’t believe this antique was sitting there and not in a collection of some sort.
Other shops around town will often have a box out front offering books for one or two pounds, and inevitably, I’ll leaf through them looking for another discarded gem. If you’re like me and love reading, and also find yourself in London, here are my top five favorite spots for book shopping.
The first I’ll mention is Oxfam. I absolutely love going to Oxfam, and it’s become a regular haunt for me. The employees now recognize me as I walk in. This tiny little storefront in Ealing always has a window display that captures my attention, and because they are a charity, I never feel bad spending a few quid here. With dozens of locations all over town, Oxfam supports international poverty schemes and has been for fifteen years.
I have found a lovely vintage Divine Comedy set, War and Peace in Dante, and a full volume of Arthur Miller plays. When I saw each of these books, I gasped and grabbed them as if I was about to get into a battle with another customer. One day, I did pick up five titles. I just couldn’t bring myself to put any of them back before leaving. The manager of the store just told me to tell Jeff they were having a five book minimum requirement that day. I didn’t think it would fly, but I gave it a go nonetheless.
One of our favorite past times on lazy weekends is to window shop and walk around Chiswick. The little borough is perfect for just that with vintage stores, massive shops, and many, many book stores. One such store is The Bookcase. Every day, they have two tables set out front with books for £1-2. They aren’t always amazing titles, but I have certainly picked up a couple of books from the outside. Just inside the door, to beckon you in, is another box filled with clearance books. It’s a brilliant way to tease the passer-by through the front doors.
Once inside, you are surrounded by half price or massively discounted novels. You can get most books for under a fiver, and they are awesome titles. They seem like an overstock retailer with multiple copies of the books rather than like a donate/charity shop. This place is usually where we find great history books like Bridge of Spies for £2.99 and Civil War by Peter Ackroyd for £3.99. For a weekend in Chiswick, it’s a great stop.
The last place I’ll mention for the west side is Paperback Coffee and Tea Cafe in South Ealing. This is one of those places with books outside for a pound. I walk by at least once a week and search the three library carts or table tops for finds. Inside they have more titles for a couple more quid, but I have always stuck to the bargain bin.
Known for their coffee, this quirky little place has been around for fifteen years. I’ve only been in to hand over my single pound time to time, but they always have different and fun looking treats to go with their specialty coffees. I’ve found titles like Cross Stitch (the original title for Outlander by Diana Gabaldon) and the whole Conqueror series by Conn Iggulden. I felt especially lucky that day because they were just closing up shop saying all books outside were two for a pound. Five books by Iggulden wound up costing £2.50. I’m really not a bargain hunter, but that was a deal I “couldn’t refuse.”
When the weather is good in London, Jeff and I love heading toward Southbank Centre. They have a ton of food trucks just behind the festival hall, but on many weekends, they have full-on festivals. In May, they had this wonderful Spanish food festival with trucks and tents set up selling everything you could imagine from Spanish wine to chorizo to marzipan. Just a few weekends ago, there was an Indian food festival called Alchemy featuring Pakistani cocktails, delicious curries, and even gluten-free apple crumble. I know the crumble wasn’t inherently Indian, but I was thrilled to partake in the usually gluten-ous dessert.
But down the way from the food trucks and right in front of the BFI Southbank is the Southbank Book Market. Open most days, this space underneath Waterloo Bridge is covered with tables upon tables of used books. It’s books as far as the eye can see, and it is almost impossible to see everything. [I say almost because I have spent hours looking over every title once upon a time.] You do pay a little more than the £2 because you’re in central London, but the books are in great condition and are a wide variety.
They also have vintage posters for sale and most of everything from comics to coffee table books. Many times, we have walked out with our bags a little heavier, and my latest acquisition is perfect research for the short story I’m writing called When Stars Align. I was so excited to pick up The Genius and the Goddess that I gasped when I picked it up. A common practice for me and books, it seems. Just a note if you want to go shop, they are a cash only enterprise. So bring a couple singles with you.
I can’t talk about London bookshops and not mention Waterstones and Foyles. Both of these are full-on retailers, so don’t think you’re going to find a bargain walking into these fancy places, but they both have a long-standing history with the city. Foyles first opened in 1903 when brothers William and Gilbert Foyle both failed their civil service exams and resold their textbooks for profit. By 1906, they had a storefront in Charing Cross and was a full on enterprise.
Interestingly, during WWII when Hitler was burning books in Germany, William requested that Hitler send all of the books to London if they didn’t want them. William even offered to purchase them. Hitler replied that Germany didn’t have any books to give or sell. In response, William and Gilbert used Mein Kempf as roof coverings during the Blitz hoping to ward off bombers.
Waterstones is a much newer enterprise and works very much at a corporate level. I imagine Waterstones like Fox Books in You’ve Got Mail. They have a cafe inside with games and massive displays for the shopping reader. I have shopped more frequently at Waterstones than the historic Foyles only out of convenience. Waterstones shops are everywhere! And you can find anything you could possibly want in the shelves.
But if you want to be amazed, Foyles on Charing Cross Road near Leicester Square is a spectacle. Six floors of wall to wall books just engulf you as you walk in. You can get lost in there for hours. (I speak from experience.)
I’ll mention one more place as an honorable mention because it has recently closed its doors. Formerly on Gloucester Road, Slightly Foxed was a specialty bookstore that had a £1 cart out front. On my way to my Saturday morning volunteering job, I would casually walk by and look through the cases. I have picked up a couple things like Marriages are Made in Bond Street, and I was so sad to see it closed quite unexpectedly one morning. (They are now located on Hoxton Street.)
I loved walking down into the basement to see the library-like feeling to the room, and look at antique titles for sale. I could never afford the gorgeous tomes, but I did pretend to be Belle in Beauty in the Beast on occasion.
There are dozens upon dozens of other fantastic bookshops in London, but these are my top five and most visited haunts in the city. Do you have second-hand shops in your town? Tell me about them, and I’ll work toward visiting them!
For some of our foreign book shop finds, check out my entries below.
- Krakow, Poland, a city whose biggest export is literature
- Porto, Portugal, a city with a world famous bookstore