Among the many things I love about European cities, I am most in thrall of the book culture that can sustain bookshop upon bookstore upon bookseller, each window display beckoning passersby to linger and consider, each store criss-crossed with patrons on the cusp of their next reading adventure.
I recently visited Athens and found an entire district of bookstores, multiple streets behind the Academy and the National Library full of stores and stands selling books of every kind imaginable. I wandered in wonder and only regretted that I don’t read Greek. I don’t read French, either; but in Paris I made a tour of English-language bookstores in the Latin Quarter and was giddy at how much there was to explore even in a second language for the place.
Then there is London. London is my paradise as a book lover. How is it possible for there to be so wonderful bookshops? I am in constant peril of acquiring new books as I wander the city, and I’ve never read so much as I have living here. Here are some of my favourite places across London to indulge in my love of books:
Foyle’s (Charing Cross)
Iconic. Five-story, light-filled shop on Charing Cross Road topped with a friendly, cozy café. I love slowly making my way up the stairs, circling around the central atrium and perusing the recommendations that line the walls. My last purchase from Foyle’s: The Dictionary of Difficult Words, by Jane Solomon.
The largest bookstore in Europe, so they claim, and the flagship store for the Waterstones chain. It is immense. You can get lost in whatever genre of book you desire, the selection is unparalleled. If you’re lucky enough to catch their annual Christmas event, they host dozens of authors throughout the store for book-signing amidst mulled wine, spiced chai, and mince pies. My last purchase from Waterstones Piccadilly: The Story of Art Without Men, by Katy Hessel; Cooking, by Jeremy Lee; Dishoom, by Kavi Thakrar, Naved Nasir, and Shamil Thakrar.
The oldest bookstore in London, founded in 1797. Next door to Waterstones Piccadilly. Rare books, first editions, but also nicely curated display shelves of new releases with handwritten recommendation notes. My last purchase from Hatchard’s: An art double feature, Portrait of a Thief, by Grace D. Li; and I, Mona Lisa, by Natasha Solomons.
Daunt Books (Marylebone)
The original Daunt Books, right off Marylebone High Street in a beautiful space with elegant oak galleries and graceful skylights. Sometimes called a travel bookshop because of the organisation of the books by geography, it encourages a more leisurely, exploratory approach to the literary wares on hand. I love travel-themed reading and am constantly searching for inspiration by place, so this bookstore is like something out of a dream for me. Fun fact: James Daunt who opened Daunt Books is also the executive responsible for helming Waterstones’s turnaround and has recently been tapped to revive Barnes & Nobles in the States. My last purchase from Daunt: SPQR, by Mary Beard, inspired by a recent trip to Italy and seeing the ruins at Pompeii; and A Helping Hand, by Celia Dale.
London Review Bookshop
A Rosetta’s Stone throw (ha, ha) from the British Museum, a compact but ample bookshop with excellent curation and recommendations, as you might expect for a store opened by a literary magazine devoted to the review of books. One shelf near the entrance is entirely lined with books that have handwritten recommendation notes affixed beneath each. There is an attached cake shop open Tuesday through Saturday.
Word on the WaterYou’ll find this book barge floating along Regent’s Canal near King’s Cross. If you’ve ever been curious what life is like on one of these riverboats, here’s a delightful excuse to step aboard. It’s a little cramped, but what did you expect? My last purchase from Word on the Water: The Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman; How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones; and The Lying Lives of Adults, by Elena Ferrante.
The Market Bookshop (Seven Dials Market)
Almost too small to dignify the title of “bookshop”, this corner of Seven Dials Market is mostly just additional seating for the overflowing food court, but I like it because it is so on theme: all the books are about London, food, or both! (Though to be honest, if you’re really looking for cookbooks, even the Waterstones in Covent Garden a few minutes away has a much better selection.) My last purchase from The Market Bookshop: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, by Fuschia Dunlop.
Bonus, for a day trip to Brighton: The Feminist Bookshop
A few years ago I made a deliberate shift in my reading to focus on books by non-male, non-white, and/or non-straight authors, and I can imagine no shop more fitting for my current reading tastes than this spunky little independent bookstore in Brighton, with its focus on books written by and about women, non-binary and marginalised people. For a tiny shop, it packs quite the punch with a built-in coffeeshop, back patio sitting area, and a curious box of brown paper wrapped books for you to try a “blind date with a book”. My last purchase from The Feminist Bookshop: How To Kill Your Family, by Bella Mackie (from the blind date box).