The 50 Best bookshops
Tracking down a good read is about more than coffee and comfortable sofas. Rhiannon Batten finds well-informed staff and specialist stock
Friday 20 January 2012
This week’s panel:
Chris Conway is MD of The Book Partnership (localbookshops.co.uk);
Sara Sheridan is a historical novelist; her next book, Brighton Belle, is out in April;
Lisa Campbell is Retail Reporter for The Bookseller (thebookseller.com);
Rebecca Swift is director of The Literary Consultancy (literaryconsultancy.co.uk) and has compiled her recommendations with TLC readers;
Olivia Cole is literary editor of GQ magazine (gq-magazine.co.uk) and the author of Restricted View.
LONDON & THE SOUTH EAST
1. The London Review Book Shop
"This has developed as a bookshop in the classic mould, as befits a shop within a stone's throw of the British Museum," says Chris. "However, it does this without any 'stuffiness', and actually feels like one of the new breed of independents but in the heart of the city." Olivia agrees. "I think it's brilliant," she says. "It's a great example of turning a bookshop into a social hang out and then selling books to boot."
Where: 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL (020 7269 9030; lrbshop.co.uk)
2. The Big Green Bookshop
The owners of this independent claim to be just "two blokes with one bookshop and no idea", but they could have fooled many a book lover, says Lisa. "Green by name and green by décor", this small but well-stocked store attracts a wide fanbase to its events – "be it children's story times, author signings, comedy nights or organising the world's first online reading group."
Where: 1 Brampton Park Road, London N22 6BG (020 8881 6767; biggreenbookshop.com)
3. Gay's the Word
The UK's first (and now only) exclusively lesbian and gay bookshop "has become something of a fixture in spite of its radical nature," states Chris. "As expected, the book selection reflects its objective, but in an accessible way that allows it to be seen as a significant advocate of lesbian and gay rights, politics and philosophy, without being intimidating." Rebecca agrees. "We should all be grateful for our specialist indies: if people don't use them we will lose them".
Where: 66 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AB (020 7278 7654; gaystheword.co.uk)
4. Waterstones, Gower St
A favourite with Chris, the large range (with a strong academic content) spread across the store's many different areas makes this branch "feel like a book palace', in which discoveries are still possible around each corner," he says. "As such, the 'corporate' feel is significantly reduced."
Where: 82 Gower Street, London WC1E 6EQ (waterstones.com)
5. P&G Wells
At this independent bookstore "you can imagine hanging out with the ghost of Jane Austen, who lived here on College Street," says Olivia. Kept in rude health in their capacity as book supplier to nearby Winchester College, the shop also stocks "a massive collection of childrens' literature" among the academia.
Where: 11 College Street, Winchester, SO23 9LZ (01962 852016; bookwells.co.uk)
6. Bookseller Crow on the Hill
This Crystal Palace shop is "shabby but wonderful," says Rebecca, with "the best range of imported American literature in London. It is also the best place to have a full-on opinionated discussion about good writing, and is a citadel of light in the community with a proper focus on local authors." Chris also recommends it.
Where: 50 Westow Street, London SE19 3AF (020 8771 8831; booksellercrow.co.uk)
7. Much Ado Books
A classic bookshop, "with books and chairs scattered throughout," according to Chris. "It has an emphasis on the Bloomsbury Group (their 'rural' centre was nearby), but many other sections too. Group events cover a variety of activities, and the shop is involved with local libraries, and several other organisations".
Where: 8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UX (01323 871222; muchadobooks.com)
8. City Books
"City Books has to go on my best of the bookshops list," states Sara. "This bookshop has been in business for 25 years and I was drawn back to it again and again, dollying between the two floors, when I was down in Brighton last year researching my latest book". The staff, she adds, are charming.
Where: 23 Western Road, Hove, BN3 1AF (01273 725306; city-books.co.uk)
9. Daunt Books
"In a book-selling landscape that sometimes seems bleak it's hard not to love Daunts, which always feels as a good bookshop should: warm, inviting and excited about its stock," says Olivia. "The layouts in all branches are brilliant at enticing you towards something you didn't necessarily know you wanted. But I have a soft spot for the one on Marylebone High Street." Sara also admits to being a regular visitor here. "Apart from anything the skylights are elegant and the facade makes me feel as if I'm stepping back through time," she explains.
Where: 83 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 4QW (020 7224 2295; dauntbooks.co.uk)
10. The Poetry Bookshop
"All poets flinch at the idea of ending up in a second-hand bookshop but perhaps not this one, where you will be among friends," says Olivia. Stock includes "beautiful and rare editions going well back to the 1870s and 1880s, from Ted Hughes to Thom Gunn". It also sells all manner of vintage clothes for men. Browse "amidst hats and coats and bowties. A good poem, after all, is as well made as a great suit," she adds.
Where: Classic Chaps, 9 Cinque Ports Street, Rye, East Sussex, TN31 7AD (07918 664512; classicchaps.co.uk)
11. Belgravia Books
The creation of independent publisher Gallic Books, Belgravia specialises in translated fiction and titles from other independent publishers. "It is a great place to pick up little hidden gems your friends might not have heard of, like I Love You When I'm Drunk by Empar Molliner, a recent find of mine," says Lisa. And "the free tea and coffee, occasionally with a complimentary cake, certainly helps to make the shopping experience even more enjoyable".
Where: 59 Ebury Street, London SW1W 0NZ (020 7259 9336; www.belgraviabooks.com)
"Foyles burst its London borders for the first time last year, opening in Bristol in March," states Lisa. "Like the others, this one prides itself on its range. Its glass front and modern design lure customers in and make the browsing experience a pleasure". In London, Sara recommends the branch on Charing Cross Road: "there is a fabulous Italian cake shop only a few doors down and after perusing their huge stock I invariably need sustenance."
Where: 6 Quakers Friars, Cabot Circus, Bristol, BS1 3BU (0117 3763975; foyles.co.uk)
13. St Ives Bookseller
Rated by Lisa for its "immaculate, pretty shop windows", this indie store "goes one step further, a necessity in the times of Amazon," she says. Hence "a special signed books section". Rebecca is also a fan. "Just a stones throw from the beach, it provides fabulous holiday reads, children's books and local interest titles," she says.
Where: 2 Fore Street, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 1AB (01736 796 676; stives-bookseller.co.uk)
14. Wadebridge Bookshop
With its former managers now its owners, this store "continues to develop, with a wide range of books supporting both the local community and the tourist trade – in particular the cyclists on the 'Camel Trail' bike ride that passes through the town," says Chris.
Where: 43 Molesworth Street, Wadebridge, Cornwall, PL27 7DR (01208 812489; wadebridgebookshop.co.uk)
15. Falmouth Booksellers
"High profile events and an extraordinary range make this award-winning independent store a real focal point of a busy community," says Rebecca. "And with a literary festival planned for next autumn, the importance of such a place will only grow."
Where: 21 Church Street, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 3EG (01326 312873; falmouth-bookseller.co.uk)
16. Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights
This bookshop saved Sara's literary life last year. "I was on my way to London and had left the book I needed at home. It was a book that isn't frequently in stock but Mr B's had it," she explains. Rebecca is impressed by its "fabulous website and fully engaged staff" and Chris by its "new independent" approach, "providing an unhurried atmosphere in which book purchases are a relaxation".
Where: 14 -15 John Street, Bath, Somerset, BA1 2JL (01225 331155; mrbsemporium.com)
17. Brendon Books and Maps
"A long-established and well regarded part of 'old' Taunton," according to Chris, this store is "fully involved in its local community, hosting many author events and, this year, the town's first literary festival. All members of staff are knowledgeable and helpful, but without imposing."
Where: Bath Place, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 4ER (01823 337742; brendonbooks.co.uk)
MIDLANDS & EAST
18. The Book Hive
Described by Rebecca as "a wonderful, airy space for browsing," this is "full of eye-catching, intriguing titles you don't see displayed elsewhere," she says, "including one of the best selections of independent press books and art, design and children's books in the country."
Where: 53 London Street, Norwich, NR2 1HL (01603 219268; thebookhive.co.uk)
19. Blackwell's Oxford
"The jewel in the crown of this bookseller, Blackwell's Broad Street is a specimen of awe if you are a book lover of the antique, rare or academic variety," promises Lisa. "The store sets out to promote 'beautiful books' and, upon entering it, you are led into room upon room – or rather world upon world – of exceptionally presented books". It also has "a special place" in Olivia's affections. "I remember seeing Ian McEwan here one Saturday morning, which adds to the literary glamour," she says.
Where: 48-51 Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BQ (01865 792792; blackwell.co.uk)
20. Booka Bookshop
"The bright and airy feel reflects a new style of bookshop and it's established a reputation as a part of the community, working with schools and libraries to organise author visits and workshops," he says. Stock includes both English and Welsh titles, and while supplementary sales of coffee, cake and gifts are no surprise, its 'Book and a Beer Bookclub' is a novel combination.
Where: 26-28 Church Street, Oswestry, Shropshire, SY11 1TN (01691 662244; bookabookshop.co.uk)
21. The Bookcase
Chris recommends this place for its engagement with its local community. There's "an emphasis very much on festivals, culminating in the Lowdham Book Festival, and the quality of events that take place belies the size of the village in which the shop is located," he says. Rebecca agrees, rating it both for the festival and for its "small, lovingly curated stock, much of local interest and from independent publishers."
Where: 50 Main Street, Lowdham, Nottinghamshire NG14 7BE (0115 9664143; thebookcase.co.uk)
22. Wenlock Books
"Still serving its local community after 23 years in the Welsh borders, the shop is in a 15th-century, Grade-II listed building and is known for its reading groups, children's poetry club, author signings, and charity work," sums up Lisa.
Where: 12 High Street, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, TF13 6AA (01952 727877; wenlockbooks.co.uk)
"When my daughter was much younger, I took her book shopping in Toppings on holiday. She is difficult to please and we were in there for hours. I have never known such patient, helpful staff and I've never forgotten that afternoon. We bought some fabulous books," says Sara. Chris is also a fan.
Where: 9 High Street. Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4LJ (toppingbooks.co.uk).
24. Jaffé and Neale
According to Rebecca, the owner, Patrick Neale, is a spokesman for indies, "and rightly so. He has a lovely attitude, a great range, fantastic events and lovely home-baked cakes". Chris also recommends Jaffé and Neale, which now has a second branch in Chipping Campden.
Where: 1 Middle Row, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, OX7 5NH (01608 641033; chippingnortonbooks.co.uk)
25. Holt Bookshop
Continuing to provide "traditional but active bookselling just away from the North Norfolk coast," wins this store brownie points with Chris. "The area has a strong literary heritage, and this is reflected in the choice of titles, its literary lunches, and also the knowledge of the staff. It's popular with locals and tourists alike".
Where: 10 Appleyard, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 6AR (01263 715858; holtbookshoponline.co.uk)
26. White Rose Books
Described by Rebecca as "a gem," this store is very supportive of local writers, she says. "Proprietor Sue Lake goes out of her way to attend events and signings and it's a highly agreeable place, with a wide range and an excellent cafe serving homemade cakes and scones: a great asset to a super town".
Where: 79-81 Market Place, Thirsk, Yorkshire, YO7 1ET (01845 524353; whiterosebooks.com)
27. Urmston Bookshop
This newcomer has quickly established itself as an important part of the community, according to Chris. "It feels as if it's been here a lot longer than a year. Events include spoken word, drama, music and film showings and there is an emphasis on children, including a dedicated 'tuition' area".
Where: 72A Flixton Road, Urmston, Manchester, M41 5AB (0161 747 7442; urmston-bookshop.co.uk)
28. Waterstones Bradford
"Its historic setting makes this branch one of the most beautiful," promises Lisa. "Surrounded by decadent high ceilings and ornate enclaves, pillars and windows, you are naturally guided around the spacious aisles."
Where: Bradford Wool Exchange, Hustlergate, Bradford, BD1 1BL (0843 290 8173; waterstones.com)
Winning a hat trick of recommendations, Rebecca describes it as "wonderful – full of quirky books and local events", Chris is impressed by it sponsoring the local choir – "customers are sometimes entertained with live choral music while browsing" – and the fine job it does of reflecting the surrounding area. Sara loves their "events with both crime and cake."
Where: 5 Saint Mary's Chare, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 1NQ (01434 602555; cogitobooksonline.co.uk)
30. Sam Read
Slotted into Grasmere's gentle patchwork of tearooms and souvenir shops, this small but fabulous bookshop sells just what it ought to, with a great selection of Cumbria and Lake District titles, imaginative holiday reads and plenty of children's books.
Where: Broadgate House, Broadgate, Grasmere, Cumbria, LA22 9TA (01539 435374; samreadbooks.co.uk)
31. SilverDell Books
This shop describes itself as "more than a bookshop" and Lisa agrees. Winner of a recent Independent Bookseller of the Year award for northern England, SilverDell also has a Vanilla Ice Cream Champion title, and sells handmade chocolates. The bookshop serves a strong and loyal school customer base and holds countless author signings.
Where: 61 Poulton Street, Kirkham, Preston, PR4 2AJ (01772 683444; silverdellbooks.com).
32. Nantwich Bookshop
Based in an imposing Tudor merchant's house this store "makes the most of its location, with enough room for a good display of books plus space for events and a comprehensive café," says Chris. "It has strong links to the community."
Where: 46 High Street, Nantwich, Cheshire, CW5 5AS (01270 611665; nantwichbookshop.co.uk)
33. The Watermill Bookshop
Continuing to "combine bookselling with other products and services, The Watermill has used its extra space for a wide range of products, as well as music and children's story time activities," says Chris.
Where: Mill Street, Aberfeldy, Perthshire, PH15 2BG (aberfeldywatermill.com)
34. Loch Croispol Bookshop
One of the most remote bookshops in the country, this is set at the northern tip of the Scottish mainland "amidst spectacular countryside," says Chris. "The shop combines bookselling with a restaurant and gallery and is surrounded by a craft village."
Where: 2 Balnakeil Craft Village, Durness, Sutherland, IV27 4PT (01971 511777; scottish-books.net)
35. Main Street Trading Co
"This shop has singlehandedly regenerated St Boswells and has become a real community centre," says Sara. "It has the nicest atmosphere of any bookshop I've been in". Chris also recommends it, adding that "Mainstreet's events, gallery and café make it a focal point for town activities."
Where: Main Street, St Boswells, Scottish Borders, TD6 0AT (01835 824087; mainstreetbooks.co.uk)
36. Edinburgh Bookshop
Rated by Lisa for its "passionate and informed staff," this shop "has fused its children's and adult sections under one roof and utilises its healthy social network to attract footfall for its inventive, fun and boundary-pushing book-related events, such as literary speed dating and book swaps." Olivia also recommends it, as does Sara – especially in bad weather. "Last winter, when Amazon ground to a halt, the staff here valiantly took telephone orders and sledged them round Edinburgh in the snow. I love that."
Where: 219 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh, EH10 4DH (0131 447 1917; edinburghbookshop.com)
37. Achin's Book Shop
Another contender for the title of Britain's most remote mainland bookshop, this one is three miles south of Lochinver, at the foot of Suilven mountain. "A great general bookshop, and they specialise in Scottish non-fiction, Scottish fiction and natural history titles," says Rebecca. "There is also a selection of original artwork and crafts for sale, as well as a lovely café".
Where: Inverkirkaig, Lochinver, Lairg, Sutherland, IV27 4LR (01571 844262; scotbooks.freeuk.com)
38. Solway Books
"In the artists' town of Kirkcudbright, Solway sells new and secondhand books, with a focus very much on the interests of the locals," sums up Chris. "The town is small and the shop is an integral part of it, very much adding to the artistic feel of the area."
Where: 14 St Cuthbert Street, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, DG6 4HZ (01557 330635; solwaybooks.co.uk).
39. Blackwell's Edinburgh
"I always have great conversations in Blackwell's – and not only with the staff," jokes Sara. "Several times I've met other readers while I've been browsing and got terrific recommendations. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard was pressed into my hand here by a bloke I'd been talking to. 'It's an astonishing read,' he said. He was right."
Where: 53-62 South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1YS (0131 622 8222; blackwell.co.uk)
40. Word Power Books
Described by Rebecca as "one of the few remaining radical bookshops around," this is "unashamedly political, runs a vibrant series of events in an intimate space, and is a real favourite for a lot of Scottish authors". Strong community links, support of local authors and marginalised world literature are other major plus points.
Where: 43 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9DB (0131 662 9112; word-power.co.uk)
41. The Bookshop
"I'm a swot," declares Sara, "and this sprawling second-hand bookshop in Scotland's official Book Town is more an archive than anything else. I've found absolute gems here, out of print. It's a treasure trove." It's also one of the main focal points of the brilliant Wigtown Book Festival.
Where: 17 North Main Street, Wigtown, DG8 9HL (01988 402499; the-bookshop.com)
42. Aye Aye Books
Providing a welcome service in a city that's increasingly famed for its contemporary art scene, this bookshop in Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts runs the full creative spectrum, from fiction, poetry and cultural theory to artists' books, magazines and exhibition catalogues. Music and film buffs are catered for, too.
Where: 350 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, G2 3JD (07946 643757; aye-ayebooks.com)
43. Inkspot and Silverleaf
A bright, modern bookstore with stock ranging from bestselling fiction and non-fiction to local interest and children's books (plus gifts, cards and stationery), Inkspot also offers "community activities and other book-related services such as proofreading and printing," says Chris.
Where: 76-78 South Street, Bo'ness, Falkirk, EH51 9HA (01506 204450; inkspotandsilverleaf.co.uk)
44. Cover to Cover
Chris rates this Mumbles bookstore for its good atmosphere. "It continues to develop close community links with events including author visits, poetry, storytelling and even face-painting," he explains.
Where: 58 Newton Road, Swansea, SA3 4BQ (01792 366363; cover-to-cover.co.uk).
45. Chepstow Bookshop
With family who live near this shop Sara's connection with it goes back a long way. "Chepstow is steeped in history and going there wouldn't be complete for me without popping into this bookshop," she says.
Where: 13 St Mary Street, Chepstow, Monmouthshire, NP16 5EW (01291 625011).
46. Richard Booth's Books
Described by Rebecca as "a vast emporium stuffed with new and second hand books. It's perfect for browsing, and there's a great lunch menu too". Olivia prefers "the insanely sized Hay Cinema Bookshop. There are miles and miles of books to choose from. I found a bashed up but brilliant Robert Lowell first edition."
Where: Richard Booth's, 44 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR3 5AA (01497 820322; boothbooks.co.uk); Hay Cinema Bookshop, Castle Street, Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR3 5DF (01497 820071; haycinemabookshop.co.uk)
47. Mold Bookshop
Chris described this Welsh stalwart as a "well-established local shop with strong links to, and knowledge of, the area". It's just expanded, "and has added a new art department, with both materials and finished works," he adds.
Where 33 High Street, Mold, Flintshire, CH7 1BQ (01352 759879; mold-books.co.uk)
48. Palas Print
With branches in Caernarfon and Bangor, this indie favourite offers "a strong emphasis on Welsh-language literature, but also travel and contemporary fiction," says Chris."
Where:10 Stryd y Plas, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, LL55 1RR (01286 674631; palasprint.com); 170 Y Stryd Fawr, Bangor, Gwynedd, LL57 1NU (01248 362676)
49. The Hours
This Brecon newcomer is trying hard to cater to the local community of bookworms with a cosy space that blends a decent range of books with a great little café. It also hosts readings and events.
Where: 15 Ship Street, Brecon, Powys, LD3 9AD (01874 622800)
50. Browsers Bookshop
This store may be small but so is the town – it fits in well with "the touristy feel of Porthmadog, offering a cultural variation to the town's other activities," says Chris, who professes himself a fan.
Where: 73 High Street Porthmadog, Gwynedd, LL49 9EU (01766 512066)
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