Our desire to buy online may have blighted many high streets, but, happily, plenty of independent bookshops are still thriving against the odds. Catriona Gray picks seven of her favourite stores off the shelf.
One summer, when I was a student at Trinity College in Dublin, I got a job helping to clear out a very old bookshop on the banks of the River Liffey. Years before, the proprietor — for reasons unknown — had simply locked it up one day and left, never to return. Over time, the shop fossilised into a literary time capsule. The bell on the door remained silent, the books gathered dust and the shelves mouldered as the damp seeped in, until the shop was finally sold and the decision was taken to reopen it. For several months, I was immersed in the business of taking apart a bookshop and putting it back together again. The abandoned volumes were sorted, boxed up and sold, and an array of shiny new titles were shipped in, to be catalogued and arranged upon the shelves. There was fresh paint, bleached wood, a credit-card machine and a restaurant upstairs. It was quite clearly the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, a glimpse into the heart and soul of the place.
What gives a bookshop such a special atmosphere? Perhaps it is the peculiar nature of the goods it sells. Unlike a chair, or a picture, or an item of clothing, you can’t immediately tell whether you are going to like what you are buying—a book requires you to read it first. To step inside a bookshop is to be met with a realm filled with possibilities, where every shelf contains dozens of worlds waiting to be discovered. This feeling intensifies when you discover one that’s run by a passionate reader, someone who’s willing to give space to forgotten gems and lesser-known authors, because they know that other people will enjoy them, too.
Certain bookshops spark the imagination so strongly that they almost seem to belong in the pages of the stories that they sell. One of the most famous examples is Shakespeare and Company in Paris, which has captivated generations of authors and readers alike. The layout is pleasingly eccentric, with beds for visiting writers dotted amid the teetering shelves of fiction, poetry and memoirs. ‘I created [Shakespeare and Company] like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter,’ wrote the founder, George Whitman. ‘I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.’
Here in the UK, there is a wealth of independent bookshops that brim with their own unique charm and atmosphere, all celebrating the act of reading as an endless source of entertainment, enlightenment and pleasure.
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John Sandoe, London SW3
020–7589 9473 — johnsandoe.com
Tucked away on a quiet street just off London’s King’s Road, John Sandoe has been supplying reading matter to the residents of Chelsea and beyond ever since it opened in 1957. Over the years, the shop has expanded across the two adjoining buildings, yet retains its old-fashioned atmosphere, with window boxes brimming with red geraniums above the smart black façade. The interior is equally captivating, with each of the rooms packed with a thoughtfully curated array of books. During the pandemic, staff ‘prescribed P.G. Wodehouse as if he were a 19th-century patent medicine’, spreading some much-needed cheer via a series of recorded extracts.
The establishment offers plenty of gift options and subscriptions, but, best of all, it also does a complete wedding-list service, helping couples to choose what books they might like to be given, then taking care of everything else, from bespoke book plates to delivering the new library, neatly wrapped and beribboned.
Leakey’s Bookshop, Inverness
01463 239947 — leakeysbookshop.com
It’s worth taking a trip to Inverness purely to visit Leakey’s, an enormous second-hand bookshop that stocks more than 100,000 titles, packed across two floors of a converted 17th-century church. The space itself is breathtaking, with its soaring ceilings and labyrinthine layout of tall bookcases that are densely packed with all manner of volumes, from the dog-eared bestsellers of yesteryear to valuable antiquarian editions.
Visitors have likened it to the Hogwarts library from the ‘Harry Potter’ series and it’s certainly hard to beat for its size and scale. Best of all is the woodburning stove that crackles away merrily in the middle of the shop floor, with a large pile of logs piled high beside it. There are worn leather armchairs and plenty of nooks where you can sit and turn a few pages of whatever has caught your eye. It’s the sort of place where you can’t help but linger, soothed by the scent of old books and woodsmoke.
Topping & Company, Edinburgh
0131–546 4202 — toppingbooks.co.uk
Although Topping & Company is one of the newer arrivals to Edinburgh’s literary landscape, opening in 2019, it’s also one of the largest, with more than 70,000 books in stock. It occupies an imposing building on Blenheim Place, which was formerly used as a bank and has been transformed into a light-filled, airy bookshop, with rolling library ladders to reach the higher shelves. It’s one of four independent bookshops launched by the Topping family—you can find their other branches in Bath, Ely in Cambridgeshire and St Andrews in Fife.
The shops are known for their friendly atmospheres and regular events. There are also ‘Coffee with a Bookseller’ vouchers on offer, which allow you to meet with an experienced bookseller and get suggestions as to how you might like to spend your voucher over tea (or coffee) and biscuits—surely a far more civilised way to discover your next read than relying on a computer algorithm.
Octavia’s Bookshop, Gloucestershire
01285 650677 — octaviasbookshop.co.uk
Children will be drawn to this lively independent bookshop, set in a beautiful old building in the market town of Cirencester. In the 12 years it’s been open, Octavia’s Bookshop has become one of the most popular bookshops in the Cotswolds, thanks to its brilliant selection of children’s tomes. You can find everything from board books to general fiction for grown-ups, as well as a collection of handmade Moomin toys made by the owner’s mother.
There are regular book signings and events to keep even the smallest readers entertained, with plenty of famous faces popping in for a visit. If you’ve ever watched the 1990s classic film You’ve Got Mail and wished you could find a real-life children’s bookshop like The Shop Around the Corner, then this is it.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Herefordshire
01497 820322 — boothbooks.co.uk
Straddling the border of England and Wales, Hay-on-Wye is a town that’s become synonymous with books, thanks to the proliferation of independent booksellers and the world-famous Hay Festival. At the heart of its literary heritage lies Richard Booth’s Bookshop. Its eponymous founder pioneered the concept of a ‘book town’ after establishing the premises in 1961.
The sheer size of the shop makes it a natural focal point—it’s one of the best to lose yourself in, with an impressive number of well-stocked bookcases set across several floors, selling both new and old books. There’s also a café and a small cinema, which ensure that there’s a steady stream of people through the doors. Expect it to be extremely busy if you visit during the festival season, otherwise, it’s an excellent place to while away a few hours.
Persephone Books, Bath
01225 425050 — persephonebooks.co.uk
This pretty little shop sits in an 18th-century building in the heart of Bath, having relocated from Bloomsbury in 2021. With its polished wooden floorboards, vases of fresh flowers and displays stacked on antique tables, it’s one of the most elegant bookshops around. Persephone Books mainly republishes fiction by women writers from the first half of the 20th century, so you won’t find the traditional publishers’ lists here. Instead, there are displays of the company’s own volumes, each with their distinctive grey dust jackets and brightly patterned endpapers.
The curators have a talent for truffling out some spectacularly good writers who were formerly out of print and you can trust that whatever you pick up will be a good read. It’s worth speaking to the supremely knowledgeable staff, who can point you in the direction of what titles you might like best, be it lyrically written, shrewdly comic, or both.
Barter Books, Northumberland
01665 604888 — barterbooks.co.uk
If you’re a keen bibliophile, consider a trip to Barter Books in Alnwick. One of the largest second-hand bookshops in Europe, it is hidden inside the town’s decommissioned Victorian train station. There are more than 350,000 books, ranging from valuable 18th-century tomes to modern paperbacks.
Blazing open fires provide warmth in winter, a model railway runs above the shelves in the soaring, glass-ceilinged former station and there are plenty of nooks to discover, from the children’s room to the antiquarian book room, with 40 glass cases of rare volumes on show. The Station Buffet is the perfect place for a tea break, plus there’s an ice-cream parlour that’s sure to be popular if you have children in tow.
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