London Bookstores Review
(This is Part Two of a three-part series, click on the names to check out Part One: Back to London and Part Three: New London Book Haul)
Now that we’ve talked about all the travel stuff from my latest trip to London in the previous blog post, it’s time to get to the juicy bookish stuff! I spent a lot of time walking all over London and checking out every bookstore I could find. Now I’m happy to share my findings with you! We have a lot of ground to cover, and we’ll start with…
Foyles on Charing Cross Road – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
That’s right, the same old Foyles I wrote about back in October is at the top of our list! It’s probably still my favorite, but due to its humongous size and (overly) clear structure it feels a bit… industrial. Hopefully, by the time you finish this post you’ll be able to recognize and relate to what I’m griping about here. Now that I have some other places to compare it to, I can say that it just isn’t the bookstore with the most amazing vibes out there.
However, there’s one major discovery I made this time—it has quite a lot of signed copies for sale, some of them exclusive. To be honest, this isn’t something I’m used to when shopping for books in English here in Moscow. So it felt like a really cool opportunity to be able to establish this extra connection between some of these books and their authors. I only got one signed copy, but it’s the book I’m most excited about!
Oh, and Foyles also offers some sweet deals here and there—a few pounds off the RPP for some of the titles. All things considered, Foyles gets five stars from me!
Waterstones Gower Street – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I came across this Waterstones branch by chance when walking around the neighborhood near Generator London, the hostel where I was staying during the two extra weekends I got to spend in the city. I noticed the store front and decided to check out what appeared to be a relatively small bookstore. I was pretty much blown away by how huge it turned out to be inside.
It still feels smaller than Foyles on Charing Cross Road, although I may be wrong. But with two (or more?) staircases on different sides and a super confusing system of signs leading to a non-existent bathroom, Waterstones Gower Street definitely isn’t nearly as well-organized. This might actually contribute to making it feel like a more creative space—except for the elusive bathroom, of course, that part I didn’t quite like.
I found a few books there that weren’t available at Foyles, but I still left the store feeling that overall it didn’t offer the same wide range of titles. It was especially evident when browsing by specific categories—race studies, women’s studies, LGBTQIA+ literature, books in foreign languages etc.
There’s one other cool and at the same time annoying thing about Waterstones though. They sell books with exclusive Waterstones content (for example, a bonus chapter of The Hate U Give), which I’m not sure how to feel about. On the one hand, I’m excited to be able to read some extra content. On the other hand, it makes me feel like I got shortchanged or robbed of some part of the story because I bought my book somewhere else.
In practice though, a bonus chapter usually amounts to just two-three extra pages of text that don’t change the overall experience you get from reading a book at all. And I wouldn’t be surprised if people just read those extra pages right at the store without buying an exclusive version of the book (wink wink). Either way, if I had to choose between a signed copy at Foyles and an exclusive copy at Waterstones, I’d go for the former. Actually, it’s exactly what I did.
One more observation I’d like to share is that branches of Waterstones are almost literally everywhere. I only started noticing them after I spent a few hours at the one on Gower Street though. Most of them are much smaller and feel almost useless. However, I was told that the largest branch is actually Waterstones Piccadilly that I didn’t get to visit. It’s definitely on my list now, but in the meantime I’m giving Waterstones four stars.
Daunt Books Marylebone – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Remember how I was saying that Foyles isn’t the bookstore with the most amazing vibes out there? Well, it’s because Daunt Books Marylebone sure is! It feels incredibly special being there.
I actually didn’t know until I checked on Wikipedia, but it turns out that the Marylebone branch opened back in 1912 and it’s allegedly the first custom-built bookshop in the world. And it looks like it too! It has these gorgeous oak galleries around the whole perimeter, and if you look up there’s a glass dome in the roof letting in natural sunlight. Even with all the bookshelves loaded to the fullest, it makes the place feels so light and open.
But it’s only one of the cool things about Daunt Books Marylebone. The bookstore specializes in travel (although it’s not limited to guides and travel writing), and books are arranged geographically—by country or part of the world. I think it’s not always practical, but it’s a great idea nonetheless. Taking a little tour inside the store literally makes you feel like you’re making a journey around the world.
This approach has other benefits too. Literature from those parts of the world that are abysmally underrepresented in most mainstream bookstores has more of an equal footing at Daunt Books Marylbone. I found a lot of interesting titles that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the Caribbean section, and there are several adjacent stands dedicated to different parts of Africa. Central and South American literature as well as books by authors from various parts of Asia also had their dedicated bookcases.
Need I add that they also give out some of the best complimentary bookmarks! In a word, Daunt Books Marylebone is hands down the most amazing bookstore I’ve been to so far. Even if you’re laying low at the moment and trying not to get sucked into one of those wallet-busting book buying sprees, just visit the place for the experience (although I can’t promise that you won’t give in to the pressure)! Despite the fact that the store is relatively small and you likely won’t be able to find all the books you’re looking for, I’m giving Daunt Books five stars!
Miscellaneous Stores and Miscellaneous Thoughts
If you own a small bookstore and help spread the knowledge and love for reading that way, you’re a real champ and a real star! Staying in the business as an independent bookstore must not be too easy these days. As ebooks and audio books find their way to more and more customers and as large chains take over the paper book market pretty much everywhere in the world and daze us with all their convoluted bundled deals, y’all help to keep us grounded in a way.
Don’t misunderstand me, large stores and modern technology have a whole lot of benefits. After all, they make literature available to the largest possible audience and lately (which is probably more a reflection of the changes in our society than in their business model) they started helping uplift those voices that weren’t heard before at all or on a large scale. This is big, and this matters a lot!
But it often seems like something gets lost with this zoomed-out large-scale approach. I guess it’s the institutional role that a small independent bookstore played in the life of a neighborhood, being the intellectual center of gravity that cared a little less about the commercial side of selling books and a little more about educating kids, elevating people and spreading knowledge. I believe that this role has been especially prominent when it comes to communities of color with the mainstream bookselling industry failing to represent Black, Brown, Latino and Asian voices for pretty much as long as it’s been around. So I just want to give kudos to those folks who stick to this important mission and who are doing something really important!
On that note, I visited quite a few small independent bookstores in London. Most of them are scattered all around Leicester Square (I only checked out some, I guess there must be more) and sell second-hand books. To be frank, I didn’t really find anything that was interesting to me but maybe I didn’t spend enough time looking.
One small store that I did like a lot is located in Brixton and is called Book Mongers. It’s tiny but full of books. More specifically, it has a lot of books by black authors. There was also one book there with a title that kinda blew me away—South African Literature’s Russian Soul: Narrative Forms of Global Isolation by Jeanne-Marie Jackson. As some of you may know, I’m Russian, so it was just interesting to see that someone is drawing a parallel between Russia and South Africa somehow. I’m really not sure how valid such a comparison would be, but hey, you decide for yourselves!
I also want to shout out a couple of people on Instagram who gave me their advice on what bookstores to visit. Thank you Makeda (@colorlit_uk) and Esther (@esther_booklove)! I’m definitely hoping more people will chime in in the future and give me their two cents. Next time I go to London (or anywhere else, for that matter), I’ll be happy to check out the local bookstore scene based on your suggestions!
And now it’s time to get to the last and most important part of this record-shattering long-ass three-part series about my latest trip to London. Click on the name to read Part Three: New London Book Haul!