Whether it’s inspiration, mental refuge or just some good old-fashioned peace and quiet in a place that comforts you, a bookshop should have something for everyone.
Love books but sometimes find yourself at a loss as to what the UK has to offer out there? Are you fed up with the way that online algorithms are bullying you and need to discover new authors, new genres and new writing?
Then this is the blog for you. I want to share some of my favourite bookshops. Some small, some huge. But they all have one thing in common, they are palaces of literary passion. Places where ideas, stories, myths and magical writing transport you to somewhere new. What are those places? Well, it could be a distant time, a fictional universe, a dystopian future or the very age we live in today. That’s the beauty of books because, as the star of the silver screen, Marlene Dietrich, once asserted, “You’re never lonely with a book.”
So let me lead you through ten of the best places to browse and buy your books in the UK. Of course, these are my personal recommendations – a bit like books themselves…
- Best bookshop to physically lose yourself in: Blackwells, Oxford
- Best bookshop when in central London: Foyles
- Best bookshop for enthusiastic service: The Book Hive, Norwich
- Best bookshop for community: Dial Lane Books, Ipswich
- Best bookshop for online books: Bookshop.org
- Best bookshop by the sea: The Aldeburgh Bookshop
- Best bookshop for book nerdery: Mr B’s Emporium, Bath
- Best bookshop for respite from museum crowds: South Kensington Books
- Best bookshop online for second-hand books: Oxfam
- Best bookshop online for ethical commitment: www.wordery.com
Why are books important?
Books are life. If you want to know something – or anything – that has been of significance in this world, then reach for a book. Over the centuries they have become central to how we understand ourselves: our origins and our development.
They contain the sum total of our glorious knowledge and will gleefully inform, infect, infuriate and inflame in equal measure. They both increase and challenge our understanding, They can comfort or contradict our sense of ease. They may beautifully broaden or brutally break our beliefs.
We can never meet all of the wonderful writers and thinkers that have populated this world, but we can easily gain access to the inspiring legacies that they have graciously left us within the pages of their books.
What are the benefits of reading?
The great Dr. Seuss bottled the benefits of reading into one glorious statement, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
If you want to get scientific about it, research shows that it increases your intelligence, makes you more empathetic, can reduce stress and help you sleep better. A book – rather than an eReader – will also help you to remember what you’re reading much better as the ‘feel’ of the paper on your fingers gives your brain context, which will increase your understanding and recall of what you are reading.
But most of all, a book s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s your imagination by introducing you to new situations, different cultures, amazing histories and inspirational stories. Come on, now. What’s there not to like?
Here are the 10 best UK bookshops
If you want to escape the world and find a nuclear bunker of books to lose yourself in, then head right now for the Norrington Room at Blackwell’s in Oxford. I still remember the first time I entered it and was all the more gobsmacked because I wasn’t expecting to see what opened out before me.
With over 150,000 books contained within three miles of shelving, it is a world you may well not want to extricate yourself from.
There was a time when London’s Charing Cross Road was a long ribbon of bookshops, but time and technology has not been kind and only two or three now remain.
Foyles moved to its present seven-storey site in 2014 and, in both this and its previous building, I have browsed away amongst its well-organised shelves desperately trying to exercise some financial discipline by not leaving with an armful of new reading. But so often I couldn’t resist and failed miserably.
Oh, and did I mention it’s got a classical CD section as well? Yes, there are people like me who still opt for the Debussy disc and continue to resist streaming Shostakovich.
I love buildings like The Book Hive because it refuses to be anything other than what it is: quirky, irregular and totally lovable.
It is tucked away within the beautiful narrow streets of Norwich – perhaps England’s loveliest city – but that’s not the only reason I visit it. The staff seem to love what they do. They’re not gushing and corporate but real and friendly.
When I was last in there, I could hear an across-the-shop banter with customers that was so refreshing. There’s nothing cloistered or monkish about this place, it is the joy of books made manifest.
What is there not to say about the owner of Dial Lane Books? Andrew Marsh supports local authors, throws himself out of planes for a local hospice, personally hosts book readings for children and supplies local schools, and is completely unafraid to stock the sort of books that would have your grandparents instantly groping for their smelling salts.
His Instagram posts are fabulously sweary and witty yet there is nothing flippant about his passion for all things books.
OK, I must declare a personal interest here as he stocks my own Winifred Smy detective novels, but who could fail to love this place and this man anyway?
And if you don’t believe me, then how about the fact that Dial Lane Books walked away with The Muddy Awards 2023 for Best Bookshop in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire? Oh, and did I mention that it was also the regional finalist in last year’s British Book Awards ‘Independent Bookshop of the Year’?
So, who are Bookshop.org? Perhaps it’s best to let themselves explain, “Bookshop.org is an online bookshop with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.”
It achieves this by allowing you to buy the book you want knowing that it will be despatched from one of the many independent bookshops across the breadth of the UK. Its prices are competitive and you will be buying from an online retailer that doesn’t have designs on immolating all the competition out there.
If you have to buy online – and with the demise of so many smaller bookshops, there is no other choice for many people – then do yourself, and an independent bookshop, a favour and make this your ‘go-to’ online store. You can also upload your own recommended lists. Here are my 20 great novels I’d happily read again.
Readers of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, ‘The Bookshop’, will probably already know that it ended with the bookshop-owning protagonist throwing in the towel. In reality, Southwold does have a bookshop but, despite it wearing all the garb of a small, independent concern, it is actually owned and managed by the behemoth that is Waterstone’s.
So, hurry south along the Suffolk coast and you will soon alight at the beautiful seaside town that is Aldeburgh (or ‘Chelsea-by-the-sea’, as some would have it) and find yourself outside the lovely building that houses the Aldeburgh Bookshop.
Every time I go into this bookshop, I see books that surprise and delight. Their selection can be a wonderful mix of the popular and eclectic, and that’s something I always enjoy.
And once you’ve bought your books, it is but a minute’s walk to the shingle beach on which you can rest your weary limbs and open the first page of your new purchase.
At one time in my life, I was lucky enough to have Bath as my next station stop from the small town where I lived. If it wasn’t enough having this architectural pearl a 10-minute train ride away, it also had the added bonus of containing a gem of a bookshop amongst its Jane-Austen frequented streets.
Mr B’s Emporium is not only stocked floor-to-ceiling with wonderful books, but it is also staffed by people that you are entirely convinced have an even more obsessive devotion to the printed word than you have.
That said, they are also a bunch of warm and welcoming individuals that are like the best waiters you find in elite restaurants: they discreetly leave you to gorge yourself on what’s on offer but are only too happy to show you unexplored areas of the literary menu should you want something new to tempt your jaded palate.
If there is one thing that this bookshop will always be linked with in my memory, it is Patrick Hamilton, for it was in this very shop that I picked up and bought a copy of ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ and my love affair with this man’s exemplary writing began.
And that kind of epitomises what is so special about this place. A bookshop has been on this same site since the 1940s, and there’s a sort of ‘Tardis-like’ phenomenon about it. It may be smaller than many bookshops you’ve been into, but it is so perfectly replete with books that are a credit to the tasteful stock choices made by the owner.
Set a short distance away from South Kensington tube station, don’t deny yourself the opportunity of a good look around and a few swift purchases before heading off to the many museums in the area.
The days of walking into a second-hand bookshop and discovering something thrilling or magical seem to be sadly fading.
Every bookshop you go into that stocks second-hand books seems to have a resident literary expert from Sotheby’s squirrelling away the unnoticed first editions and celebrity-annotated copies, slapping a premium price on them and then selling them to people who will probably never take the book down from their expansive library shelves.
But then, if it’s going to a good cause, isn’t that the point? The real value of the book is realised, and the money is directed to those who are truly in need.
So that’s why Oxfam’s website works for me. I have some eclectic historical interests (mediaeval churches, Suffolk dialect, historical cartography, etc.) and this is such a treasure trove that always comes up with something interesting.
The website sells new books as well but, for me, it’s the books from yesteryear that are its true USP.
If there is one factor that has overwhelmingly contributed to the ‘independent bookshop climate catastrophe’ then that factor is Amazon. Like a motorway, I hate it and will use it under extreme duress. But is there an alternative?
Well, yes, there is. If you can’t toddle along to your nearest independent bookstore, then at least shell out your smackers with an organisation that seems to have an ethical commitment at its heart.
Originally set up in 2012 by 5 friends, all with fully signed-up book trade credentials, their commitment is to improving literacy among young people by partnering with charities.
They have a fantastic online choice and delivery is always free. Even if you dish out slightly more dosh than you would at Amazon, isn’t it more comforting to know that what you spend will be lining the pockets of the needy young rather than fuelling the ambitions of billionaires?