Anyone who knows me will be wondering how many books I bought in London, so I will save you the suspense – only ten. Which I think it pretty restrained.
Before I left on my trip, I bought a new suitcase (my last one died after being dragged around Hadrian’s Wall country), so when choosing I made sure to find one with better volume and configuration. And I underpacked so I’d be sure to have room. That left my only challenge as staying under the weight limit – which I somehow managed to do!
London was an important hub for authors and publishers of the classics and it’s hard to not daydream just a bit when walking around the same streets as Dickens and Conan Doyle. The city is still a vibrant center for publishing, reviewing, and of course, bookshops. There are so many a visitor has to just pick a few as it would be impossible (and maddening) to attempt to visit too many.
Word on the Water
It’s hard to believe there is such a small village feel in the midst of central London, but the restored Coal Yards Drop just above the canal offers garden walks, sloping bridges, and small shops.
Coal Drops Yard from the raised garden walk and the same area in early 1900s.
I cannot overstate the charm of this canal barge converted into bookshop. The selection is carefully curated and thoughtfully displayed in wooden boxes and shelves. There are a number of cosy chairs and benches inviting browsers to sit and stay a minute.
Tucked in corners are cheeky signs and fun artefacts but it never feels cluttered – simply homey. There was also a small wood stove (not burning at the time) that I imagine must be tremendously cosy on a chilly, rainy British afternoon.
I purchased two books from Word on the Water. A clothbound copy of Vindication on the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (her grave is steps away at St. Pancras Old Church) and The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford.
While I am familiar with Joseph Merrick, I’ve never read anything exclusively about him. And as I had just been to her grave, and admire the determined spirit of Wollstonecraft, I added her seminal work to my collection.
Great Russell Street
This antiquarian bookshop is directly across from the entrance to the British Museum. It has every reason to be snobbish and exclusive — and yet it was the very opposite. I’d been encouraged by a friend to stop in because they have a collection of very silly titles (which the owners have since compiled into Librorum Ridiculorum).
Images from Jarndyce Bookseller website
But once inside the shop I found the busy street faded away and the fellow browsers were all bookish enthusiasts like myself. I found the mystery novel section and screened the shelves until I found a Wilkie Collins title that I didn’t have, and was a very reasonable price.
As I checked out with the wonderfully friendly Janet, she asked me if I was a Wilkie Collins fan (I am) and she told me about a festival they were hoping to have next year and about other Victorian novelists and added me to their mailing list (even though I warned her I live in USA) then she simply insisted that I take one of their catalogues on my way out. I chose the one entitled TRIALS: CRIME AND LAW MISCELLANY and I am proud/embarrassed to admit that I knew many of the cases that were mentioned in it.
It was a good lesson for me to remember I am also a bookish nerd and love wooden shelves filled with lignin-smelling volumes — and I absolutely belong in a place like Jarndyce’s.
London Review of Books and Cake Shop
Bury Place, Bloomsbury
I stopped here for lunch one day and had a scrumptious sandwich, on fresh bread, in a quiet courtyard mews. I really sat, took my time, and enjoyed the magical place I was in. But soon enough the books in side were calling to me…
The selection is thoughtfully curated but it is by no means miserly. There are plenty of titles in many genres, spread across two floors. I took my time browsing each section and wallowed in the feeling of having no other obligation or expectation. I managed to escape purchasing only three books — A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross, An English Murder by Cyril Hare, and The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse (A Jeeves and Wooster novel I haven’t read!). Next time I will wait until afternoon and try some sweets.
Those are the proper bookshops I visited this trip, but I also want to mention The British Library, a place with amazing gift shops that included great books.
Everything about the British Library was fantastic. Their gallery of treasured works alone is worth the FREE stop when you’re in the area. I saw multiple Shakespeare folios, Oscar Wilde’s notebook, Chaucer’s manuscript, Monty Python’s script, and Gertrude Bell’s maps.
The British Library also publishes an imprint dedicated to mystery novels. Along with editor (and current president of the The Detection Club) Martin Edwards, the British Library Crime Classics are dusting off books from the Golden Age of Crime and reprinting them for a new audience. I am absolutely obsessed with them and have read several. I was basically a kid on Christmas morning in their store when I saw this display…
I somehow managed to buy only 3 of these books just waiting to come home with me. Honestly, I feel like I deserve a prize for my restraint.
Perhaps next time, I will arrange for a separate suitcase just for books.