Visiting the bookshops of London (part 3 of 8)

Link to part 1
Link to part 2


  1. The British Library bookshop

OK, this isn’t a normal bookshop in any sense of the term, but as the home of some of the greatest works of world literature, it seemed fitting that I pay a visit, particularly as I was in the area, aiming for Housmans (see below). I’d been to the odd exhibition here before but had never really explored the library. It’s quite an odd place, as it is full of student tapping away at laptops, sat at tables that dot the place. But you can’t simply walk up to the books. There are signs everywhere saying that you need some kind of pass to be granted access. So it is a public institution that is 90% closed to the public. The only area that was accessible was the “treasures” room where several of the highlights of the library’s collection are on permanent display.

Included here are pages from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook, Captain Scott’s diaries, handwritten lyrics by The Beatles and the piece that I consider to be one of the most important single volume works in the entire world: The Codex Sinaiticus.

I’ve seen it before, but I could never stop being enthralled by it. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale, though I couldn’t conceive of a price for such an important work in the history of humanity. So I made my way to the gift shop where one can buy the usual kind of nick-nacks from any museum or gallery, but I wanted to make sure that what I got reflected the location somewhat. There wasn’t a facsimile copy of the Codex Sinaiticus available and most of the books about books where large hardback picture books. However, there was one set of books on sale that were most apt. The British Library is currently putting together an exhibition that brings together the 4 remaining copies of the Magna Carta to mark its 800th anniversary.

Book purchased: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

  1. Housmans

Just around the corner from King’s Cross station, Housman’s is another of the left-wing bookshops I managed to visit. It had a very similar feel to Bookmarks that I had gone to a few days earlier. There were a few busts of Marx on sale, though not so many and there were also busts of Darwin and Einstein too. If anything, this felt less like an old shop and had a bit more of youthful feel to it. If Bookmarks was the home of the grumpy trade unionist, Housmans was the home of the angry anarchist. Indeed, there was quite an extensive set of writings on anarchism and much more on feminism too. If you were to bump into anyone here, I think it would be Laurie Pennie.

There was an interesting sign on the door that was addressed to any would-be shoplifters saying that the shop didn’t make much money and that anyone who did shoplift was robbing from staff who were already poorly paid.

The door to get it had the most marvelous little squeak to it. If you led someone there and just let them hear the sound then they should be able to tell you that they were in a bookshop. In addition to the new books, there was a small stack of second hand volumes as well as a host of pamphlets, obscure newspapers and banners. One that caught my eye was one calling for a British version of the Greek anti-austerity party, Syriza.

I could quite happily return here and would encourage you to visit if you’re ever stuck at King’s Cross or St Pancras with a bit of time to kill. You’re bound to get something far more thought-provoking than the banality that fills the bookshelves of the nearest WH Smith.

Book purchased: The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard

  1. Black Gull Books

Heading a short way up the Northern Line I ended up in Camden Town, an area of London I’ve never been to before. It was quite easy to find, but was a lot smaller than I had been expecting. In fact, it was about the same size as a small living room, with some small bookcases outside as overspill.

In spite of the small size, there was a reasonable selection here. The only criticism is that it wasn’t well laid out. For example, the book I eventually picked up was from a section entitled, “Physics, science and evolution” which is an utterly bizarre mixture of subtopics. Science would be sufficient, physics and biology as subsections thereof with evolution being a further subdivision of biology. So it was almost in defiance of that that I chose a maths book.

The other bizarre bit of labelling was when I was looking for the christianity books. They were labelled under “Self Improvement” which is a very poor description of the christian faith. That said, the selection was quite good and I was tempted by a copy of Augustine’s City of God. There was also quite a lot on jazz and blues, but that’s not a topic I’m particularly interested in reading about.

Book purchased: Further Mathematical Diversions by Martin Gardner

  1. Primrose Hill Books

After exploring the labyrinthine Camden market I found my way out and heading towards Primrose Hill. As the name suggests, it’s on a hill. There’s a sort of sub-park just to the north of Regent’s Park, the summit of which has quite a good view over the city, though on the day I visited, there was a bitingly cold wind in spite of it being rather sunny.

The bookshop is stocked almost entirely by new books and is very heavily biased towards the fiction end of the market. It is a rather small shop and I was the only person in there. One of the things that made it a bit awkward was that it was sort of elongated and the shopkeeper had a clear line of sight to the door. So unless you darted off to one side as soon as you walked in, you would be forced to walk straight towards them.

This evinced in me a fear of those dreaded words “Can I help you?” which usually suffice to send me straight out of any shop, never to return. So my tactic was to make sure I was out of sight for a bit, which got me browsing around the crime fiction section, which seemed to merge into a very generic non-fiction section. I couldn’t find anything specifically on religion and the science section was rather limited in its range.

The floor was nicely comforting. It was carpeted but charmingly wonky in places. So you could shuffle around for a while, but the size of the shop means that it’s probably best when there are no more than 3 or 4 people browsing.

So, what could I get that was a fiction work and had some sort of sense of smallness to it?

Book purchased: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton


Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at some of the shops around Blooomsbury and Euston.