Visiting the bookshops of London (part 7 of 8)

Link to part 1 – intro
Link to part 2
Link to part 3
Link to part 4
Link to part 5 – interlude
Link to part 6


  1. Brick Lane Books

I hadn’t yet gone over to what is sometimes referred to as the East End, though in reality this is north-east London, not far from Liverpool Street station. I approached Brick Lane from its south end, which is a little awkward as the first 20 yards or so go by a different name, so if you are looking for a sign that says “Brick Lane” you will get hopelessly lost. As it is reputed, the place is full of character and curry houses. The book shop is quite some way up the road, maybe a good 10 minutes’ walk or so, on your right hand side and you head north.

At the time I got there, the place was fairly bustling which, given it’s not the largest of shops, made it quite hard to move around. We had to squeeze past one another and a couple of nattering schoolchildren made part of the shop inaccessible for some time. Almost opposite the till, just off to one side, was a fantastic wall full of Wordworth Classics and works of Shakespeare.

They also had a fairly solid collection of modern and children’s fiction. I must say I was a bit disappointed at first by their non-fiction offerings, as this seemed to be limited to just a single bookcase that was not organised by any discernible categories. However, it was somewhat redeemed by a wealth of offerings on local history. That is, local to north-east London.

So I was torn about how to sum up the shop in terms of my purchase. On the one hand, it would be quite reasonable to go for a Wordsworth Classic, but on the other, I had the chance for an insight into a locality I might not get elsewhere. I think I made the right choice.

Book purchased: East London Suffragettes by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor

  1. Freedom

Billed as London’s largest anarchist bookshop, one could be forgiven for missing it. As far as the ‘alternative politics’ bookshops (c.f. Housmans and Bookmarks above) this is certainly far more anarchist in feel and less communist. The address gives the impression that is on the high street but it is in fact down an alleyway which is next to an outlet of KFC.

As with Bookmongers, this is a shop that comes with its own dog. This time, it was (I think) an English bull terrier. Small, white and basically a ball of muscle, it was very pleased to see me, but wasn’t in any way obtrusive. The woman who was running the shop was just putting a small bookshelf outside (as it was a sunny day) and said that I was the first customer of the day, in spite of the fact that it was gone 11 o’clock. I had a good mosey round. One shelf that caught my eye was the fiction and I noted that there were a few works there by Ursula Le Guin. Now I’ve had her on my radar for a little while now but haven’t got round to either reading or buying anything by her, so I was very tempted by a copy of The Dispossessed. However, Freedom is not just a bookshop. It is also a publisher in its own right, so in trying to buy a book that summed up the place, it seemed more appropriate to pick something from the in-house publishing label.

The works on offer here are nothing like what you would expect to find in a Waterstones. So it took some time to flick through the titles, which only served to highlight how uneducated I am in matters relating to the anarchist movement. There were strong critiques and polemics here against not only Conservatives, but also plenty of ire directed towards Labour. The one thing that put me off somewhat was the alignment with libertarians, as my experience of those who describe themselves as such are mere Conservatives whose love of liberty extends only so far as advocacy of their ability to economically oppress others. As a prime example, I might cite the arch-irrationalist Christopher Snowdon.

Nevertheless, even if I disagree with a position, I must learn from it. So I look forward to learning more about the school of thought which gives rise to such a place as this. The floor may be bare, hard and cold, but the welcome was warm and open. As I walked out, it was pointed out to me that there was a box of old magazines on a table and that they were being given away free. So I picked up on my way out as a bit of a bonus. It’s called Lobster magazine.

Book purchased: A Short History of Anarchism by Max Nettlau

  1. Whitechapel Gallery bookshop

I had no intention to visit the Whitechapel Gallery but I noticed it had a bookshop which was just a few feet from Freedom (above) so I popped in for a bit. Interestingly, the price tag on the book I stated that this was an outlet of Koenig Books, which I know as a specialist art shop on the Charing Cross Road; a shop I hadn’t planned on visiting in my travels.

Being an art bookshop, there were plenty of oversized picture books that pretentious people like to think are higher form of culture than those they enjoyed when they were four years old, but which are ultimately just oversized picture books. These hold no interest for me whatsoever, so I was rather restricted in what I might choose.

One of the other noticeable features of the bookshop was that while in most, you would have people observing the unwritten rules of allowing other people past, the Whitechapel Gallery shop was seemingly populated by scarecrows. The clientele tended to pick their spot and stay rooted there, oblivious to anyone else and not moving, even to the extent of ignoring others when asked to shuffle just a few inches.

So when I spied a shelf that held some interest, I was obstructed by one chap who seemed to think it was a strange library where you had to stand rigidly in front of the books and read pages and pages of a single work. This made it rather difficult to get to so I had to be patient, circling back every now and then to see if he had picked up my hints that I wanted him to stop obstructing the interesting-looking shelves. It would only have required him to take a single step backwards, but the white-trousered man remained.

It took a good 10 minutes before he finally shuffled his feet slightly and allowed me to reach around him and pick up a couple of books of interest. One was seemingly a work of sociology or politics asking why we need to grow up (hence my comments about the juvenile appeal to picture books above) and one was a Very Short Introducton to Art Theory. Since this was an art gallery bookshop, the choice was obvious, wasn’t it?

Book purchased: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

  1. Belgravia Books

Leaving the East End, I jumped on the District Line and a couple of miles over to Belgravia/Chelsea to explore a couple of shops down that way. Belgravia Books was one that had been highly recommended to me and so I approached it with some level of anticipation. It was another shop that was said to host a canine friend, though none was visible at the time I visited. In fact, there was very little going on when I visited as I was the only customer in the shop for most of the time, apart from when one chap came in asking where there was a nearby French restaurant as he’d arranged to meet someone there but hadn’t had the foresight to note down the name.

When it comes to considering bookshops on a scale of neat & tidy to messy & characterful this one definitely ticks the neat box. It’s very professionally laid out for a relatively small space. There was a generally good selection of both fiction and non-fiction, though I would say that the religion section was rather lacking. However, I was very tempted by a couple of maths books they had which I hadn’t seen anywhere else.

But they had something here I had seen surprisingly infrequently in other bookshops: a recommended list. They had selected some titles and laid these out especially. As my aim was to buy a book that typified a bookshop, it seemed only reasonable to opt for something the staff here had recommended to their customers over and above all the other titles they had in stock. Some I had read, some I own but have yet to read. But there was one that grabbed my attention, not as a “you must buy me” but as a “you need to take a closer look at me, for I intrigue you”.

Book purchased: Shady Characters by Keith Houston

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One response to “Visiting the bookshops of London (part 7 of 8)

  1. Pingback: Visiting the bookshops of London (part 8 of 8) | The Alethiophile