I am a huge fan of antiquarian bookshops. Rummaging through aisles (and oftentimes stacks) of discoveries waiting to happen, reveling in the smell of a nineteenth century pulp book (or better yet: a vellum manuscript), and rationalizing whether one (actually) needs to buy the newly-found text are all common experiences for me and other fellow bibliophiles. Some of my favourite bookshops manifest as the most random, disorganized, and cluttered places, with friendly bookmongers waiting in the wings and happy to help locate your desired treasure—certainly not for the claustrophobic, but perfect hunting grounds for the ambitious booklover.
So, when I arrived in London, I was determined to set one day aside to visit as many antiquarian bookshops within walking distance that I could muster. I am an amateur book collector, specializing in William Morris, 17th-19th century medievalism, and some children’s literature (often folklore). I’ve reviewed the following ten antiquarian bookshops in two ways:1 first, I rated all bookshops based on the amount of antiquarian material they carried in general. Second, I rated medieval material they carried, including editions, textbooks, criticism, and antiquarian material. I tend to go fairly slowly and wander through bookstacks and still managed to complete this tour within a few hours. I added the path I walked via Google Maps, which is about 50mins total walking time and definitely doable in an afternoon:
View (Ten of) London’s Antiquarian Bookstores: A Brief Review and Walking Tour in a larger map
1. Collinge & Clarke, 13 Leigh Street
I began the tour at Collinge & Clarke, which is a delightful little bookshop tucked away in the middle of Bloomsbury. While the outside looks fairly unassuming, it is actually the main building used in the British Sitcom Black Books.2
Collinge & Clarke (my photo):
Black Books Shopfront (wish it was my photo):
While the shop is fairly small, it is a wonderful treasure trove for book historians. As I was browsing through the shelves, it quickly dawned on me that this shop was more of a ‘collection’ lovingly accumulated by the store owner. I marveled at the thoroughness and detail of the selection, and could appreciate the care involved in acquiring these (often limited run) books. The owner is primarily interested in print history, typography (especially early 20th c. typographers), publishing, and other topics in textual studies. As a lover of all things Morris (and typographical!), I did not walk away disappointed. I did not find much medieval content, but there were a few books about William Caxton, the first printer to bring the printing press to England. I also picked up this book to add to my growing Morris collection:
I would highly recommend this little gem for anyone looking for book history material or want a ‘special bookshop’ experience. Or, you’ve wandered into Bloomsbury with no clue what to do..
2. Skoob Books, Brunswick Square
Skoob Books is a secondhand bookstore located in Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury. After you enter the door, you must trek down a small flight of stairs to a basement in order to visit the shop proper. On first glance, the shop looks like a real ‘Cave of Wonders,’ with books, ladders, and book stacks everywhere. They have a wide selection, covering subjects from art history to zoology. The topics are fairly organized and there were only two places with ‘medieval’ content: a sad-looking little bookcase that had two shelves devoted to ‘medieval literature’ and a ‘medieval history’ section that housed about five books. Most medieval books were used Penguin or Oxford editions, which is perfect for students looking for a cheap copy for class or a general reader, but not much else. I browsed the shop for quite awhile, but could not find any late Victorian medievalism or Morris. Many of the ‘antiquarian’ books seem to date from the early 20th century and are often not a first edition. I suspect that rare finds could pass through the shop, but it is really hit or miss. Students receive a 10% discount.
3. Waterstone’s Booksellers, 82 Gower Street
Waterstone’s Booksellers is one of the few bookshops on the list that doesn’t specialize exclusively in second-hand books and is actually part of a larger chain of bookshops. Located in a Georgian building on the corner of Gower Street and Torrington Place, Waterstone’s showcases a huge variety of books on multiple levels, and organized in such a way that one can wander through its nooks,
labyrinthine corridors, alcoves, turrets, and, of course, bookshelves. The bookshop’s close proximity to the University College London is clearly reflected in its list of academic titles; the ‘medieval literature’ section, for instance, showcases editions, textbooks, criticism encompassing a range of topics, nationalities, and languages from all over Europe. I also found other medieval books in the history and folklore sections. The bookstore had entire rooms dedicated to one subject, including travel literature, medicine, and crime fiction. Although Waterstone’s does not seem like an antiquarian bookstore, it does have quite a selection of older, secondhand books on its second floor. Browsing
through a box of pamphlets, I came across The Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, which I ended up purchasing. All in all, I found the prices reasonable and the staff incredibly helpful. The shop also has an attached café. I highly recommend visiting Waterstone’s if you are in the area. Be warned, though, this place might consume your entire afternoon if you are not careful!
4. Treadwell’s, 33 Store Street
Treadwell’s Books is another shop located just off Gower Street and about a 2-3 minute walk from Waterstone’s. They specialize in esoteric subjects, alternative spirituality, British history, cultural studies, and folklore. Situated in an old Georgian building, the shop is quaint and cozy. Here is a brief description from their website:
“Entering the shop is a step back in time: the building itself was constructed in 1710, and is listed. The interior is almost entirely original, right down to the archway sculpted with dancing fauns. The original hardwood floors are scattered with persian rugs and mismatched antique bookcases line the original plaster walls. Pride of place is given to the legendary “Browsers’ Sofa” on which many a customer has spent a blissful hour.”
Since medieval books tend to end up in these places from time to time, I thought I would check it out. While the shop is fairly small, they had a good selection of medieval romance, and (not surprisingly) King Arthur and the Mabinogion. The ‘medieval’ content tended to bleed into the ‘fairies’ and ‘angels’ categories that are typical in such shops, but the medieval selection was otherwise well-chosen. Oddly enough, most of the customers and staff I encountered during my visit were PhD students. ‘Treadwell’s’ also has an entire wall devoted to rare books (again
mostly esoteric subjects). There is a couch in the back, along with chairs to sit, relax, and read.3. They also hold regular lectures and other events.
5. Jarndyce, 46 Great Russell Street
Nestled into a small Victorian nook across from the British Museum, Jarndyce is easy to find and access. Opening in 1969, this little bookshop boasts one of the best collections of eighteenth and nineteenth century English literature (and has published over 180 catalogues to date). Specializing especially in all things Dickens, Jarndyce is a treasure trove for Victorianists, academics, and book collectors alike. While I did not find any medieval literature on shelves (and believe me, as someone semi-OCD I looked at every single book in the shop), the shop was a real pleasure to browse. A later search in their catalogues revealed a few Victorian medievalism titles, possibly located in their backroom, including the Chiswick Press’ first edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1886). In a random box on the floor of the shop I found an entire stack of pamphlets, chapbooks, and other ephemeral literature dating from the 1680s-1880s, including rare ballads, plays, and narratives. The books
are fairly priced since the owner seems to price books based on Abebooks and Via Libri (their current listings). I was determined to purchase something from the shop for my collection, and, after extensive browsing (and bouts of indecision), I ended up with a lovely first edition of Colley Cibber’s Love Makes a Man, or the Fop’s Fortune (c. 1701), making this play one of the earliest texts in my rare book collection to date.4
If you decide to spend the day at the British Museum, I suggest taking a half hour before or after the excursion to pop into this wonderful bookshop. Don’t be alarmed if the door seems locked: just ring the bell and someone will come and open it for you!
Continue to Part II of this review, which includes the Mecca of bookshops at Cecil Court (and the featured image in this post above) and other tantalizing places to hunt for rare books!
- These shops all advertise themselves as ‘antiquarian bookshop’ or have antiquarian material. [↩]
- If you have some time to spare, here is a link to the first episode: http://youtu.be/_VAnIepBxDQ. [↩]
- When I was browsing the book stacks in the back, a Japanese television crew was interviewing someone who does historical witchcraft lectures and re-enactments. I’m apparently in the background of a Japanese show! [↩]
- Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an English actor, theatre manager, and Poet Laureate. Although he was Poet Laureate for quite a few years, he is not well remembered in English literature or theatre and critics often deem his plays as poor and forgettable. Love Makes a Man, or the Fop’s Fortune was one of Cibby’s earlier comedies and the fifth play he wrote altogether. First performed on December 13th, 1700, the play was an adaptation of two earlier comedies by Jacobean playwrights John Fletcher and Philip Massinger: The Custom of the Country (c. 1619-23) and The Elder Brother (c. 1625). Despite Cibby’s reputation as a weak playwright, Love Makes a Man enjoyed success and was henceforth published in 1701 (see the image above). [↩]