Most people probably have it high on their bucket list to travel to London, England: see the sights like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben in Elizabeth’s Tower, take a ride in the London Eye Ferris Wheel, if only to see just how expansive and endless the city really is. There are many reasons for someone to travel to London, at least once, if they can.
As an English major and someone with a love for reading and writing, I had even more reason to travel across the pond. London provides a variety of literary hotspots, such as the famous Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross station where you can pose as if you were running headlong into the sturdy brick wall, on your way to Hogwarts. Or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street where you can take a look inside the home of Sherlock and Dr. Watson. There are even tours where you can travel to London in the footsteps of Charles Dickens on a walking tour.
In addition to these great literary hotspots, London offers a number of fabulous independent bookshops that book lovers, like myself, have to check out as well. Thanks to the “tube” (or subway as we would call it here in America) travel to and from, no matter what part of London you are in, is very easy. But, since there are somany awesome bookshops and London is so huge, not everyone can spend all their time visiting all the bookshops London has to offer, so here’s a list of the top three that I went to.
Gay’s The Word
Gay’s The Word is a bookshop located in Bloomsbury and was founded in 1979, during a time when gay books were not readily accessible in bookstores. They describe themselves as “the UK's pioneering first lesbian and gay bookshop” and they are the only lesbian and gay-specific bookshop in the UK today. It’s pretty amazing though that it is still around, considering its history.
The bookstore was actually raided in 1984 by Customs and Excise officers working for the British government. The bookshop relied heavily on books imported from abroad, since lesbian and gay publishing in London was still relatively small. The government used the Customs Consolidation Act to target these imported books the store had on hand (relatively one-third of their stock) by determining any books imported with lesbian or gay themes to be “obscene material.” The shop suffered many financial and legal costs due to this.
Despite this history, Gay’s the Word thrives on thanks to donations and the raising of money from within the LGBT+ community, book industry, and civil rights groups. The case against the shop was eventually thrown out and the charges dropped, but there has yet to be any apology issued out to the bookshop.
In addition to the rich history, the shop also hosts group nights such as the Lesbian Discussion Group and the Monthly TransLondon Group. Considering it's the only bookshop of its kind currently standing in London, it’s admirable and in fact necessary that it's doing the work to have these discussion groups and promote itself as a safe space for London LGBT+ people.
Just a short ten minute walk away from Gay’s The Word, Persephone Books is the perfect place for a lover of classical literature. This bookshop features mainly female only writers. They focus on reprinting books that are already published rather than publishing new books, offering up a wide selection of authors, some fairly under the radar (no Jane Austen or Emily Bronte in sight here).
The shop’s name comes from the daughter of Zeus, Persephone, who is commonly associated with spring. They state on their website: “the name Persephone was chosen as a symbol of female creativity, as well as of new beginnings.” Their books reflect this, not just with their amount of female writers, but the design of the books themselves. They are well known by their gray, fairly plain, cover. But once you open them, the inside cover is a pop of color and floral design, each book having its own unique design as well as a corresponding bookmark with the same design.
All of their books do have an overlapping theme: “our books are linked by the idea of ‘home,’ though that doesn’t preclude their characters having a career or flying an aeroplane.” And true to this, when you look at all the categories of books they have, you’ll find those ranging from topics such as adultery and sex to those about the suffragette movement and politics.
What’s better yet about this book shop is all the vintage feminist decor, so even if you’re not planning on buying a book or particularly into classical literature, it’s still worth checking out!
London Review Bookshop
Another ten minute walk away Persephone Books, you’ll find The London Review Bookshop. This is a cute shop with a bit of everything in terms of books, from local poetry to more popular and well-known authors in a variety of genres. They have a cozy cafe fitted snug in a squared off room through a doorway surrounded by books where you can drink some tea or coffee and have a snack as you read.
This shop opened in 2003 by a magazine of a similar name, The London Review of Books. Their focus of books centers on the idea of “review” which they define as “intelligent without being pompous; engaged without being partisan.” An intelligent staff can help you with any questions you have. In addition to the cafe area, the downstairs area features plush chairs and a table to relax and enjoy your reading.
With over 20,000 titles of books in their shop, they’re sure to have a little something for everyone.
Clearly, there are numerous independent bookshops in London in addition to these great shops, and this list could go on and on! But if you ever find yourself in London on a quest for great books, you have a starting place, all within walking distance. London is a vast city of history, beauty, with and so many things to do. But it’s always cool to go beyond the normal tourist attractions, and uncover places the locals flock to.