London bibliophiles have a wide range of options for bookshops where there are not only books and literary knickknacks, but also author and community events held regularly. If you’re only in London for a short day stay, how do you know what bookshops are the best? 

Waterstones or Foyles (now owned by Waterstones) are always solid bets, but true bookish travelers will find these independent bookshops well worth a visit.

View of Arthur Probsthain, an independent bookstore in London's Bloomsbury district.

Arthur Probsthain (Bloomsbury)

Arthur Probsthain is one of the best-known Oriental and African booksellers in the world. Founded by its namesake in 1903, the shop now focuses on art and cultures of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In fact, the shop operates a second branch at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London that specializes in the politics, economics, and history of the three regions.

Today the great-nephews of Mr. Probsthain run the shop, and visitors will take note of the lovely tea room inside. Those who can’t make a trip to Bloomsbury in the near future should know that Arthur Probsthain also sells antiquarian books online.

View outside of Atlantis Bookshop, an independent operator in London's Bloomsbury district.

The Atlantis Bookshop (Bloomsbury)

As London’s oldest occult bookshop, Atlantis has been family-run for nearly 100 years. An active magic practitioner passed the shop to his daughter and granddaughter, both of whom now practice magic themselves. The mother and daughter owners can advise those new to magic or experienced practitioners. The shop offers new magic books in addition to rare and antiquarian occult volumes.

If you need a candle, tarot cards, a crystal ball, or any other magic items, Atlantis will have what you need. They are also co-founders of the London Tarot Festival and regularly host speakers, workshops, and ceremonies.

Shelves line the walls filled with books at Freedom Press, an independent bookstore in Whitechapel.

Freedom Press (Whitechapel)

London’s favorite anarchist bookshop, publisher, and newspaper, Freedom Press publishes and sells a wide range of anarchist and counter-cultural works. Founded in 1886, the Freedom Journal was published regularly for 125 years and continues to be irregularly published online.

The Journal, press, and bookshop are all run by an independent co-op of volunteers. The bookshop itself is the world’s largest specialty anarchist bookshop with classic works and modern publications from Freedom and other anarchist publishers.

Gay’s the Word (Bloomsbury)

Gay’s the Word, the UK’s first bookshop dedicated to LGBTQA+ literature (and one of two in the country), opened in 1979 by a small group of members from Gay Icebreakers, a gay socialist group.

In addition to selling top-quality queer literature, it is a safe space for the LGBTQA+ community to meet. The bookshop played a starring role in the 2014 film “Pride” about the Lesbians and Gays for the Miners activists who met there during the 1980s.

Although the shop doesn’t face random raids for ‘indecent’ content by customs officers these days, they do still get the occasional brick through the window by bigots.

New Beacon Books (Finsbury Park)

New Beacon Books is an independent publisher and bookshop that specializes in African and Carribean literature. It was the UK’s first black publisher and a space for activists as well as avid readers to meet. With the bookshop’s future in doubt in 2017 due to the economic pressures that independent booksellers often face, the community responded, rallying through a social media campaign and crowdfunding to keep the shop afloat.

The shop also hosts the George Padmore Institute, an archive and research center for the black community in the UK and Europe.

Pages of Hackney, an independent bookstore in London's Clapton neighbourhood.

Pages of Hackney (Clapton, Shoreditch)

Founded in 2008 to be an inclusive community bookshop, Pages of Hackney sells an array of books from literary fiction and feminism to philosophy and nature writing. Regardless of genre, though, Pages of Hackney gives attention to works by marginalized voices. The welcoming community shop puts on regular readings and Q/As with authors.

In the basement, you’ll find vintage and second-hand books, and a collection of classic vinyl records. The bookshop hosts regular poetry and essay readings and author talks. Pages just opened a new shop in Shoreditch, which specializes in books by women and non-binary writers.

The Second Shelf (Soho)

Tucked away in Smiths Court, this new Soho bookstore focuses on works by women writers. Founder A.N. Deavers opened the shop in 2018 to sell rare books, modern first editions, and manuscripts by women. She wrote in The Guardian: “…one reason I started The Second Shelf… was the historical exclusion or cordoning off of women within the [book] trade.”

Smiths Court features Hideaway Cafe for delicious coffees and hot chocolate. Bibi’s Kitchen comes in handy if you need lunch while reading your new finds.

View outside of Stanfords, an independent bookshop in London's Covent Garden.

Stanfords (Covent Garden)

Travel bookshop Stanfords was founded in 1853. Although it has a new home just around the corner from the original shop, it’s still the perfect place to indulge wanderlust. Over the years, famous customers have included David Livingstone, Florence Nightingale, and Dr. John Watson. Read more about London or choose your next destination while browsing the maps and atlases, travel guides, and travel writing.

With your new books in tow, lounge in the bookshop cafe to get lost in a new world. Not able to visit in person? Stanfords’ website has an interactive world map that gives book recommendations based on your location.

London's famous independent book barge, Word on the Water, docked in the Regent's Canal

Word on the Water (Regents Canal)

London’s one and only book barge are well worth a visit. This 1920’s Dutch barge is filled to the brim with books and cozy chairs to read them in. While it was previously forced to move every two weeks to a new spot, it now has a permanent mooring in Regents Canal near Kings Cross.

In addition to new and used books, Word on the Water hosts talks, musicians, and performers. It is a beloved neighborhood institution, with a strong following — in fact, as co-owner Jonathan Privett told the New York Times, “Sometimes we find [a book] we know for sure wasn’t there before, and it’s been signed by the author.”

Image Credits:

Featured image: “Daunt Books” by @Ugur via Unsplash

“Arthur Probsthain” by secretlondon123 via (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Atlantis Bookshop” by MrsEds via (CC BY 2.0)

“Freedom Presss Interior” courtesy of Freedom Press

“Pages of Hackney” courtesty of Pages of Hackney

“Standfords Map and Travel Shop” by Thierry Gregorius via (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Word on the Water” by Matt Brown via (CC BY 2.0)

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Lisa Fry

Lisa M Fry is an American freelance writer living in London. She loves to read, cook, and explore London by bicycle with her two children.

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