All the Bookstores I Went to in London

Did you hear that I went to London? My beautiful London! I haven’t been to London since 2009, in spite of my very intense love for it, so it was great to be reunited. I went with my lovely mum and my lovely friend Alice, which was an absolute treat all around. We had Ethiopian food and Persian food and delicious gnocchi and Pieminister pies, and I bought, um, a certain quantity of books.

nothing to see here ha ha everything’s fine

The thing is, London has kind of a lot of excellent bookshops, and I had left a lot of spare room in my suitcase, so. I mean. It’s not really my fault, is what I’m saying. It cannot really be construed as being my fault.



Let me tell you the problem with Foyles. The problem with Foyles is that the sections that in most bookshops are like, one single shelf out of a great big bookshelf? Those sections, in Foyles, are MASSIVE. Here is proof:


They have more than one storey dedicated to nonfiction. They have so many shelves of books in French that I had to whine for a while to drag Alice away from all her possible French book choices. Alice and I settled down in front of the English history section and made yearning-cat noises for like an hour. I got a copy of Paul Gallico’s Jennie, a book about a boy who turns into a cat and befriends another cat called Jennie and the volume of Christopher Fry’s plays that I don’t already have.

I nearly bought a big volume of Brian Friel’s plays, to get Translations, but I was like “Oh, Translations is famous, you’ll be able to buy it just on its own somewhere.” We also hunted for My Cousin Rachel, which Alice wanted, but Foyles did not have it.

The Other Bookshops on Charing Cross Road

Actually they seemed to be having a bit of a dry spell! Or else my interests have changed in the eight years since I last did this. I only got one book in like four Charing Cross Road bookshops, but it was a very good one: A Folio Society edition of the most adorable joint biography of the Brownings you can imagine. There’s a quote in it where Samuel Coleridge’s daughter gets sniffy about how into his wife Robert Browning was.

In all of them, Alice and I quested for a cheap copy of Return of the King for my mum, a used copy of My Cousin Rachel for Alice, and literally any copy of Brian Friel’s Translations for me. No joy.

The Really Huge Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Ave

In addition to being an unimaginably massive comic book shop in its own right, our trip to Forbidden Planet also led us on a small detour to Seven Dials, of which Alice approved mightily. (I had never heard of it before, I ADMIT IT.) And then the theatre where Matilda was playing was right there, so we popped in to inquire about day tickets, and Alice, who is lovely, ended up taking us both to see Matilda that evening. Day tickets!

I wish I’d taken pictures. They had so many comics. They had more comics than I’ve ever seen in one place before. “Megastore” in this case was no idle threat. I didn’t buy any comics, though. I figured I could get them for cheaper in America and they’d be too heavy for my suitcase.

However, I did — and I confess this freely — buy what I told Alice would be my third copy of Neverwhere, but it was actually my fourth. (I fessed up later.) I’m going to get rid of one of them though! And only have three, total! It’s just that this one had these excellent Chris Riddell illustrations interspersed throughout, and Alice had never read Neverwhere before so I wanted her to get to read it while in London. MY MOTIVES WERE NOBLE is what I’m saying.

They did have Return of the King, but only new copies, and none for cheaper than eight pounds. My mum had stipulated a ceiling price of five.

Amnesty International Charity Bookshop in Cambridge

Try not to be jealous, y’all, but I met Ana. It was very, very, very exciting. We have been blog friends for nearly a decade. I hugged her so vigorously that she was probs like “this is too much hug,” and then she took us on a tour of Cambridge, which was absolutely beautiful and which included a stop at this Amnesty International Charity Bookshop.

No shots at America, but Britain has really outdone us as regards charity bookshops. They have regular charity shops, which have book sections, but then they also have special charity shops that are just books. It’s nuts! It’s brilliant! I love it! I got a copy of a gender book Ana recommended, an old Noel Streatfeild book I hadn’t heard of, and a totally nice hardback copy of The Essex Serpent for like four pounds.

No cheap copies of Return of the King or My Cousin Rachel. Nor Translations, although I wasn’t particularly expecting it.


Ana described this as the Cambridge bookshop, and I cannot disagree having been in it. I wanted to roll around in it. They had these lovely matching editions of all Dorothy Sayers’s books, which I resisted only by reminding myself that if I bought one I’d have to buy them all, and they’d never all fit in my suitcase.

I did buy The Good Immigrant (at lasssssssssssssssssstttttttttt!), Patrick Ness’s latest, and Hilary McKay’s latest. My lovely mum also bought me one of these notebooks, which I treasure. I wish we’d bought ten. I love them. If you are in Oxford or Cambridge or Amsterdam, buy these notebooks! They are so beautiful and great!

Insanely, they did not have any Brian Friel (he is a famous playwright! what gives!) or any copies of My Cousin Rachel, the latter of which I put down to everyone having bought up all their stock in anticipation of the forthcoming movie.

Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange

In the days of my wild and wanton youth, when I lived in London for a month, I haunted the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange, like, daily. I bought a ton of old Sandman single issues, which are the only floppies I own. I was delighted to see, on this trip, that not only is the Book and Comic Exchange still open, but it has now expanded into two separate storefronts: Books are in one shop. Comics (plus SF) are in another. BRILLIANT RIGHT?

Guess what they had: Brian Friel’s Translations. At last my faith in London bookstores was justified! (NB it was justified already because Foyles totally had a bunch of Brian Friel omnibuses.) I also bought a copy of Tom Stoppard’s latest play, which I thought was just okay but like, I have all his other plays? So it feels weird not to have this one too? Then I went next door to the comics section and bought three volumes of Joss Whedon’s run on X-Men, which is mostly about Kitty Pryde.

No My Cousin Rachel. No Return of the King, if you can believe that.

This One Book Stall on Antiques Day on Portobello Road

I was all set to walk past this one! “I don’t need any antique books,” I said to myself with great certainty. But my mum stopped, so I stopped with her, and then the guy turned out to have an entire set of 1946 editions of the Nuremberg trial transcripts. I became so emotional over them that he gave me one for free when I bought three. I wanted to buy the whole set (this is becoming a refrain) but they wouldn’t have fitted in my suitcase. In retrospect, honestly, I wish I’d just bought the whole set and figured it out later.

The Oxfam Books on Portobello Road

On our way back from a preposterously delicious meal at the Portobello Garden Caffe, my mum again voiced a wish for a cheap copy of Return of the King. I was like “Let’s stop at that Oxfam! I have a good feeling about it!”

I was….not completely correct, insofar as they did not have any copies whatsoever of Return of the King. But you know what they did have? MY COUSIN RACHEL HUZZAH AT LAST CALLOO CALLAY.

Walden Books

On Saturday I met up with Book Snob Rachel and Stuck in a Book Simon and we did book-shopping and pizza-eating and chatted about books in a setting about which more anon. Walden Books is a dear little shop shop in North London which none of us had been to or heard of but which had a very nice used copy of Saplings as well as two (!) volumes of Mollie Panter-Downes.

Walden Books

The Oxfam Books in Hampstead

Then Rachel hauled us off to Hampstead to inspect the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and I finally finally finally found a cheap copy of Return of the King. The Oxfam bookshop, moreover, yielded a copy of Liza Picard’s Victorian London, which someone sometime told me was really good. They had her Elizabethan London as well, but I was trying to exercise restraint by this point in the trip. Dear oh dear how bad at it I am where books are concerned.

I had actually meant to be done with buying books on the Thursday, as I already had assembled quite a stack of things. I was concerned that my stacks of books was too vast and too heavy to take back in my suitcase. “No more books,” I said to myself sternly on the Thursday. “Maybe one on Simon and Rachel day. MAYBE.” And then I went and bought five. So by Sunday morning, I was extremely confident that I would buy no more books whatsoever.

But then I packed. I packed my suitcase on Sunday morning, just to make sure that I’d have enough space for everything. And actually I had…kind of a lot of space left over? I mean, not a lot, but like, some space. You know how suitcases have that extra zip where you unzip it and it gives the suitcase a bit of extra width? I hadn’t even unzipped that zipper, that’s how much space I still had left.

It’s also important to understand that Alice and I had been seeing Daunt Books bags all over London. Everywhere we went, we saw people with these Daunt Books tote bags. I asked Rachel about it, and she said, “Well, they give them away if you buy a hardcover. So everybody’s got one.” Alice asked one of her British friends, and her friend said, “Oh, you can’t really call yourself a book person if you don’t have a bag from Daunt Books.”

I meeeeeeeeean.

Daunt Books

“Daunt Books is point-oh-seven miles from here,” said Alice to me on Sunday morning.

“Oh we had better go check it out then,” said I to Alice.

It wasn’t the main Daunt Books. It was just the little one, the satellite one in Holland Park, so that was how I justified it to myself. I also had a plan that I could buy as few as zero but as many as five books there, if I ended up wanting to. Because of all the space in my suitcase. And because I wanted a Daunt Books tote bag.

Daunt Books (Holland Park)

I am happy to report that Daunt Books is not just coasting on its reputation. They are foremost a travel bookshop, but what that means in practice is that their shelves (I mean, they also have Fiction and Nonfiction general shelves, and Children’s) are organized by country/region. Within that, they have travel books and nonfiction books about that country and fiction by authors from that country. Great, right?

So anyway I bought a book about the brutal boarding schools upper-class British children have to attend (BRUTAL) and a book about color that won me over with its exceptionally beautiful design and Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne book that Ana liked so much and had mentioned to me when I was in Cambridge so it was fresh in my mind.

And that is all the bookshops I went to in London. And in the event, my suitcase was under the maximum allowed weight by nearly two pounds.

A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab

I am but human, friends. If you cut me, do I not bleed? If you design a supercool cover for a book about magical London, do I not eventually give in and get that book from the library?

A Darker Shade of Magic
let’s give some love to jacket artist/designer Will Staehle for this one, eh?

The protagonist of A Darker Shade of Magic, Kell, is a messenger between three separate Londons: In his own, Red London, where magic is common but his type of magic, Antari magic, is all too rare, he is something like a prince and something like a possession. In Grey London, he trades jokes with a mad king and meets a girl thief who dreams of becoming a pirate. In White London, he tries not to anger the unstable, power-mad Dane twins who rule the city (for now). And nobody goes to Black London anymore, since it was overrun with greedy magic and sealed away from the other worlds.

A Darker Shade of Magic starts off slow, and I had to remind myself of the cover art several times to keep myself going. Once you have a grip on which London is which and what distinguishes each one, it’s okay, but there’s a lot of premise to lay out here, and the result is that the plot takes longer to get going. First you have to establish Kell’s life, then Lila’s life (that’s the girl thief pirate character), then you have to set up the MacGuffin, then you have to get Kell and Lila in one place so they can have an adventure — it is a lot of things, and it just takes a while to crank into gear.

That maybe sounds more negative than I wanted it to, so I’ll add that I’m looking forward to trying the sequel. In a world this complicated, a sequel might be a better read than the original book, because the author doesn’t have to spend so much time setting the scene. Here it was like the first Harry Potter book, where it’s 2 parts scene-setting to 1 part plot, except that here the scene features more blood magic and necromancy and not quite so many delightful pets and broomstick shenanigans.

Too many notes, basically, is my review of this book. Just cut a few, and it’ll be perfect! But I am on board with this trilogy and will be reading the second (with its equally gorgeous cover!) when it comes out.

Review: The Unwritten, Vol. 1, Mike Carey and Peter Goss

For the Graphic Novel Challenge!

The Unwritten is about a guy called Tom whose father – long since disappeared without a trace – wrote an incredibly popular series of books about a character with Tom’s same name: Tommy Taylor.  However, it turns out that all the paperwork proving Tom is his father’s son has been forged.  At first it is theorized that he is a fraud, the son of Romanian peasants; then people begin to believe that he is, in fact, Tommy Taylor, brought into existence by the stories themselves.  The word made flesh.

The Unwritten is set in London, a place with whose literary history Tom is very familiar.  His father was always telling him stories about the places in England and how they connect to books and authors – this plays into the unfolding of the plot and will, I expect, do so more and more as the series goes on.  There is one scene that is set at the Globe, the Globe that I love, you don’t even know and words cannot express how much I love the Globe Theatre.  It is like Mike Carey wants to say, “I love literature and I know that you do too!”  If fiction is going to be meta, it should be meta exactly like this.

The final issue included in this first volume of the graphic novel is all about Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde.  While not closely connected to the main plotline, it does give us a glimpse into the means and methods employed by the villains and how it relates to stories and literature.  Also?  It has Oscar Wilde in it.  Oscar Wilde!  I love him so!  He was such a dear darling when he wasn’t being awful!

Two things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde and London.  And metafiction – three things.  The three things that I like a lot are Oscar Wilde, and London and metafiction, and fictional characters coming to life.  Four – no.  Amongst the things that I like are such elements as Oscar Wilde, London – I’ll come in again.  (Sorry, XKCD.  I know you don’t like it when people do that.)

I have given in to temptation and subscribed to this comic on HeavyInk.  I know I shouldn’t be spending money on single issue comics, given that I will probably end up buying the collected volumes as proper books when they are released, but I cannot resist the alluring notion of getting comics each month, all wrapped up in crinkly brown paper.  Oh, HeavyInk, you seduce me with your sexy packaging.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
The Literary Omnivore
Adventures with Words

Tell me if I missed yours!

84 Charing Cross Road & The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff

My sister has this magical ability to get people to do things for her.  It is amazing.  Everyone in my family does stuff for her even when we have just said, “No!  Lazy!  Do it yourself!  My God you are so lazy!”  Like, we’ll both be at my parents’ house, and I’ll be curled up comfortably on the couch reading something, and she’ll be all, “Why are you reading that?  It looks stupid.  What’s it about?  Sounds stupid.  You should be reading something with quality like Whatever Happened to Janie.  Will you get me a bowl of ice cream?  Please?  I really want some ice cream.  Please?” AND I WILL.  She has a power that other people don’t have.

She is on this spree of reading Caroline B. Cooney books right now.  The last few times we’ve gone to my parents’ house, she has used her powers to get everyone in the house helping her look for all the books in the Face on the Milk Carton series.  My parents have a lot of books, and my sister has taken this opportunity to complain about as many of them as possible. It’s been all, “Why do you have seven copies of The Trumpet of the Swan?  Look!  Here is another copy of The Castle in the Attic!  Why do you own Izzy Willy Nilly when it’s awful?  How can you possibly have TWO COPIES of The Clan of the Cave Bear and not one single copy of Whatever Happened to Janie!  I should be reading Kafka!”

In the midst of all this, I discovered that my parents own (as well as thousands of copies of the Narnia books, a displeasingly high number of Hemingway books (one), loads of Georgette Heyer, E.B. White’s oeuvre, though apparently not the middle two books in the riveting Janie series) Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.  Hooray for my parents and their house with its gravitational pull on books!

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters between Helene Hanff, an American writer, and a bookshop on Charing Cross Road that supplied her book addiction.  Over the years, she became very friendly with the chief purchaser, Frank Doel, his family, and the staff at the little bookshop, sending them sweets and eggs and nylons while Britain was still on rations.  It’s terribly sweet, how everyone writes to each other (bother email!  why don’t we write letters anymore!).  Anyway, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene comes to London herself, too late to see the bookshop in action, but she writes about all the things and people she does see (finally!  finally!).

I love these books.  I imagine the bookshop to be exactly like Henry Pordes, my favorite of the Charing Cross bookshops.  I spent absolutely hours there the first time I was in London – there’s a massive collection of literary biographies and letters by the front window, which I love, and I love the narrow staircase down to Litrature and History (I got a book about the scandalous and beautiful Lady Colin Campbell (doesn’t she look like she was wicked fun!) there, and idiotically left it in England.

If I cried while reading this book (and I don’t say that I did!), it is because I miss London.  I miss London!  Why am I not in London?  Helene gets to do everything, and I didn’t enjoy Duchess as much as I should have, because I was green with envy and cross when Helene didn’t go to the places I want to go.  However:

Ena was shocked that I hadn’t been to a single gallery [insane!  INSANE.] and firmly dragged me to the National Portrait Gallery after lunch – where I amazed myself by going clean out of my mind meeting old friends face-to-face.  Charles II looks exactly the dirty old man he was, Mary of Scotland looks exactly the witch-on-a-broomstick she was, Elizabeth looks marvelous, the painter caught everything – the bright, sharp eyes and strong nose, the translucent skin and delicate hands, the glittering, cold isolation.  Wish I knew why portraits of Mary and Elizabeth always look real and alive, and portraits of Shakespeare, painted in the same era and the same fashion, always look stylized and remote.

I stared at every face so long we never got out of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  We’re going back next week for the eighteenth and nineteenth, I am now determined to see everybody.

Well.  Quite rightly.  Oh how I miss London.  I miss the lovely National Portrait Gallery, that amazing, enormous picture of Lady Colin Campbell, and the Brownings in their opposite-side frames, and John Donne looking mysterious and sexy; Branwell Bronte painted out, and Emma Hamilton all coy and pretty.  I miss how present the past is, in England.  Helene Hanff always has this effect on me, because she appreciates it so much herself.  She writes to one of the girls at the bookshop:

Please write and tell me about London. I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet.  I want to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul’s where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the Tower, and like that.  A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for.  I told him I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he said:

“Then it’s there.”

Okay, I confess.  I cried when I read that.  I miss my lovely London.  Reading this book, it seemed perfectly viable to just drop everything, abandon my lease, and go live in London with my friend Marie until she or the visa people kicked me out.  I would come back destitute, but first I would have been there again, eating picnics on the South Bank and seeing magnificent masterpieces of art for free.