England by the Book: A Guide to the Best Bookstores and Libraries
By Dr. A. M. Benton
It is said that a book can be a machine to think with, full of highlighter marks, scribbles, and dog-eared pages. A book can be a work of art, with delicate engravings and hand tooled leather that smells of autumn days and dust. Or, it can simply be a chew toy for a new baby. Bookstores are the places to discover these works of art.
However you feel about books, England is a bibliophile’s paradise with delectable libraries and bookstores. After all, the English had the first newspapers in the 1690s, sponsored the first lending libraries in the 1800s, and were some of the most prolific book collectors in history.
Origins of the British Library
Sir Hans Sloane was an example of such a collector, a seventeenth-century polymath with interests in botany, art, and medicine. His post as the secretary of the Royal Society, the world’s first scientific society, meant that he amassed a huge number of books.
Upon his death, he donated his collection to the nation to form the core of the British Library. The BL has recently moved into an airy new building near the King’s Cross/St. Pancras Rail Stations in north central London.
Upon entering the courtyard, a modern statue of Isaac Newton pondering the cosmos greets the visitor, a symbol that the world’s knowledge is also available when you enter the front door. To your right is a bench fashioned out of a giant statue of a chained book, an early means of library security. In front of you is Hans Sloane’s original collection in leather bindings and gilt tooling in a stunning glass bookcase that spans three stories.
Because it is not a public library, if you wish to go into other areas of the collections, you will need to apply for a reader’s pass at the front desk, a process well worth doing if you need to do research at one of the premier libraries in the world.
There is also an exhibit of some of the treasures that the BL owns, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Shakespeare’s First Folio Volume, a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, Lewis Carroll’s manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, and a birthday card with the Beatle’s original lyrics for “A Hard Day's Night” scribbled on the back.
A People's Bookstore
Because the BL is not a lending library, and a book in the hand is worth two in the library catalogue, take a short tube ride to Charing Cross Road for one of London’s best bookshops. In 1903, Foyles was founded by William Alfred Foyle (1885-1963) who wanted to create the largest “people’s bookshop” in the world.
By the 1920s, the store held over two million volumes, and in the 1930s, Foyle’s daughter Christina held the first public literary luncheons and book signings at Foyles, a tradition that continues to this day with his grandsons. Stretching over a city block, Foyles is enormous, with an idiosyncratic system of organization and winding corridors, but you won’t get lost.
Unlike at the chain bookstores, service remains friendly and personal. Foyles also offers jazz nights and has incorporated the Silver Moon bookstore into its holdings, which is devoted to women’s studies and literature.
Novels, short-story collections, cookery books and diaries all have the signature Persephone design with its silver bindings and endpapers with designs from period fabrics. Highlights of the catalog include The Wise Virgins, a novel by Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, as well as the memoir The World that Was Ours, a memoir by Hilda Bernstein whose husband was arrested with Nelson Mandela in 1963.
Another notable feminist bookstore and press devoted to women’s literature in London is Persephone Books in the university district of Bloomsbury. Founded in 1999 by Nicola Beauman, Persephone Books reprints the forgotten works from the early twentieth century “by women, for women and about women.”
If you need a break from your book browsing, Persephone is on Lamb’s Conduit Street, a pedestrian shopping district that also is home to a historic and friendly pub appropriately named The Lamb. Built in the early eighteenth century, this pub features rare Victorian snob screens, etched glass panels to protect the identity of the drinkers, as well as an early polyphone, a type of Victorian juke box.
If you exchange the skyscrapers of London for the dreaming spires of Oxford, other bibliophilic delights await. At the heart of the university district at Broad and Catte Streets are two iconic monuments to books, one ancient, one modern. The first to explore is the Duke Humfry Library in the Old Bodleian.
Named after Duke Humfry of Gloucester who left a bequest to the University, it served as the library for the Harry Potter films. Dominated by fifteenth-century bookstalls placed at right angles to the windows for natural lighting, there are rows and rows of leather folios, medieval stained glass, and a painted ceiling with the Duke’s coat of arms and Latin inscriptions in gold.
"Barking Mad" Blackwell
Across the street is Blackwell’s, one of the oldest bookstores in the UK, founded in 1878 by “Barking Mad” Ben Blackwell as he was known to his friends. Ben was however quite sane, as his book empire is still run by its founding family who live locally. Long before Borders or Barnes and Noble, Blackwell’s featured five stories of literary offerings to delight any bibliophile’s explorations.
On a lighter note, the coffee shop upstairs is a lovely place to take a break with its view of the dreaming spires of the Bodleian, the Sheldonian Theatre, and the Old Ashmolean Museum. Blackwells offers excellent tours of Oxford, including an “Inklings” tour for J.R.R. Tolkien fans.The Norrington Room downstairs gained a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest display of books available for sale anywhere. The store assistants also are experts in their subject matter; they will advise you on such matters as the best Latin edition of Pliny’s Natural History if you wish.
Blackwells also has used books, but if used books are really your thing, the “British Library” of second-hand book shops is Barter Books in Alnwick Northumbria.
Because I was curious to see where the monks illuminated the Lindisfarne Gospels that I had viewed in the BL, I headed up north to see Holy Island, and discovered Alnwick along the way. On the A1068 off of the A1, known as the “Great North Road,” Barter Books is a short journey from the Alnwick City Centre, near the Lion Column.
Barter is housed in the old Victorian railway station, and there is a model locomotive meandering its way through the store. Its collection of second-hand books for sale is on a computerized database for easy searching if you have something in mind, and if you just want to browse, it is well-organized according to subject, with a particularly nice selection of children’s books. Other sites worth seeing in Alnwick is its castle, which served as the set for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
In a New York Times article dated 7 August 1991, Anna Quindlen stated that she would be “most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” If you are of a similar inclination, and you need to do a spot of decorating, visiting England’s many bookstores and libraries may be your solution.
1. The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Underground: Euston or King’s Cross
113-119 Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0EB
3. Persephone Books
59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB
tel 020 7242 9292
Underground: Russell Square or Holborn
4. The Lamb
92 Lamb’s Conduit St., Bloomsbury, London WC1N 3LZ
020 7405 0713
1. Duke Humfry
Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BG
Details of private tours are available on the Bodley Shop website
48-51 Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BQ
Anna Marie Benton holds a doctorate in English history and the history of science. She writes travel articles, history feature stories and academic articles and books. Her guidebook, DayTrips: Northern England, is forthcoming from Hastings House Press. When she isn't freelance writing, she is a research associate in the history of medicine at Oxford Unversity.
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer’s guidelines.