I spend a lot of time in London, and I love books. I find that the best place to look for books is in the used book stores. These are a dying breed in our world, sadly: Amazon and Abe Books (also owned by Amazon) have all but killed them off. For me, though, buying a book online is no substitute for handling, browsing and enjoying that book in person!
Fortunately there are still a few good places in London where you can buy used books. These are my three favorites!
#3 South Bank Book Fair, Belvedere Road
This one isn’t a traditional book shop. It’s a bunch of people that display their used books on large tables underneath the Waterloo Bridge, near the Southbank Centre. Getting there is pretty easy, and along the way, you’ll get some excellent views of the Thames River and London.
Take the Tube (London Underground) to Embankment Station. Four lines stop here (District, Circle, Bakerloo and Northern), so it’s not hard to get to Embankment from pretty much anywhere in London.
Exit the station onto Embankment, which is the name of the street that overlooks the Thames River here. Turn right, and look for this bridge:
(It goes by different names: Hungerford Footbridge or the Golden Jubilee Footbridge. Don’t worry about what it’s called: just head for it!)
From the street, you can walk up two sets of stairs, or you can find the elevator (lift) and ride up! Crossing the bridge brings you the South Bank of the river, where many of the newer concert and theatre venues in London are located (Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, British Film Institute, and so on.)
Stop anywhere along the bridge for some great views of the river and city. It’s especially impressive at night!
When you reach the end of the bridge, take the stairs or elevator down to ground level and turn left. You will be heading toward the National Theatre and the British Film Institute (which has a great cafe, and a wonderful shop for film lovers!) You’ll run into the market, which is open every day till 7 PM (though it often closes earlier during winter or bad weather.)
(This is the British Film Institute [BFI]. If you see this, you’ve passed the market!)
Prices here are not as good as in either of the two following shops, but there’s always an eclectic choice of books here. They also have lots of comic books!
#2 Any Amount of Books, 56 Charing Cross Road
Back in the mid-1970s, when I first visited London, Charing Cross Road was lined with used bookshops. Now there are only a few left, but one of the best is (thankfully!) still there! Any Amount of Books is less than two minutes from the Leicester Square Tube station (see Tube map below). You can’t miss the green racks of cheap books on display out front.
The shop is much larger than it seems at first glance. Much of it is in the basement, so don’t miss taking the stairs down. The staff here is also very friendly!
They specialize in art and literature; however they are famous for buying notable collections and selling them on, so you never know what you’ll find here! In the past year, for example, they’ve purchased the collections of actors Peter O’Toole and Christopher Lee. I can just imagine the kinds of books that those two had!
If you’re around Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, or Covent Garden, stop in here: it’s worth it!
#1 Skoob Books, 66, The Brunswick off Marchmont St
This, for me, is the undisputed champion. I’ve never walked out without buying at least one book. Time Out magazine named Skoob BEST BOOK SHOP, and in its review stated: “Skoob is a temple for secondhand books.”
There are two things that make Skoob the best: their staff and their inventory. This is a good-sized shop (2000 square feet/186 square meters), with over 55,000 books on hand. None of them are catalogued, so you’ll have to do some searching (but what can be more pleasurable than browsing through books?) 🙂
Here’s how to get to Skoob. I recommend the tube to Russell Square Underground station. It’s on the Piccadilly line: three stops north of Leicester Square, one stop south of King’s Cross/St Pancras, and on the direct line to Heathrow Airport!) From there, it’s a five-minute walk to Skoob, in a really nice area. It’s not far from the British Museum and the British Library.
(Just a small portion of the London Tube system: the Piccadilly Line is the dark blue line. Heathrow is to the southwest of here.)
You’re likely to find what you’re looking for here. But if by chance your needs are a bit more esoteric, and you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask them about their warehouse in Oxfordshire: they have over a million used books there! They are slowly cataloguing these books (over 100K are already searchable online), so they may be able to find your book.
(How many other bookstores have their own working piano? Skoob does!)
I collect old editions of the Folio Society books. When I told the staff that I was looking for FS books, they showed me what they had (which was a good-sized bookcase full and a huge collection in the entryway!) However, there was nothing there that I didn’t already have. At that point the gentleman serving me asked if I’d like to have a look at their on-site warehouse. I was intrigued, so he took me on a genuine voyage of discovery.
(This is one of my sets from the Folio Society: Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. Two of the reasons why I love FS is the quality of the printing and the specially-commissioned illustrations. Look at those beautiful bindings!)
To reach this storage area, we walked to the back of the store, went down a few flights of stairs, and came out in an underground area used for deliveries to the Brunswick Shopping Center and Apartments above. We crossed a street, and went into a room that, for used book nuts like me, was Disneyland! It’s a very large room, filled with bookcases stacked floor to ceiling, with very narrow aisles in between. The staff member said he had some work to do down there, so I should take my time. They had HUNDREDS of Folio Society books there! I spent well over an hour, just going over the shelves. I could’ve easily spent days in there: so many books in need of a good home!
(Skoob Books interior: piano on the right, help desk/cashier in back on right.)
If you’re in London, and need a good book, or even just want to enjoy the smell and the feel of old books, Skoob should be stop #1. And your last stop! Every other place has its good points, but this is the king!
There are still plenty of choices for used books in London: I hope you enjoyed my short list!