Independent booksellers are an indomitable breed. Despite merciless competition from online conglomerates, and digital devices replacing prized paperbacks, our most beloved bookshops protect the privilege of browsing and honour the printed page. They’re also known for their nicheness and idiosyncratic nature.
Here are ten of Britain’s Best Bookshops, each with its own theme. From architecture to author events, cooking to self-care, and horticulture to hats, these are unmissable experiences for booklovers.
Credit: Sarah Cooke
Golden Hare Books, Edinburgh
Golden Hare Books has been heralded best independent bookshop in the British Book Awards 2019. Situated in the Stockbridge neighbourhood of Edinburgh – a lively area with a village vibe, handsome Georgian and Victorian houses, stylish cafés and deluxe delis – the bookshop was founded by Sir Mark Jones, a former director of the V&A design museum in London where, famously, he scrapped entry charges to the museum on his first day in office.
With the accent firmly on design, visitors to Golden Hare Books are encouraged to be curious about the connections they make with books, based on subjective visual appeal. Literally judging a book by its cover, one might say. To this end the shop’s layout is designed to showcase books to maximum effect with as many outward-facing covers as possible. The displays change regularly, meaning you’ll never visit the same bookshop twice.
Stay at: Dunstane House
Arcturus Books, Devon
Arcturus Books, located on the high street of the historic market town of Totnes, houses what is likely the largest stock of reading materials outside London dedicated to the mind, body and spirit. For over 30 years this family-run bookshop has drawn from afar those invested in psychology, self-development, spiritual growth, health, nutrition and the environment. From foraging to fertility, parenting to paganism, addiction to intuition, plus countless other inner enrichment categories (including many titles imported from the US) this is self-help central.
Once a boarding house for the local grammar school, this specialist bookshop has an attractive red brick Georgian frontage and an appropriately serene atmosphere, allowing browsers maximum mental space for contemplation.
Stay at: Buckland Tout-Saints (approx. 30 minutes away)
Daunt Books, London
Daunt Books in Marylebone is the original and most iconic of Daunt’s eight London bookshops. Imagine long oak galleries brimming with books (not unlike an esteemed university library), enormous skylights, ornate bannisters, a glorious second floor mezzanine and, above all, a reverential atmosphere creating an aura of wonder and wisdom.
Built in 1910 and believed to be the world’s first custom-built bookshop, this impossibly elegant establishment is, first and foremost, a travel specialist. If you’re planning some time abroad – be it a food-focused city break, a family-friendly wildlife adventure, a solo trip to Antarctica or a tropical beach bliss-out – this is the place to come for inspirational photography, insider tips and informative guides.
Stay at: London hotels
George Bayntun, Bath
George Bayntun is a bookshop specialising in fine bindings; old or new, first or illustrated editions, but all in exceptionally good condition. This is also home to the Bayntun-Riviere bindery which dates back to 1829. Now the last remaining Victorian trade bindery still in family ownership, its highly skilled team prides itself on continuing to bind completely by hand. Remarkably, they still operate an apprenticeship scheme. They also claim to have the largest collection of hand tools and blocks in the world – over 15,000.
As well as binding books for sale in the shop, commissions are regularly undertaken for individuals and institutions worldwide. Even Margaret Thatcher was a customer, having a copy of A Tale of Two Cities expertly bound as a gift to President Mitterand.
This family-run operation includes seven-year-old Golden Retriever Barley who spends her days snoozing peacefully in the bookshop and bindery.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye
Richard Booth’s Bookshop, housing its own swanky 48 leather-seated cinema, is as much an anomaly as the man himself was. Responsible for single-handedly turning Hay-on-Wye into a second-hand bookshop capital, sadly Booth died earlier this year, aged 80. Wonderfully eccentric, his passion for the small Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye led him to declare it an independent kingdom in 1977, crowning himself king and issuing passports to locals.
The bookshop is a lovely space with comfortable seating and a café serving buttermilk pancakes, bacon and egg butties, and mince pies with brandy cream (year round, of course). The cinema, complete with Dolby Surround Sound, shows not only the latest movies but also live broadcasts from the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne.
Stay at: The Lake Country House & Spa (approx. 40 minutes away)
Janette Ray, York
Janette Ray, contained in a medieval building a five-minute walk from York Minster, specialises in rare and out-of-print publications on architecture and building, landscape design and design history. Owner Janette, spurred by her wealth of expertise in these areas, opened the bookshop almost 25 years ago and the collection now reaches over 10,000 books procured from auctions, other booksellers and private sources.
The shop itself, spread across two floors and beautifully organised, is crammed with coveted tomes and has walls decorated with original architectural drawings and photographs, also available to buy. A word of warning: if you’re planning a visit – and especially if you’re travelling from afar – call ahead to make an appointment or you could be disappointed, such is the niche nature of this bookshop.
Stay at: Middlethorpe Hotel & Spa
Booka is a gloriously light and spacious bookshop in the market town of Oswestry, close to the English-Welsh border. The friendly and knowledgeable owners run fantastic author events. Recently these have included Louis Theroux, Jodi Picoult, Matt Haig and Lemn Sissay.
Early in 2020, author and screenwriter Adam Hamdy will talk about his new novel Black 13 (16 January), crime-writer Sophie Hannah will discuss her gripping new thriller Haven’t They Grown (30 January), and novelist Gill Hornby (author of The Hive and sister of Nick Hornby) will enlighten guests on her richly-imagined novel Miss Austen.
Booka has a delightful café serving locally-made cakes, and a shop selling unusual cards and gifts.
Stay at: The Chester Grosvenor (approx. 45 minutes away)
Books for Cooks, London
Books for Cooks does actually cook its books. Situated in Notting Hill, it has a collection of over 8,000 cookbooks (continually expanding and updating) and offers visitors something utterly unique. From Tuesday to Friday, co-owner Eric Treuille and his two chefs select one of their latest titles from the shelves and choose two unusual recipes (one starter and one main) to cook for their customers. The menu is tweeted and the chefs head to Portobello Market to purchase the ingredients. Heavenly smells emanate and excited customers, seated around a few tables squeezed between the bookshelves and the tiny test kitchen, wait to see what will arrive for lunch.
Recent menus have included Lentils and Lemon Soup, Pork Belly with Beet and Apple, and Mascarpone and Mushroom Risotto. And cakes – always eye-narrowingly good cakes – for afters. You won’t believe how reasonably priced it is. This place really does function on its pure love of food.
Stay at: London hotels
Madhatter Bookshop, the Cotswolds
Not an obvious pairing, books and hats, is it? But Madhatter Bookshop in Burford – easily one of England’s most idyllic medieval towns – presents the combination with aplomb. The hats have been created by some of the oldest and most esteemed milliners in the UK. If you’ve an occasion coming up – Ascot, perhaps, or a wedding – this is just the place to find quirky and exclusive hats guaranteed to turn heads.
And the books! Without doubt the owners are as mad about books as they are about headgear. A team of four selects the stock and, since each has their own area of expertise, the range of titles is diverse and marvellously unusual.
Stay at: Barnsley House (approx. 20 minutes away)
RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey
RHS Garden Wisley, near Woking, is unquestionably one of the greatest gardens in the world. In fact, after Kew Gardens this is the second most-visited paid entry garden in the UK. It is also home to one of the largest horticultural book collections in Europe. Here you can thumb through (and buy, should you wish) all the green-fingered titles you can get your hands on.
You could, in fact, spend a great deal of time in the shop at RHS Garden Wisley. In addition to books, there’s an impressive selection of plants, gardening tools and equipment, high-end kitchenware, jewellery, children’s gifts, homeware and home-grown comestibles including crazy-good blackcurrant jam.
Stay at: Park House, Hotel & Spa (approx. one hour away)
Article written by Mischa Mack