10 Brilliant Historic Bookshops

We love any excuse to celebrate a bookshop, with their comforting atmosphere and wonderful smell.

Here are some highlights from around the country.

1. Daunt Books, Marylebone, London

Interior of Daunt Books, Marylebone
Daunt Books, 83 Marylebone High Street, Marylebone, Greater London © Historic England DP176790

Daunt Books’ flagship store is housed in a former Edwardian bookshop, built in 1910, believed to be the world’s first custom-built bookshop. Make sure you take in the William Morris printed wallpaper, oak bookshelves and sky lights on your visit.

The building was bought by James Daunt in 1990 and there are now several branches across London (and growing.) The shop specialises in travel books and literature, and is organised by country – no matter the genre!

2. Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and Bookshop, Lichfield, Staffordshire

Exterior of Samuel Johnson birthplace museum and bookshop
Samuel Johnson birthplace museum and bookshop. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

This Grade I listed building was originally a house and bookshop, converted into a museum in 1901, with a bookshop added in 1990.

The house was built in 1708 for Sarah and Michael Johnson, and the family ran their bookshop business on the ground floor. Dr Samuel Johnson, writer and lexicographer, was born here in 1709 and lived here for 27 years. The museum features a small bookshop, specialising in history, architecture and – of course – Samuel Johnson.

3. New Beacon Books, Finsbury Park, London

Exterior of New Beacon Books
Courtesy of New Beacon Books

The UK’s first black publisher and bookshop, New Beacon Books was founded in 1966 by John La Rose and his partner Sarah White. New Beacon Publishing has produced scores of books by black writers, including a biography of the influential Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and CLR James’ first and only published novel Minty Alley.

The bookshop has been at the centre of many ground-breaking political and social projects, organisations and campaigns over the years. It closed in February 2017, but soon reopened thanks to a volunteer New Beacon Development Group and a successful crowdfunding campaign.

4. Salts Mill shop, Saltaire, West Yorkshire

Salts Mill is a gigantic Victorian Grade II* listed former textile factory, now filled with art, books, flowers, food, and 21st century industry.

Salts Mill was built by Sir Titus Salt in 1853 and produced cloth until 1986. It was then purchased by young entrepreneur Jonathan Silver, who opened the ‘1853 Gallery’, showing work by his friend and fellow Bradfordian David Hockney.

In 2001, Saltaire village – with Salts Mill at its heart – became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

5. Barter Books, Alnwick, Northumberland

Interior of Barter Books
Barter Books courtesy of Wiki Commons

You can find Barter Books in part of a beautiful old Victorian railway station, designed by William Bell in 1887. Particularly impressive, the train station was deemed a necessity for any royalty visiting the Dukes of Northumberland back in the day.

The bookshop itself was opened in 1991, founded by Mary Manley who made her dream of a secondhand bookshop based on the swap system a reality. You can still barter for books there today.

6. Bayntun’s bookshop, Bath, Somerset

Exterior of Bayntun's bookshop
Bayntun’s bookshop. Nigel Beale via Flikr

Bayntun’s bookshop is a world famous bookshop and bindery. The founder, George Bayntun started his own bookbinding business in Northumberland Place in 1894, soon moving into a larger workshop in Walcot Street. In 1920 he bought the business of George Gregory, with a stock of books filling 23 rooms, and in 1939 the Bayntun and Riviere binderies were incorporated into the present premises in Manvers Street.

George was a renowned bookbinder, well-known among American book dealers and a recipient of the frequent patronage of Queen Mary. In 1950, she granted him the appointment of Bookseller to Her Majesty.

The building is Grade II listed, originally a post sorting office built in 1901.

7. Gay’s the Word, Bloomsbury, London

Exterior of Gay's the Word bookshop
Gay’s The Word. Kake via Flickr

Opened in 1979, Gay’s the Word is one of the most prominent LGBTQ bookshops in the world. It is also one of the few to remain. In 1984 the bookshop was raided by the police and prosecuted for carrying books by Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and other gay authors. Charges were dropped after a major campaign and outpour of support for the community institution.

In 1984 – 85, Gay’s the Word was the headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. LGSM was a support group that raised funds for miners in South Wales during the year-long strike. In return, miners and their families led the 1985 Pride march. There is a blue plaque celebrating the life of Mark Ashton – the political activist who founded LGSM above the shop.

8. Petersfield Bookshop, East Hampshire

Exterior of Petersfield bookshop
Petersfield Bookshop. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

First opened in 1918 by Dr Harry Roberts, an East End doctor who had helped set up the Panel Scheme (the predecessor of the NHS), it is one of the oldest bookshops still operating. Frank Westwood bought the business and relocated it to Chapel Street in 1958, and it is run today by his wife and sons.

You might recognise this shop from social media; one sad day in January 2020, the shop took to Twitter after a disappointing day selling no books. The tweet moved many and was retweeted over 7,000 times (including by author Neil Gaiman) and they were subsequently inundated with orders.

9. Sam Read Bookseller, Grasmere, Cumbria

Exterior of Sam Read Bookseller
Sam Read Bookseller, Grasmere, the Lake District. Courtesy of Sam Read Bookseller

This lovely little bookshop has had just six owners since 1887. The proprietor Sam Read ran it until his death in 1919, when his daughter Helen continued the business. The present owner, Elaine Nelson, has been in charge since 2000.

The bookshop is situated in the heart of the English Lake District, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

10. St Olav’s Church, Chichester, West Sussex

Exterior of St Olav's Church (black and white image)
Exterior of St. Olav’s Church, across the street from the north-west © Historic England Archive aa42_02461

St Olav’s Church is the oldest building in Chichester still in use, and as such predates the city’s Cathedral. Built in around 1050, with an extension added in the 13th century, the building is still a consecrated church.

The church was converted into a Christian Bookshop in the 1950s. The shop is owned by the St Olav’s Trust, a registered charity made up of representatives from local churches, including the Cathedral, the Baptists, Free and Independent churches as well as individuals from various different Church of England congregations.

Further Reading

What have we missed? Let us know your favourite historic bookshops in the comments below.

4 responses to 10 Brilliant Historic Bookshops

    • jenniwaugh says:

      Persephone books is wonderful, it’s true And so close to the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street!
      I’d also nominate the fabulous Scarthin Books in Cromford at the heart of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. Their ginger cake is second to none and the range of books can keep me enthralled all day…
      http://www.scarthinbooks.com/

  1. Maggi says:

    Scarthin Books in Cromford, Derbyshire. Fantastic shop, great cafe, lovely location 🙂

  2. JAMES Y says:

    When I worked in Bloomsbury I used to go to Lambs Conduit Street and Skoob books at the Brunswick centre, also Jarndyce and Marchpane books all near the BM. The Osterley bookshop near the great Adam house is well worth visiting and the house is stunning. Pinner in Middlesex where I lived has excellent charity bookshops and book sections and I was always there on a Saturday, whether buying Joyce Grenfell, Mrs Thatcher or Sebald or Le Carre.

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