What is it about undiscovered bookstores? There is the familiar comfort upon seeing old favorites on the shelf, and then there is the anticipation of finding a new treasure, maybe one to unlock an understanding of the country you are visiting. On a recent trip to London, I brought my kindle because I didn’t want to carry any heavy books around. But even on the first day there I found myself excited to go see some bookstores. I couldn’t imagine missing the chance to go into a bookstore that had survived for 215 years like Hatchard’s established in 1797.
It was a true pleasure to visit Hatchard’s bookstore and to descend downstairs to the fiction section. Hatchard’s, now run by Waterstone’s, had the biggest fiction section I saw and more creatively named sections like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I saw Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series, and I’m pretty sure I spotted a few Jacqueline Winspears in the mystery section. But the section that prompted me to buy something was called “Over the Teacups.”
In this section, I found “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson, a perfect paperback book set in a charming village in England. The service was kind and I left feeling happy. I wish I had explored even more in that great big bookstore.
The next bookstore I went to was recommended to me from Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP travel app. I had read a description of Daunt books, and when I stumbled upon one of their stores while out doing some family research, I knew I had to go in. I found a signed copy of “The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit” written by Emma Thompson, and a charming board book in the shape of a double-decker bus. I also hit gold by finding several books about the very neighborhood I was researching for family history and possibly for my novel. I had forgotten that neighborhood bookstores can be very good allies when researching family history or literary details. The bookstore service was very kind and I left with a sweet book bag in tow.
A bookstore where history is very much alive and co-existing with current times is Wildy and Sons, Ltd. Wildy and Sons is a legal bookshop established in 1830. The original owner was also a publisher of legal documents and may have started as a publisher first. The bookstore is located in a very atmospheric part of London where the law courts exist. Charles Dickens wrote about this area in the book, “Bleak House,” published in 1853. The court of Lincoln’s Inn is right next door to the bookstore and where the fictional case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce was heard. I enjoyed a Charles Dickens walk offered through London Walks, and we stopped across from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a park which Wildy and Sons is very near. In Bleak House, Lady Dedlock’s attorney gets murdered in a house bordering the park.
These days, Wildy’s atmosphere is both snug and modern. When I stepped into the bookstore, the narrow rooms and rich shelves of books made me feel like I was in a well-loved library. There were not many books for the lay person to read. Since I am not a barrister, I picked up a book called “Inns of Court,” to get a feeling for the place the bookstore served. I really like imagining all the swirl of drama and politics that must have centered around the bookstore in earlier times. As my last name is Wildy, I also am busy digging into to the past to see if there is a connection to the Wildy family that began the bookshop.
My very favorite bookstore experience turned out to be a sweet café with an attached bookstore. The London Review Cake Shop and the London Review Book store are a match made in heaven. I loved the location, nearly across the street from the British Museum, yet tucked away from most tourist traffic. I loved the relaxed atmosphere of both floors. The bookstore is compact but has two floors. Fiction and history were on the main floor, and the non-fiction and I think children’s books lived downstairs. The person behind the counter was very friendly.
Apparently, the location serves many academics so the history section was fairly large. After a browse through the books, you can go through a tiny hallway into the café. The busy café is full of yummy delights. Tables are tucked into the wall and there are stools at the counter. The café was not big enough to host writing groups, unless you chose to sit outside in the garden court space. There was one large table inside but most of the tables were for two. I had a cappuccino one day with a gluten-free poppy-seed cake that was divine. A few days later I squeezed in another visit to enjoy the special: Builder’s tea, ( a malty assam-like tea) and two exquisite lavender shortbread cookies. I sat next to a couple happily discussing new books. On the way out, I purchased a copy of the “London Review of Books” which had a timely article on Jack Kerouac whose “On The Road” exhibit, is currently at the British Library.
Before you go to London, you might want to pick up a copy of “Tea and Cake London” by Black Dog Publishing. I am a firm believer that desserts and books go well together. This book directed me to a few places that I would not have found otherwise.
Happily, there are many more intriguing bookstores and cafes in London to explore. As a traveler, I’ll just have to remember next time to pack light in order to bring more books home. Because when you are on a trip, books aren’t just stories, they are also little parts of the visit, ready to take home and enjoy again.