Right, chums, I think I’ve finally got the last of my Christmas shopping done. Hmm, that’s odd, I seem to recall having more money than that. Oh well.
I realise that many people here are not so fortunate – indeed, I myself have only got mine complete now as a result of a short-term change in my working hours. I feel I ought to do something to help. Here, therefore, are six of my favourite specialist bookshops for those obscure volumes that you can’t find anywhere else that make awesome presents if you know people of a literary bent and that.
I’m going to steer clear of second-hand and bargain bookshops, and also chains. So much as I’d love to, I can’t talk about Forbidden Planet or The Lamb, although both are excellent in their own way. I am also steering clear of those bookshops attached to museums, though these too are fine places for that specialist tome (The Cartoon Museum and the London Transport Museum both have excellent selections on their respective subjects) for the simple reason that they’d likely end up dominating the list. But do bear them in mind.
Anyway, without further ado…
1. Gosh! Comics
Specialises in: Graphic novels
Where is it? 39 Great Russell Street, WC1B
Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road or Holborn
There’s no shortage of comics shops in London, but to my mind Gosh! is the best. Comic shops have a tendency to be slightly grotty and a little intimidating to the novice. Gosh! is far more user-friendly, with less emphasis on mouldering racks of old Marvels and more on indie graphic novels, the kind of hip things that get reviewed in The Guardian. There’s also a superb selection of classic illustrated children’s books if you want something for the kids. An occasional treat for comic geeks like me is the signings they had – Hurricane Jack and I were once privileged to attend a signing by the great and hirstute Alan Moore. He’s really very friendly in real life.
2. Motor Books
Specialises in: Car and other transport books
Where is it? 13-15 Cecil Court, WC2N
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square
Motor Books describes itself as “the world’s oldest motoring bookshop,” and it’s situated on the eminently bumble-able street of Cecil Court. It has a fantastic selection of books on all transport subjects, but as the name suggests, particularly specialises in those related to automobilia, arranged by category and marque. I’m no petrol-head, but even I was able to almost instantly find one of the books I was searching for. The staff are marvellous, and were able to pinpoint the second book right away. Given that both titles were fairly obscure, I must say I was most impressed.
Specialises in: Obscure 20th century books by female novelists
Where is it? 59 Lambs Conduit Street
Nearest Tube: Russell Square or Holborn
Persephone is both bookshop and small-press publisher, publishing mainly female-authored books of the twentieth century that have been allowed to go out of print. Famed authors in their day now unjustly forgotten, lesser-known works by well-known writers and even cookbooks and diaries from bygone eras, all are liable to appear in the distinctive grey covers of Persephone. The bookshop has a real intimacy about it, and not just because it’s small. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and ready to provide advice (Yr. Humble Chronicler being less than familiar with between-the-wars women’s fiction). There’s a regular newsletter, too, and you get the feeling that Persephone is the sort of place that likes to nurture a regular customer base. Which is super.
Specialises in: Radical literature
Where is it? 5 Caledonian Road, King’s Cross
Nearest Tube: King’s Cross St Pancras
I suspect this is a shop whose time has definitely come, what with the Coalition working hard to piss everyone off simultaneously. Therefore, you may find this place just the ticket if you’re looking for an alternative. Opened in 1945 as an offshoot of the pacifist movement, it offers a massive selection of political literature, including books, pamphlets and zines. However, if you’re not a very political person, but you are a regular on this blog, you may also wish to examine their massive wall of London-based books. Up the workers, and so forth.
5. Gay’s The Word
Specialises in: LGBT books
Where is it? 66 Marchmont Street
Nearest Tube: Russell Square
Gay’s The Word proudly advertises itself as the only specialist gay and lesbian bookshop in London, and its selection is very impressive indeed – they cover the whole spectrum from light-hearted fiction to in-depth political tomes, not to mention a fine range of cards and magazines on queer topics. I was rather taken by Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, as well as a couple of books on the history of gay London. Recommended to anyone with an interest in gender politics, regardless of orientation.
6. The School of Life
Specialising in: Philosophy, life improvement, self-help… I’ll get back to you on that one.
Where is it? 70 Marchmont Street
Nearest Tube: Russell Square
The School of Life was founded by Alain de Botton. Not strictly a bookshop, it nevertheless does sell an excellent range of books on topics that are related to improving your life. How to enjoy work, how to be ethical, how to take advantage of the simple pleasures of life, how to make relationships work, how to be happy – anything relating to life that’s not easily categorised. The chances are that you’ll find three or four different books you’ll want yourself, along with a bunch for your friends. Bring money, is what I’m saying.