Foyles & the comeback of bookstores

Living in this fast-paced world today, is there even time for nostalgia? Changes are inevitable in big cities, but not all changes are necessarily positive. In Hong Kong, I often complain to my local friends that 90% of the lovely spots that I discovered the year before are likely to disappear within a year, and most locals wouldn’t even notice it. One year is like eternity in Hong Kong. Now I feel like London is heading down the same direction, and people are becoming increasingly oblivious to these changes.

Recently in my neighbourhood, a beloved local newsagent has announced their closure, and all the locals are saddened by the news. I have known the family for years, and one day the owner said to me: “We are like families, I feel sad to go too.” Families? Would the guy who ‘mindfully crafts’ my coffee behind Starbucks use this word? Obviously not. I don’t think these locals are clinging to the past or are reluctant to changes, instead they value the relationships and trust built over the years. London used to be like a city with many small villages, and each village would have their small independent shops where locals would visit regularly. Now it is a very different story.



Foyles’ flagship store on Charing Cross Road 


Before Amazon, people used to linger in bookshops and I was one of them. Studying design and working in advertising, bookshops served as a main source of inspiration for me. The unfortunate demise of bookshops have prompted numerous independent and even large chain booksellers in the USA and UK to close down in the past decade. According to the Booksellers Association (BA), more than 500 independent bookshops have closed its doors in the UK and Ireland since 2005.

When I lived in New York many years ago, I used to spend much of my time lingering in independent bookshops like Rizzoli (which had to relocate from its beautiful 50-year old premises due to demolition of the building), as well as chain bookstores like Borders (now closed) and Barnes & Nobles (only a few left in the city). Being used to the traditional British bookshops (not bookstores), I was initially fairly gobsmacked by the size, late opening hours, and the variety of products (with huge magazine and music sections) available at these large American chain bookstores. Besides, Barnes & Nobles was the pioneer to incorporating cafes (or Starbucks) in their stores, and this proved to be a successful formula that would be copied by other bookstores globally.

The most successful ‘copycat’ is Taiwan’s largest bookseller chain Eslite, where customers can hang out all night long at their 24-hour Dunnan branch in Taipei (which I did when I was in town, and I loved it). Customers can browse books, shop for lifestyle products and enjoy coffee or light meals all within the same retail outlet. Another successful example is Tokyo’s Daikanyama Tsutaya Books (T-Site), a beautifully-designed concept bookstore that is open from 7am until 2am. These booksellers demonstrate that heyday of bookstores is far from over, all they need is to evolve and move with the times.


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In London, the best-known bookstore is Foyles founded in 1903. It was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest bookstore in terms of shelf area (30 miles/50 kilometres) and number of titles on display. Like many Londoners, I still have vivid memories of the old maze-like store where books were piled up everywhere, and occasionally had to climb or dig to reach for the books.

When the 111-year old legendary bookstore announced that they would relocate down the road to a bigger space (the former site of Central St Martins College of Art and Design), it probably startled many of their apprehensive and loyal customers. After visited the bookstore a few times since it reopened it doors in June, I honestly believe this change was long overdue. London needs a world-class contemporary bookstore like this and I more than welcome the change.


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A cafe & gallery space inside Foyles’ flagship store


Designed by London-based architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the new store has won several major architectural and retail project awards since its opening. With 37,000 square feet of retail space, spread across eight shop floors within the four storey building, and over 200,000 different titles on four miles (6.5km) of shelves, it is the largest bookshop to have opened in the UK in more than a decade.

The architects have done a tremendous job and have created a bright, practical and multifunctional space that would no doubt attract more footfall. And in order to survive in the 21st century, a bookstore can no longer be just a bookstore. Besides books, there is also a café, a gallery space and an auditorium, there is no trace of the past except for the posters/photos on the walls.

Elsewhere in London, booksellers like Waterstones and Daunt books (whose owner is now the MD of Waterstones) are also rallying and embracing changes in order to survive in a fiercely competitive market. Aside from book signing events, Waterstones have also installed free wifi and added Cafe W to more than 100 of their stores nationwide.


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Daunt books in Hampstead


But what about the independent booksellers that are rapidly vanishing from our high streets? How do they cope and survive in this day and age? What these bookshops offer that Amazon cannot is human contact, so aside from finding a niche and understanding the target market, factors like customer service and building relationships with the customers are crucial.

Here are some general, specialists and secondhand bookshops (I shall write about art/design bookshops in the future) that are worth visiting in the city:

Hachards booksellers (187 Piccadilly London W1J 9LE) – Forget Waterstones down the road, this is the quintessential British bookshop (even though it is owned by Waterstones). It is the oldest bookshop in the UK, and you can soak up the historical ambience while browsing inside. There are also many signed books available in store, and it is seldom crowded, so it is easy to spend a few hours here away from the hustle and bustle outside. 
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Top: Hachards Booksellers; 2nd left: Persephone books; 2nd right: Waterstones; Bottom: The London Review bookshop
London review bookshop (14 Bury Place WC1A 2JL) – A much loved bookshop by the locals, and despite its touristy location (near the British Museum), it is not very touristy. There is a wide range of selection here, but the main focus is literary fiction, poetry, history and travel. The cafe is extremely popular too, as there are not many decent cafes nearby (P.S. I was told by the barista that they use Monmouth coffee beans, so coffee connoisseur need not worry here). 
Persephone books (59 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB) – This small independent bookshop/publisher differs from other because it reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Their collection of 112 books includes novels, short stories, diaries, memoirs and cookery books, all reprinted in their signature grey covers. You can buy their books online, but I recommend a visit to their crammed but delightful shop. 
Stanford Travel (12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP) – I often drop by when I need to research or plan for a holiday. Established in 1853, this travel and map specialist bookshop stocks the world’s largest collection of map and travel books, as well as travel accessories and stationery. The small cafe at the back is also quite pleasant and relaxing if you want to get away from the crowded and touristy Covent Garden. 

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Top left: Skoob books; Top right, 2nd row middle & right: Housmans bookshop; 2nd row left: Karnac bookshop; Bottom left: The bookshop theatre/ Calder Bookshop; Bottom right: Judd books


Housmans bookshop (5 Caledonian Rd, London N1 9DX) – London’s oldest radical and not-for-profit bookshop (since 1945) specialising in books (over 500,000 titles from their online shop), zines, and periodicals of radical interest and progressive politics. Located close to Kings Cross, this hidden gem stocks the largest range of radical newsletters, newspapers and magazines in Britain. It is hard to find this sort of bookshop in London today, so we are lucky that this one is still going strong after all these years.

Calder Bookshop/The Bookshop Theatre (51 The Cut, Southwark, London SE1 8LF) – This is another unusual bookshop and theatre that started in 2011 by a collective of friends who wanted to create their own theatre to put on their own productions. Aside from regular theatre and a weekly cinema club, their not-for-profit shop has quality second hand books and literature on plays and performance art.

Karnac books (118 Finchley Rd, London NW3 5HT) – This small inconspicuous bookshop is located on the busy Finchley Road, yet many would walk by without taking much notice of it. This specialist bookshop is in fact dedicated to psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and related subjects. Established in 1950, Karnac is Britain’s only specialist psychoanalytic bookshop, and interestingly, it is located not far from the Freud museum. There are not only books by famous names like Freud and Jung, but also new and rare-to-find titles, and it regularly hosts events and seminars related to these topics.

Skoob books (66, Brunswick Shopping Centre, Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AE) – This basement bookshop is one of my favourites in the city because it feels like Aladdin’s cave for books. It offers over 55,000 different titles of second-hand academic books, including large collections of books in Philosophy, Psychology, Modern Literature, Art, History, Politics, Economics, Classics, Science and Technology. I often find books that I already own here for 1/2 the price I originally paid, so if you are looking for bargains, this is THE place to come. And you are quite likely to spend hours here and leave with a heap of books back home.

Judd books (82 Marchmont St, Saint Pancras, London, WC1N 1AG) – Judd Books has a large stock of used and bargain academic books including Literature, Art, Film, Media, Architecture and Music. There are also bargain boxes outside where you can find new/like-new condition books for under a fiver.


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Top left & middle: Black gull bookshop; Top right & bottom: Word on Water


Black gull bookshop (70-71 Camden Lock Pl, London NW1 8AF) Now that Camden market has become a major tourist trap (it didn’t use to be this way), I would avoid like the plague. However, there are still some gems to be found beyond incense sticks and greasy Chinese noodles, and one of them is Black gull bookshop. The secondhand bookshop stocks Fictions, Classics, Crime, History, Philosophy, Psychology, Mind Body and Spirit, Mythology, Occult, Art, Film, Music, Poetry, Drama and Cookery. I also discovered a few plastic crates of children’s books outside. Most books are in excellent condition, and the staff is friendly and helpful. The market is currently going through a major facelift, I just hope that this shop is here to stay.

Treadwell’s books (33 Store Street, London WC1E 7BS) – If you are into tarot and other spiritual-related matters, then a visit to the Treadwell’s is a must as it is an independent/alternative bookshop that specialises in esotericism, culture, religion and spirituality. There are also regular events, courses and workshops on related subjects, this is undoubtedly one of the most unconventional bookshops in London.

Word on Water (Located inside Granary Square) – The most unique bookshop in London is not on land but on water! Word on Water is a floating bookshop on a 1920’s Dutch Barge that offers a range of contemporary fiction, cult, art and photography, non-fiction and quality children’s books at reasonable prices. After losing their previous mooring in Paddington Basin last year, they have been offered a permanent residence on the steps at Granary Square in King’s Cross. These days, it is not easy to find space on land or on water in London, so let’s hope that this bookbarge is here to stay.


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