Discover the UK’s top bookshops on a literary tour
By Sarah Marshall
During lockdown, reading provided an emotional crutch for so many of us, offering escape routes to fantasy worlds.
But while ordering books online is convenient, nothing compares to the satisfying sensation of thumbing through a paperback in an actual book shop or spending hours studying decorative covers on the shelves.
Now shops have reopened, avid readers are encouraged to explore Britain’s beloved bookstores as part of Independent Bookshop Week (June 19-26), and it’s easy to turn the experience into a mini travel adventure.
Louise Boland, author of Bookshop Tours, has compiled several itineraries. Here are a couple to sample.
North East Tour
When it was founded in 1092, Lincoln Cathedral stood at the centre of what was then one of the wealthiest towns in Britain. Its historic quarter, located in what the locals call ‘uphill’ (as opposed to the ‘downhill’ part of the town), contains the cathedral, a medieval bishop’s palace and a castle built by William the Conqueror in 1068. The castle has one of only four original copies of the Magna Carta in its vault, which is open for viewing by visitors.
The city’s indie bookshop, Lindum Books (4 Bailgate), sits almost exactly between the cathedral and the castle. In a beautiful old building, over two floors, it has a wide stock of carefully picked titles. In usual times they host at least one event per month, so do check before you visit to see what might be on.
Around 30 miles north of Lincoln, at Brigg, there is a bookshop that is not to be missed if you have children in your party, or any fans of vintage and vinyl. Founded by two ex-schoolteachers, The Rabbit Hole is geared towards the little ones, with lots of fun surprises for them hidden in corners, and little sofas and chairs at children’s height.
In York, The Little Apple Bookshop (littleapplebookshop.co.uk) is in High Petergate, a stone’s throw from the cathedral and from the famous Shambles, the best preserved medieval street in England, with wooden houses falling into one another above the lane. It is a small but delightful shop that uses the space it has to great advantage, cramming in all sorts of interesting books and gifts.
Next stop, further up the coast, is Whitby, a fishing town also popular as a holiday destination, and famous for its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Whitby Bookshop (whitbybookshop.co.uk), is a delight, set on two floors with a spiral staircase in the middle. It of course stocks lots of books related to Dracula and vampires, but it’s a big shop, with lots of well-chosen titles on all sorts of other things too.
Our tour starts off down the A31 in the Blue Bear Bookshop (3 Townhall Buildings) at Farnham. Opened in 2019, this is a gorgeous bookshop with a very good café. A little further down the A31, about midway between two bookshop towns, is Jane Austen’s House at Chawton, just outside Alton. Whether you are a fan of her work or not, if you have writerly ambitions this is a highly recommended place to visit.
Next stop is Laurence Oxley (birketfoster.co.uk) in Alresford, a beautiful old shop that sells new books but also second-hand and rare books and maps. They also sell old prints and limited-edition modern prints. From here, continue down to the leafy, ancient city of Winchester. You’ll find the bookshop P&G Wells (pgwells.co.uk) just outside the old medieval walls, close to the Old Bishop’s Palace.
From its wooden shopfront to its dark-wood bookcase – it’s traditional looking but stocked with a carefully chosen selection of books. Bookselling first started on the street – almost certainly on the same premises – in 1729, and it became a Wells shop when Joseph Wells, the apprentice in the store, became the owner sometime between 1866 and 1890.
We head east now onto the South Downs, a chalk escarpment created after the last ice age that stretches all the way from Winchester to the white cliffs of Beachy Head. The bookshop in Petersfield is One Tree Books (onetreebooks.com), a lovely big shop with a sheet music department, a café and, in usual times, a regular series of events. They also normally offer a ‘book doctor’ service which includes a bibliotherapy session, where you discuss your reading tastes with them and they build you a bespoke list of books which are then delivered over the next months.
Finally, we head for the quaint old town of Steyning. The town’s bookshop, The Steyning Bookshop (steyningbookshop.co.uk), is housed in a beautiful old 18th-century building and will be an exciting stop for any children with you. It has a large kids’ book section with a giant red wooden train in the centre.