Juliette’s solo tour of London Indies

After our delightful and insightful tour of some great indies in the West of the UK, I (Mrs B) decided to see some of our more urban contemporaries with a mini tour of some of the best bookshops in the Big Smoke. I was already very familiar with some of the stalwarts of the high streets such as Daunts, Hatchards and John Sandoes, so I focused instead on visiting those, old and new, which I had heard much about but not yet had the chance to explore. It also gave me a chance for some nostalgic reminiscing as I tramped the streets of areas I had lived in some 20 years ago – many of which have changed/been gentrified beyond recognition.

First stop was Pages of Hackney – recently nominated for Bookshop of the Year at the British Book Awards and for good reason. They have a superb reputation and a small but very well thought-through space. The selection is well curated with an enticingly large array of books on gender/politics/feminist/diversity to appeal to their local market. They have a varied events program and are doing great work within their local community to make their name as a bookshop for all. I had a lovely chat with smiley Jo and overheard several customers showering the shop with praise whilst I was there.  

A bus ride through Dalston and on to Highbury where I sought out the intriguingly named and thoroughly fresh and modern Ink@84. Conceived and run by author Betsy and artist Tessa, I met Alex too, a dynamic young bookseller merrily chatting about books and giving recommendations to a customer as I browsed. The shop has quite a continental feel, with light wood, modern custom-made shelving and doubles as a small café too which is fully licensed, allowing for the winning combination of books and cocktails! They host film evenings, with a pull-down screen and have carefully chosen their stock to suit their neighbourhood.

The next morning I headed south to where a glut of indies pepper the rather glamorous and imposing Victorian neighbourhood of Dulwich. There are few more enticing looking shops for children than Tales on Moon Lane whose duck-egg blue, circus-themed facade opens into a fairytale-esque interior stocked to the brim with toys and books-a-plenty. Among the glittering parcels, oversized dragons and chandeliers, it is easy for children to be transported to imaginary worlds and I was delighted to hear that they had just that week opened a new shop called Moon Lane Books a little further south which will focus on books that reflect all of London’s socio-economic groups, with an emphasis on BAME books and emerging authors and illustrators. 

A hop, skip and a jump away lies Village Books Dulwich, a pivotal part of the high street since the 1930s. Owner Hazel is hugely experienced, having set up various branches of Waterstones before running this wonderful indie. What she doesn’t know about bookselling isn’t worth knowing! Her passionate and dedicated team run a quite staggering events program (larger events being hosted at a local school theatre), have very strong links with the many local schools in the area and have a superb reputation for customer service. Again, it was great to see how creatively the shop was designed, in a city where space is at a premium! 

A final dash west across the capital to children’s bookshop The Alligator’s Mouth on a Dickensian-looking little alley off the high street in Richmond. The brilliant name comes from a quote by Lemony Snicket “A book is like an alligator’s mouth – if you see one open you often end up disappearing inside”. Too true. What a gem of a bookshop!

Run by Tony and Margaret who had previously worked together for many years at Lion & Unicorn, their extensive knowledge shines through their choice of stock and the whole design of the shop. Lovely assistant Helen was on hand too to show me around and as we swapped recommendations, I came away with a headful of book ideas which I am itching to share with my customers in Bath and with my own children. In particular, their kids’ graphic novel section was just brilliant and one of their top tips “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate” is now one of my daughter’s absolute favourite books of all time.

Nic and I have always sought out bookshops whenever and wherever we are on holiday abroad but for many years we haven’t taken a good and careful look at those on our doorstep in the UK. Dedicating the time to properly examine and take in an array of bookshops in one go was an altogether different experience and can, we hope, only help to improve our own book-selling. What struck me the most really, was just how incredibly different the feel of each shop was – how the space, the design and the personality of each shone through in all the details.  

 Still in “bookshop-tour” mode, I was able to return to my own shop brimming with inspiration. I also briefly saw it through an outsider’s eyes, taking in what makes Mr B’s so unique in its own way… before of course I started to notice all those little niggling things that need fixing around the place!

For a list of all of the great reads recommended by other indies on our Bookshop Road Trip, click here!