The joy of being a bookworm at NYU London

If you wish to get lost in the coziest bookstores, NYU London is the place to be.

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Saige Gipson

Daunt Books is an independent bookstore in London known for its architecture and book selection. London has a wide range of independent bookstores for locals and visitors to explore. (Photo by Saige Gipson)

By Saige Gipson, Contributing Writer

Like many, I used reading to survive the depths of quarantine. It was comforting to sit down with a new book to distract myself from the world’s problems. London’s many unique independent bookstores remind me of the calming power of sifting through books to find the perfect read. 

While quarantined at home, I would read whatever books my mother gave to me. She would often finish a book, then hand it to me and it would sit on my bookshelf until I got around to reading it. 

When I moved back to New York last year, I frequently visited the library. For most of the year, the New York Public Library was only open for book pick up; no one could go in and peruse the shelves. Because of this, I got used to reserving whatever books were at the forefront of the library’s website or whichever my mom recommended to me. I never had time to surround myself with books, read blurbs and carefully choose what I wanted to read. 

Moving to London, I was shocked by the amount of historic independent bookstores that caught my eye. Many people gravitate toward the quick, contactless process of purchasing books online or through large retailers such as Barnes & Noble. I have never been a fan of these types of stores. Every location you enter, the smells, layout and people are always the same. The stores are designed for efficiency and profit rather than gentle places to fall in love with a new story. 

Although some of London’s oldest bookstores have been bought out by larger chains, many independent bookstores remain. Housed in an Edwardian-style building constructed in 1910, Daunt Books is a favorite among Londoners. The shop, formerly known as Francis Edwards, one of the first sellers of antique books, was the first building ever built specifically for the sale of books. The history of the building as well as the ornate architecture serve as the perfect home to the many diverse stories being sold at Daunt.

I first noticed Daunt because of the many tote bags emblazoned with an image of the storefront I saw around the city. The store maintains a very cozy nature despite the crowd of book lovers gathering inside. Daunt’s organizational strategy — separating books by country of origin — makes sense, considering that the store began as a travel book and world map shop. Every crevice of the store feels homey and engaging, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, as well as large tables filled with new books. Daunt’s layout is full of small reading nooks and green banker’s lamps reminiscent of those in libraries, allowing you to cozily test out your books before you buy them.

Visiting Daunt reminded me how much I enjoyed being surrounded by books before the pandemic. I felt that I found a part of myself that I lost before entering the bookstore and before studying away in London. Entering Daunt Books led me to explore other kinds of bookstores on the campus of NYU London. 

Researching bookstores around campus led me to a discovery called Stanford’s Bookstore. This bookstore, which was established in 1853, is a traveller’s must. Like many of the book shops opened in the 19th century, Stanford’s began with selling maps and travel guides. Today, Stanford’s sells fiction and nonfiction books that involve travel, but for the most part, the shelves there are stocked with maps and guides for every travel site imaginable.

I found Stanford’s interesting not only because it was referenced in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” but also because I had never been inside a bookstore dedicated to selling travel materials. The customers at Stanford’s all look outdoorsy, as if they had just finished a hike before entering the store. The aisles feel very tranquil, flagged by colorful pamphlets advertising different travel destinations that give the store the feeling of an art gallery. 

I got slightly anxious as I skimmed the shelves because of the surplus of pamphlets and travel guides that detailed how to travel to cities I had never heard of before. After recovering from the overwhelming nature of the store, though, I found that I really enjoyed looking at the travel guides and maps. Although I did not buy any maps, I spent about an hour walking through the store’s shelves. Stanford’s is a helpful place to go if you are seeking travel inspiration. 

The last unique independent bookstore I visited was Bookmarks. Bookmarks is Britain’s largest socialist bookshop. Offering an interesting mix of new and used books, Bookmarks roots itself to London’s history by shedding light on the city’s Labour Party and socialist history. London is a popular place for socialist history given that Karl Marx and other political theorists lived here for many years.

Bookmarks was smaller and emptier than the other bookstores I visited. I initially went in because I was curious about what kinds of books a socialist bookstore would sell. I did not know whether Bookmarks only sold books based on socialist themes or if they sold all kinds of books and supported socialist causes. The former is true; I only saw books written by socialist leaders and books with socialist themes at Bookmarks. I also wanted to check out the store because it was ransacked in 2018 by a group of right-wing protesters. Bookmarks is a prime example of the resilient nature of London’s independent bookstores.

Visiting different types of independent bookstores in London helped me get in touch with the city’s history and culture, while also helping me regain the comfort and joy derived from being surrounded by books.

Contact Saige Gipson at [email protected]