One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mother reading to me, “They’re changing guards at Buckingham Palace, Christopher Robin went down with Alice.” My passion for London started long ago and it has never subsided. Like many Anglophiles, I became smitten with all things British from reading books, long before I ever made a visit.
Now, as an entrepreneur, I’m equally fascinated by the businesses that cater to local and visiting booklovers. If a London visit is on your horizon, here are a few places worth exploring.
Browse in a bookstore. If you were to spend a month in London, you’d have to visit twenty-five stores a day just to take them all in. Assuming that your time is more limited, head straight to Charing Cross Road and stroll along this booklover’s paradise. Coming out of the Leister Square Tube Station, turn right and you’ll come upon Quinto, a dusty used bookseller and Zwemmer, specializing in design and art. In 2001 rents were raised sharply in the area so many of the smaller specialty shops are no longer there. In the next block is the famous Foyle’s, not an especially easy store to navigate. Check out the side streets, too, for more antiquarian and specialist shops.
Travel with guides, fiction and non-fiction organized by country. www.DauntBooks.co.uk
The smaller shops scattered around London are where you’re most apt to meet a bookselling entrepreneur. In the charming The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, there’s this observation about booksellers which is as true today as it was in post-World War II times when the book is set: “”No one in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and no one in his right mind would want to own one—the margin of profit is too small. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it—along with first dibs on the new books.”
You might be tempted to skip the chains, but don’t miss Waterstone’s in Piccadilly which claims to be the largest bookstore in Europe with seven floors of books. Each floor features books by category and has lots of lounging space. You can also have a bite to eat in the fifth floor cafe which has a spectacular view overlooking the Millennium Wheel.
Hear an author talk. Writers are the original homebased business owners. Author appearances are as popular in London as they are in the U.S. And, for the most part, you can listen to a contemporary author read from their latest book or discuss their writing career for free. Some bookstores charge a small admission fee, but allow you to redeem your ticket against the purchase of a book.
Most dependable for locating events and signings is Time Out, the weekly entertainment magazine. Locate the “Books & Poetry” section of the magazine for a current listing of events. Besides author appearances, they also publicize writer’s workshops and poetry readings which are open to the public. Even if you aren’t up on contemporary English literature, this could be an interesting way to spend an evening.
Take a guided tour. Of all the small companies conducting walking tours, London Walks has the broadest selection of offerings. You can join London Walks and explore London’s Literary Golden Mile or follow in the footsteps of Eliza Doolittle. There’s Oscar Wilde’s London, along with that of Shakespeare and Dickens. Or you might choose a pub crawl that includes a few haunts of famous writers.
London Walks not only offers a wide range of walking explorations, they also have a diverse and entertaining group of tour guides. Many of the guides are actors, while others are art historians, authors or former museum employees. Still others have special qualifications. Alan, for instance, is the chief researcher and archivist of the Oscar Wilde Society and conducts his Wilde Walk attired as Mr. Wilde himself.
These two hour walks, which take place rain or shine, cost a mere £7.00 and are a wonderful way to pick up fascinating details about your favorite authors. Telephone: 020 7624 3978 www.Walks.com
Bill Bryson with
Barbara and Margaret Winter
Be a Bohemian for a day. Bloomsbury, the area surrounding the British Museum, has long had a reputation as a scholarly oasis located in West Central London. Long before Virginia Woolf & Company made this area the height of literary fashion, writers had discovered this peaceful place. Thackeray writes about the area in Vanity Fair; earlier residents included Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw and Gertrude Stein.
However, Bloomsbury became most famous as a literary mecca when the Bloomsbury Group was formed. Although this group is remembered as a literary band, they’re also remembered for their ferocious insistence on personal and sexual liberty and freedom of expression. That should give you plenty of ideas about how you might behave on your Bloomsbury visit.
Begin your Bohemian adventure (dressed in black, of course) by taking the Tube to Holburn. This commercial area is unimpressive and somewhat frenetic. Follow the signs towards the British Museum and you’ll begin to move into a quieter and gentler neighborhood. This area has several lovely public areas, the largest of which is Russell Square. Although the ambiance has changed, you’ll find many vestiges of Bloomsbury’s literary connections by simply strolling along Bedford Place and Woburn Street. Blue plaques adorn the houses of Nos. 46, 50 and 51 Gordon Square where Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and others of the Bloomsbury Group once lived; at No. 5 Woburn Walk you’ll find the former residence of William Butler Yeats.
Enjoy the perfect place to spend a rainy day. The new British Library is a feast for any booklover. Long housed in the British Museum, the new Library was opened amidst controversy on November 24, 1997. I can’t imagine a more enjoyable place to escape on a cold and rainy day. Take the Tube to King’s Cross Station, turn right on St. Pancreas and walk about a block and a half.
All sorts of author talks and book-related events take place at the Library, most of them open to the public. There are three (well, four with the gift shop) main attractions. The priceless personal library of King George III is a spectacular display housed behind glass walls that are six stories high. The King’s Library contains some 65,000 volumes, 20,000 pamphlets and 400 manuscripts. While the contents are only available to serious scholars, visitors can enjoy the display while visiting the Cafe or Restaurant.
The manuscript room is the main attraction, however. It always takes my breath away to see an original notebook of Jane Austen’s, a first folio of Shakespeare, and the lyrics to a Beatle’s tune scribbled on a scrap of paper. Besides historical books, you’ll also find original music compositions such as Handel’s Messiah with annotations.
Skip the hotel. Maggie Dobson is the entrepreneur behind At Home in London which matches up visitors with locals offering homey bed and breakfast accommodations. I have given up pricey hotel stays since discovering this great little business. Because Dobson selects carefully, her hosts are superb. www.AtHomeInLondon.co.uk
Explore on your own. When Napoleon called England a nation of shopkeepers, he didn’t mean it as a compliment, but you’ll be happy to learn that many small enterprises have survived throughout London. Even with the infusion of chain stores, London neighborhoods still house plenty of fascinating shops offering a wide range of goods, old and new.