Books

The UK’s best independent bookshops

For Independent Bookshop Week we asked a host of authors and illustrators to share their favourite UK indies – and added a few extra picks of our own

Best independent bookshops

Indie book shops. Illustration: Lizzie Lomax

Ever since the first out-of-town supermarkets opened, the high street has faced complex and increasing challenges. In recent years, retail parks and online shopping have piled on the pressure. For many shops, the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. As people work from home and the cost of living remains high, many towns and cities are seeing decreases in footfall compared with pre-Covid times. And yet, independent bookshops are enjoying a renaissance at the heart of their communities.

In January this year, the Booksellers Association – which represents independent, chain and non-traditional booksellers across the UK and Ireland – announced the number of independent bookshops had reached its highest point in 10 years. At the end of 2022, they had 1,072 independent members, up from the low point of 867 in 2016.

“Bookshops bring social and cultural capital to every town, village, suburb or city centre they are part of, and punch way above their weight in terms of impact and engagement,” said Meryl Halls, Managing Director at the Booksellers Association.

This Saturday marks the start of Independent Bookshop Week (17-24 June 2023) – the annual chance to applaud all the diversity and joy of the UK’s indie bookshops. As long-time supporters of the celebration, The Big Issue brings you a guide to some of the very best bookish places to visit, with a little help from some of the country’s top authors.

Looking for some book recommendation to buy at these great bookshops?

Amy Liptrot outside The Book Case
Amy Liptrot outside The Book Case

The Book Case

Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

Picked by Amy Liptrot, author of The Instant

Almost everyone to whom I’ve given a present in recent years has my local independent bookshop to thank: The Book Case in Hebden Bridge.

It’s packed with a top-notch selection of new and classic books, with the nature/travel and poetry shelves in particular always worth a look. There’s a children’s section with a sofa at the back of the shop where I bring my kids to browse on a rainy day. I’ve had many rushed visits in here before a kid’s birthday party and can always find a lovely book (Britta Teckentrup’s are my favourites) and card.

The shop supports local authors – of whom there are many in Hebden Bridge including Stephen May, Benjamin Myers, Adelle Stripe, Melvin Burgess and Horatio Clare – displaying our work prominently and hosting book launches.

There is now also a sister shop, The Book Corner, at the Piece Hall in nearby Halifax. When the town flooded in 2016, the bookshop was badly affected. Now the specially designed shop sign drops down to act as a floodgate.

The shop is bustling at weekends and caters for different groups – both locals and the tourists, walkers and cyclists who pass through.

There’s an excellent local section where I buy The Northern Earth, a magazine about unexplained phenomena, Ordnance Survey maps and books about occult happenings and local history. Long live The Book Case!

Primrose Hill Books

Primrose Hill Books

London

Picked by Kamila Shamsie, author of Best of Friends

There’s something Tardis-like about Primrose Hill Books’s ability to contain far more books than seems possible when you look at the shopfront while walking past. Not that “walking past” is really an option for me.

Once it was the displays that drew me in, or the used books for sale outside, or even a pre-existing desire to buy a particular book. Now I don’t need any reason to step inside beyond the certainty that I will walk out happier – and not always because of something I’ve bought.

You can wander in simply to browse or chat about books. You can wander in because the weather or the world is grim and you need an antidote to awfulness. And it offers a lovely excuse to walk through the beautiful green of Primrose Hill park.

Books On The Hill

Books On The Hill

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Picked by Rosie Andrews, author of The Leviathan

Books on the Hill in St Albans occupies a beautiful old building. It’s small, or appears to be, but as you go inside it gets bigger.

There’s a Curiosity Cabinet containing rare editions of Jane Austen, Enid Blyton and John Bunyan. The children’s section has vintage fiction mingling with general knowledge, and somewhere for kids to sit and choose what they want to buy.

My favourite bit is at the back – heaving shelves of second-hand books. Here you can go from an old Beano to a brand-new copy of The Lord of the Rings. Oh, and there’s a reading room and a cafe.

Owner Katie Clapham outside Storytellers, Inc.

Storytellers, Inc.

Lytham St Annes, Lancashire

Picked by Jarvis, author of The Boy With Flowers in His Hair

I collect children’s books and Katie picks out a few to send me each month. They might be new releases, big blockbusters, books I should know about but don’t, or dusty ones that have been sitting in her bookshop for years… usually those are the best!

Recently The Big Bad Wolf and Me by Delphine Perret arrived out of the blue. A translated book from France about a kid meeting the big bad wolf. It’s unusual, funny and creative. I would never have found it if it wasn’t for Katie and Storytellers, Inc.

Bookhaus

Bookhaus

Bristol

Picked by Jen Reid, author of A Hero Like Me

Bookhaus in Bristol is an absolute gem. From the moment you step through the doors, you’re greeted with warm smiles and a genuine enthusiasm for all things literary. The friendly and knowledgeable staff create an atmosphere that feels like a sanctuary for book lovers.

One of the main reasons why Bookhaus is so incredible is its selection of books. No matter what genre or niche you’re in the mood for, you can always find a treasure trove of literary wonders. Their curated collection is a testament to their passion for literature, and it never fails to inspire and ignite my imagination. The shelves are thoughtfully organised, making it easy to explore and discover new authors and genres.

My most memorable time at Bookhaus was coming in from the rain and settling into one of their cosy reading nooks and losing myself in a book which was my best discovery, An Olive Grove in Ends, by Bristol author Moses McKenzie. It’s a captivating book that takes you on a journey through the lives of diverse characters and explores themes of love, identity and resilience.

Pickled Pepper Books in Crouch End

A few favourite stop offs…

Picked by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, author of Frank and Bert: The One Where Bert Learns to Ride a Bike

Living abroad I don’t have a local bookshop but when I have a new book out I visit
indies around the UK to paint a window display and sign books.

I get to chat to the people who work there and be a fly on the wall. Customers come in and the bookseller always finds the right book. It’s the opposite of an algorithm. It’s intuition, knowledge and skill.

My favourites include the Little Ripon Bookshop in Ripon, the Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, The Borzoi Bookshop in Stow-on-the-Wold, Pickled Pepper Books in Crouch End, The Book Nook in Hove and Bags of Books in Lewes.

Ginger Cat Children's Bookshop

Ginger Cat Children’s Bookshop

Bridge of Weir, Scotland

Picked by Skye McKenna, author of Hedgewitch

When my first book was published, I was invited to spend a day at the Ginger Cat Children’s Bookshop in the beautiful Gryffe Valley.

I saw first-hand how it served as a hub for the local community. I met keen young readers from the local school and customers from nearby and further afield who travelled to the village to buy books from the curated selection and take part in bookshop events.

I saw for myself how Aileen, the owner of the Ginger Cat, helped parents and children find the perfect book and witnessed the relationships she had built with local families. I was amazed to learn the shop had only been open since November 2021, as it already felt like an indispensable part of the high street and was clearly loved by kids.

I feel we desperately need more bookshops like this, and to treasure those we have, as they offer specialised knowledge, a living community, and booksellers who understand how to kindle a love of reading in every child.

Moon Lane Books

London

Picked by Alex Falase-Koya, author of Marv and the Pool of Peril

I grew up in South London; I was actually born in Greenwich hospital (a place that no longer exists), however, for the last ten years of my life for a whole bunch of reasons I’ve been living in north London. That all changed last year I moved back down south. After moving in, when my cats were well settled, I began to look for bookshops that were close by, and I found one. Just down the road, less than five minutes away from where I live, was Moon Lane Books.

It’s colourful. I think that’s the first thought I had when I saw it. The outside of the bookshop is painted in a light, airy, blue, and on its large windows are posters and illustrations. I still remember walking inside for the first time, quickly realising that nearly all the books here were children’s books. This was a children’s bookshop, something I had personally never seen before at that time.

Jasmine and all the other booksellers that I’ve run into over there, have always been really fun to talk to and incredibly helpful with multiple books for my nieces and nephews. This, plus, Moon Lane’s commitment to addressing issues of representation and inequity in books, makes it a great place to be.

Wonderland

Retford, Nottingham

Picked by Hannah Gold, author of The Lost Whale

My favourite kind of bookshop puts children at the heart and soul of their business. Wonderland in Retford, Notts, is a designated children’s bookshop, owned by Helen Tamblyn-Saville. Not only does she champion a diverse range of books, she even has a tea party hanging from the shop’s ceiling!

Helen has been a massive part of my success, first as a slightly nervous author debuting in lockdown with The Last Bear, and then with my ocean-themed second book, The Lost Whale. And even though Helen sells a lot of my books, she’s more than just a bookseller to me. She is aligned with the ecological strands of my stories and is always there to offer a kind word. The world needs more bookshops like Wonderland.

New Beacon Books

New Beacon Books

London

Picked by Sophie Bass, illustrator of John Agard’s Windrush Child

Independent bookshops are so important! As a previous manager of an independent art shop I truly know the value of these places to our communities. New Beacon Books is a bookshop that opened in 1966, specialising in African and Caribbean literature. It is on the Stroud Green Road in North London, right round the corner from where I live.

As an independent bookshop it has supported work from communities that have been marginalised and, especially at the time it opened, was an extremely important institution for those who wanted to access literature that would otherwise not be available in the UK.

On their website they say: “Established in 1966, New Beacon Books is the only remaining independent Black publishing and bookselling entity in the UK. Throughout its 55 years, it has been pivotal to the growth of the Black Education Movement, the Black Supplementary School Movement and current calls for the decolonisation of the curriculum.” New Beacon Books is an inspiration to us all.

The Children’s Bookshop

London

Picked by Katherine Rundell, author of Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne

I think my favourite is The Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, which is run by the brilliant Sanchita Basu De Sarkar.

The bookshop holds free story times on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – a riot of babies and toddlers and a true delight. They have both a graphic novel book club and a YA book club for teens – and a children’s book club which is so hotly in-demand that the waiting list for a spot is a year long.

The booksellers at The Children’s Bookshop work so hard to be part of the beating heart of their local community, and I admire them passionately for it. Nobody runs a bookshop for the glory or the money: there will always be easier, swifter, more lucrative ways to make a living. It’s done for love and you can feel that love vividly at work.

Stoke Newington Bookshop

London

Picked by Louie Stowell, author of Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Ruling the World

My favourite bookshop is my local, Stoke Newington Bookshop. The staff are wonderful – everyone has their own specialism and I always find out about books I’ve missed, especially comics for kids.

It’s a community hub, involved in the Stoke Newington Literary Festival and I’ve been to some brilliant launches for local authors, including one for Abiola Bello’s Love in Winter Wonderland. It’s set in a bookshop in Stoke Newington, so it was a bit like being in the book while at the launch.

Many of the staff are writers too; it’s great to chat about making books while choosing them.

Next Page Books

Hitchin, Hertfordshire

Picked by Harry Woodgate, author of Timid

Next Page Books in Hitchin is a dedicated children’s bookshop with a focus on diverse, inclusive books. I’ve been fortunate to have visited on several occasions to put up window displays, as well as to run story time and craft events as part of their Children’s Book Festival.

From their partnerships with local schools, curating diverse class and library book lists, to their weekend story times, author events and book subscriptions, they help make sure every child can access books which reflect and validate their experiences, and which open the door to a lifelong love of reading.

Patrice Lawrence at a Letterbox Library event
Patrice Lawrence at a Letterbox Library event

Letterbox Library

London

Picked by Patrice Lawrence, author of The Elemental Detectives

Long before Amazon sold books online… Long before much of the children’s book world really understood the importance of diverse representation – there was Letterbox Library. The shop was set up by women more than 40 years ago and run by women now – Fen and Kerry who I am lucky enough to call friends. 

Letterbox Library stocks children’s books that challenge stereotypes, books that they are passionate about. They know their stock intimately. However, all books sold must be positively reviewed by at least two people – this ensures that representation is nuanced and sneaky little biases are picked up. The shop has withstood east London gentrification, the obliteration of early years budgets by local authorities (diversity commitments often disappear with funding cuts) and behemoth internet stores.

Letterbox Library loudly champion equality and social justice in their co-organisation of the Little Rebel Awards with Housmans bookshop. They have supported me from Orangeboy days and restore my faith when the world feels increasingly hostile to so many communities.

At least a hundred bookshops

Robin Ince, author of The Importance of Being Interested, couldn’t pick

My favourite bookshop is usually the bookshop that I am in. Having visited so many, I find it hard to narrow it down. I like the big open bright ones and I like the small, teetering dark ones that offer secret and forgotten books in the corners. I like them to be a near a nice tea and cake shop and I like to have tea and cake as I look at my latest purchases. I like any bookshop where their love of books is almost overwhelming and their desire to lure you to their latest favourite is irrepressible. I like the delight shared as we talk back and forth of books that have been and books that are yet to come.

I love to see the shelves decorated with written notes from those who work in them explaining why I must read this book by Elizabeth Bowen or that book by Angela Davis. I like to leave with books I did not know existed when I crossed the threshold. I like knowing I must return because I have left something behind. The reason I am not going to give you an answer of a single independent bookshop is that this has been my experience in at least one hundred of them, if not more. If I name names that I will be filled with regret for the names unnamed. Orwell wrote of the perfect pub, The Moon Under the Water, the one that didn’t actually exist, my problem is that the perfect bookshop does exist and there are many of them.

Read more from Robin Ince (frequently including bookshops) here.

Even more bookshops to enjoy

Picked by The Big Issue team

Barter Books
Photo by Victuallers

Barter Books

Alnwick, Northumberland

Barter Books is a unique experience. Housed in a former railway station – the old waiting rooms are now cafe booths and a model train runs around the whole thing, just above your head. It’s now home to thousands of books, browsable while you enjoy coffee, cakes and friendly canine visitors. In winter, you can even warm yourself by an open fire.

Chorlton Bookshop

Manchester

If you need evidence of the community importance of bookshops, look no further than family-run Chorlton Bookshop. Threatened with closure in 2014, when a bar applied for permission to open next door – thus making it impossible for owner Victoria Johnson to continue living above the shop as she had for 30 years – locals rallied in support. Their “Books Not Bars” campaign persuaded the council to refuse permission for the drinking establishment and the friendly shop was saved.

Lighthouse

Edinburgh

Radical politics are central to Edinburgh’s Lighthouse bookshop. A queer-owned and women-led independent community shop, they are unapologetically activist, intersectional, feminist and antiracist. They stock 10,000 horizon-broadening titles for readers of all ages and in 2020 were named Scotland’s Best Independent Bookshop.

No Alibis

Belfast

Named for its focus on mystery fiction – though you’ll also find ample children’s books, Irish literature, and tomes on history, politics, and the humanities – No Alibis has been a fixture of Queen’s quarter of Belfast for a quarter century. A hub for the creative arts more broadly, they also regularly host concerts, book launches, poetry readings and lectures.

Griffin Books

Penarth, Wales

Since her teenage years as a Saturday girl at her local bookshop, Griffin Books’s owner Mel Griffin always wanted to run her own. She has created a small but perfectly formed store in the heart of the seaside town of Penarth, where staff are always keen to find the right book (or books) for you. It was recently named the 2023 Independent Bookshop of the Year.

News From Nowhere

Liverpool

News From Nowhere, Liverpool’s not-for-profit radical & community bookshop, was established way back in 1974. Almost 50 years on, they’re still run collectively by a women workers’ co-operative. In tune with their commitment to social justice, they stock literature with the aim of empowering and inspiring people to make positive changes in the world.

If we’ve missed out your favourite local haunt let us know at letters@bigissue.com

Independent Bookshop Week runs from 17-24 June 2023. Find out more at booksellers.org.uk

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income

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