The London review of bookshops

Posted on April 30, 2009

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Where do you go when you’ve got a few hours to kill, when you’re fed up of being in your own house but it’s not quite the occasion to head down to the pub?

I’m beginning to gain a penchant for chilling out at bookstores. They’re the perfect place to peruse the latest novels or magazines while indulging it a spot of people watching too.

To date I’d purely been a Borders aficionado. Perhaps my habit had something to do with the fact that I worked at a Borders store during my university holidays one summer. More likely it’s based on the relaxed approach that the store has to letting customers put their grubby hands all over the merchandise.

Growing up as a book-loving kid in the nineties, book stores were a bit like churches. You were free to browse the shelves, if you were intent on buying you could even ask a shop assistant to order a book for you but woe betide you if you took a book of the Dillon’s shelves and actually started to read it. That would be outrageous behaviour.

So you could imagine my amazement back in 1999 when, while covering the Winter Music Conference, I stumbled into a Borders on Miami Beach. First of all it was around 9pm and the shop was open and further still people with mugs perilously full of coffee were dotted all over the store not just fingering, but actually reading the books. In the store! Not only were the store workers not hassling these lingerers, they actually offered to put away all the titles that had been pulled of the shelves.

It was an experience that marked my book-buying experience for life. But I popped into Waterstones on Piccadilly earlier this week and I’m beginning to realise that I may have been mistaken in favouring Borders so strongly. There’s a whole world of booksellers out there.

So I’ve decided to start (an inevitably irregular) series reviewing London’s bookshops. Feel free to mail me any suggestions or opinions on your favourite spots.

Waterstones, Piccadilly

Situated in an imposing art deco building, the Piccadilly branch is a five-floored emporium for book lovers. If you’re looking to sit and read head for the red leather seats to the right hand side of the building. It’s undoubtedly the most peaceful location (apart from when the bells in a nearby church chime at the top of each hour) and on a sunny day it’s a real sun trap.

Waterstones Piccadilly has a sense of space, peace and order, the antithesis of another London bookstore institution Foyles (review to follow). It attracts a smarter sort of crowd and the staff give the impression that the take themselves and their jobs very seriously.

Despite the staid vibe, the store isn’t quite dead on its feet. Waterstones puts in a good show at trying to be trendy with innovative names for book displays. The floor featuring fiction offers tables of books on which you could find the signs ‘Salaam India’, ‘Weepies’ or ‘Quintessentially English’. Cool.

The Piccadilly store has carved a niche with its high-profile book signings. For those of you who fancy something a bit harder than a Costa Coffee cappuccino, take the lift up to the 5th floor where you’ll find the restaurant and bar serving cocktails plus superb views of London.

Borders, Oxford Street

As far as shop layouts go, the Tottenham Court branch is definitely my London favourite (UK fave would have to be Glasgow – impressive building). But the location makes the in-house coffee store slightly less desirable; Tottenham court is possibly one of the grimiest area in central London.

Oxford Street has more space and comfier chairs, although the incessant background music can sometimes be slightly soporific. The queues at the Starbucks are ridiculous so try not to time your visit for lunch time. The staff has also imposed a five magazine limit on the number of publications you’re allowed to bring up from the ground floor – that sounds pretty reasonable to me…

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