Every so often, I return to London to get lost in the myriad of shows, museums, and stores, and I never go to the same restaurant twice, as I am always missing out on another. This time, I dedicated an entire weekend to one of my favourite pastimes: book shopping. I’d been planning this short trip for months, and it happened to fall at the end of a stressful week in the middle of a stressful term. I was ready for a holiday where it was totally acceptable to have a night-in with some fantastic London cuisine, and finally read Red, White & Royal Blue after a long day of walking through bookshops.

For the past eight years, the curious minds at Ninja Book Box have invited fellow bookworms to gather and explore London together. Bex, one of the directors of Ninja Book Box, says this event started with a simple post on Twitter asking people if they wanted to go book shopping. The event has expanded over the years- it now includes guided tours through specific neighbourhoods, a quiz night, and discounts at participating locations. The organisers also put together a “Big List” on Google Maps of the hundreds of bookshops in London. Bex and her partner in crime Rhys also arrange crawls outside of London, including the one in Bath (Bex’s favourite besides London) and another here in Oxford, coming up on 24 June.

Bex enjoys shopping for books in London because of the wide variety of bookshops so close together, Housmans and Gay’s the Word being her top choices. You might think of book-browsing in London as a simple concept, but with so many specialised bookshops displaying titles you never would’ve encountered otherwise, you are sure to find something which deeply resonates with you or discover something new. On the first day of my midterm getaway, I found my way to the David Bowie memorial to join the group tour of Brixton and Peckham, neighbourhoods about which I knew very little. We visited several stores showcasing Brixton’s African and Caribbean culture, such as the bookshop at the Black Cultural Archives.

The Brixton crawl also included a stop at Bookmongers, which felt like a closet stuffed with forgotten Christmas decorations, where a very large cat hangs out sometimes. While some stores are pristine and filled with books right off the press, others have an essence of wear-and-tear to them; countless worn-in books are stuffed into shelves in these places, eagerly waiting for a new home. We also visited another secondhand bookshop where everything is £1, called Books, located in Peckham. They had an impressive collection of zines, while Judd Books in King’s Cross had a great selection of travel writing anthologies.

This last one was a highlight because while I am addicted to travelling, I might be even more addicted to travel books. We started our Saturday morning tour of Covent Garden at Stanfords. This shop specialises in maps and really leans into this aesthetic, with beautiful map-patterned floors and a shelf full of globes on display. However, Daunt Books is probably the most famous travel bookshop in London. The sections at the original location in Marylebone are sorted by destination, including travel guides, history books, and even fiction set in the relevant location. I used to believe that Daunt Books was inextricably linked to every other major book chain in the world until the employees at the original location corrected me. James Daunt is the CEO of both Waterstones and Barnes & Noble, but he only works for these companies, while he is the outright owner and founder of Daunt, which remains entirely independent.

However, the shop which left the biggest impression was Gay’s the Word, which I visited during the Saturday afternoon tour of King’s Cross (fitting, since I was already reading an LGBTQ+ book back in my hotel room). This location is London’s oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop. It is warm and welcoming with its light wood bookshelves, red carpets, and a large number of books in rainbow colours. With sections loosely created around different queer identities, everyone can learn something about themselves or another person in these walls.

According to Jem, a bookseller at the shop, “Gay’s The Word is not only a bookshop but also a space that holds great meaning to the queer community in London, and beyond. People come to us for classics and contemporary LGBT+ books, and we love giving recommendations. But they’ll also often pop in just to be in a queer space and we’re very mindful that customers could be at any stage of their journey when they come in, so we always try to be as welcoming as possible.”

I hope to return to the shop eventually to attend one of their events, as well as for more books. Jem says that “Several groups also meet in the shop after hours, including a Lesbian Discussion Group that has been meeting here for over 40 years!” I could’ve bought about 20 books here, but I settled for a collection of asexual myths and fairy tales (Elizabeth Hopkinson). If you are looking for reading on queer history and culture, Gay’s the Word is a must; you might also consider stopping by Housmans, a radical bookshop which sells books championing for progressive political and social causes.

But if you are like me and are looking for a way to unwind and maybe have a small moment of self-reflection, London is full of perfect places for some alone time. On Sunday morning, I took off on my own to visit the Notting Hill Bookshop, the only place in the city cuter than Gay’s the Word. This neighbourhood is simply the loveliest place to spend your morning, with pastries, books, and plenty of coffee stops all within reach—go to Buns from Home for the best cinnamon rolls! For more inspiration, you can also stop by Watkins Books, a spiritual bookshop in Covent Garden where the door opens with an on-brand creak with some adorable pouffes and an astounding collection of tarot cards for sale in addition to many books to heal the body, mind, and soul.

To summarise my adventures, I got lost in a shop of signed copies I couldn’t afford (Henry Pordes), found myself in tiny rooms cramped with thousands of worlds and ideas, and bought more young adult novels than I’m proud to admit. But I was also able to reset my mind while visiting new places and meeting new people. This trip might not be what I had originally planned, but it was what I needed at the time. Now if I could just find the time to read all the books I bought…

See my list of London bookshops on my Bimble page: https://bimble.com/lists/london-bookshop-crawl/5307254928572416