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The best independent bookshops in the south west

2 December 2021

Whether it’s a picnic in the sun or a cold winter’s day, there’s little better feeling than curling up with a good book. But despite the continued dominance of Amazon, small independent bookshops are enjoying a resurgence, and with the UK’s beautiful diversity when it comes to bookshops there’s an incredible variety to choose from.

From the cosy cottage full of antique books and first-editions, to the bold spaces for radical writers from marginalised communities, you’re sure to find anything and everything under the roof of one of these remarkable little stores that we’ve picked out as some of the best in our region. And whether you’re shopping for yourself, picking up a copy of a classic written in our region, or choosing the perfect present for a booklover, it’s all here.

Best independent bookshops in London

Gay’s The Word

The UK’s oldest (and England’s only dedicated) LGBT book shop, Gay’s The Word is a touchstone for the broader LGBT community. Set up in 1979 as a gay socialist community space (and named after the Ivor Novello musical), you’ll find shelves bursting with books, as well as spaces for both literature and community events, making this little shop the heart and soul of its community.

Exterior of Gay's the Word, London

The hallmark of Gay’s The Word is its ever-expanding yet carefully curated stock. You’ll find everything here from history and politics to travel and poetry here, all selected by the hardworking and dedicated trio of Jim, Uli and Erica who keep the space running – who also double up as some of the most welcoming hosts for anyone feeling scared, lost, jubilant or inquisitive about their identity or LGBT culture in general.

Second Shelf

While they’re in between bricks-and-mortar stores (having closed their original Soho location with a move planned in 2022), we’d be remiss to not mention this feminist literary Mecca. Born as a labour of love in 2015 after writer AN Devers noted the disparity between male and female authors in publishing, it’s become a singular authority in addressing the imbalance in the rare book trade.

A. N. Devers, owner of Second Shelf Books

These days you’ll find an extensive online catalogue covering everything from rare books to the latest releases, as well as some unique gems that you won’t find anywhere else.

Housman’s

While certainly not London’s oldest bookshop, Housman’s is definitely one of the most historical. Opened shortly after the close of the Second World War by writer and playwright Laurence Housman, a sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union, it was imagined as a radical bookseller promoting the ideas of peace, human rights, and a more equitable economy to avoid future wars and conflict.

Bookshelves at Housmans, London

Today it’s still true to its roots as one of the UK’s few “alternative” bookshops in Britain. Dedicated to promoting peace and other radical causes through its collection of books, zines, and merchandise, it’s a perfect place to find the gift for the radical in your life.

Best independent bookshops in the south west

Blue Bear Bookshop, Farnham

Books, fabulous tea and coffee – and a wow-factor from the moment you walk in the door. The newest bookshop in our list at a little over two years old, this is the romantic vision of what all bookshops should look like. Floor-to-ceiling shelves house more than 4,500 books, huge glass chandeliers provide a warm and cosy atmosphere, and its specialty coffee & artisan cake make it a town favourite. Plus, being dog-friendly, it’s a perfect spot to kick back with a furry friend.

Exterior of Blue Bear Books, Farnham

Despite its small size and relative newcomer status, it’s already been host to some big names – astronaut Tim Peake recently visited, and they featured as part of comedian Robin Ince’s “100 Bookshops Tour” celebrating the release of his new book. No mean feat for owners Sylvia and Nils, who opened the store as a relatively romantic thank you to the town, following their autistic son Cameron’s choice to study at the nearby University of the Creative Arts. A remarkable thank you indeed – and a bookshop well worth visiting.

One Tree Books, Petersfield

There are book lovers, and then there’s One Tree Books. A real hub of its community, this is an award-winning bookseller that prides itself on going the extra mile, and it shows – from its regular events that span from the more typical book releases to niche courses on the intricacies of playing mah-jong.

Interior and café at One Tree Books, Petersfield

You’ll also find the well-regarded Ginger’s Café, serving ethical and eco-friendly food so that you can enjoy some feel-good treats surrounded by your favourite books. Gift-hunters can also buy a Book Doctor session, where one of the team will get to know you and your tastes, before coming up with a bespoke reading list and send the books out to you every month.

Gulliver’s Bookshop, Wimbourne Minster

Family-owned, with three generations working in its store, Gulliver’s Bookshop has been a staple on the market town’s high street for more than 50 years. With its fun, friendly atmosphere and great selection of carefully curated books, games, toys and more, it’s a hit with locals and visitors to the town alike.

Exterior and Christmas display at Gulliver's Bookshop, Wimbourne

The Angel family also own and run the nearby Westbourne Bookshop in Bournemouth, and pride themselves on being able to source any in-print book not stocked in store within 48 hours of the request. They’re also organisers of the Wimbourne Literary Festival – so if you’re after an authority on books, there’s no better place to look.

Brian P Martin Antiquarian & Collectors’ Books, Dorking

For those with discerning tastes and an eye for the rare and historical, Dorking is the place to go. Brian Martin, aside from being an award-winning natural history writer, is also an expert in hunting down and securing some of the rarest examples of literature from around the world – whether it’s a first-edition by your favourite author or originally-illustrated manuscripts from some of the UK’s most highly-regarded writers.

You’ll find a selection of the books available at Christique Antique Centre on West Street in Dorking.

Honourable mentions

Of course, our list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty of fabulous bookshops across the network to see, like Daunt’s – an Edwardian dream of a book store near Marylebone in London. Chapter One in Reading is ideal for kids – with half of its 8,500 titles aimed at under-eighteens. Fans of hardcore scientific literature might like to relive their student days with a visit to John Smith’s in Southampton – probably one of the only bookshops that will also sell you a stethoscope and a lab coat. And if you’re a fan of true heritage, then P&G Wells is one of the oldest book sellers in the UK – and supplier to Winchester College for more than 200 years.

So, if you’re an avid reader yourself (or just shopping for one), our list of the best bookshops in our region is sure to spare you any disappointment. Whether you’re after rare books or modern-day best sellers, there’s a bookshop for everyone on our list.

And getting there couldn’t be easier by train – no matter if you’re making a special trip or stopping as part of a fun-filled day out, there’s a great-value ticket option available. And you can save even more by booking in advance or using a Railcard. Looking for convenience? Try Tap2Go – pay as you go travel through our Touch Smartcard.