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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

The Stories Behind the UK's Historic Bookshops

By Shuangyue Zhao, Holly Presswell and Tamara Wilson

When immersed inside an enchanting bookshop, how much do you really know about its history? Many bookstores in the UK have exciting and inspiring pasts. In this issue, we will take you on a journey into the stories behind some notably historical bookshops.

Salts Mill Shop – Victoria Road, Saltaire, Shipley BD18 3HU

Photo by: Historic England Archive

Selling beautiful books onsite and online, Salts Mill is renowned for its exclusive collection of David Hockney’s original works. Some seriously special poetry books and signed first editions of the latest and most interesting publications are also in stock.

As a vast Victorian Grade II listed former textile factory, the mill was established in 1853 by Sir Titus Salt, whose production lasted until 1968. In 1987, another visionary entrepreneur, Jonathan Silver, purchased it and opened the 1853 gallery to display the works of his friend, artist David Hockney. The mill was revitalised and began to be filled with books, art, flowers, food. At present, it remains a dynamic place, providing opportunities for cutting-edge cultural and technological businesses, showing the charm of both history and modernity.

New Beacon Books – 76 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park, London N4 3EN

Founded in 1966 by the eminent activist John La Rose and his partner Sarah White, New Beacon was the UK’s first Black publisher and bookshop specialising in African and Caribbean literature. It is also an international book distributor, bringing poetry, literature, non-fiction, history and children’s books from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, African-America, Europe, South America to Britain and its communities.

Apart from the role of bookseller, this bookshop has been at the centre of many ground-breaking political and social organisations, projects and campaigns, such as the Caribbean Artists Movement (1966–1972) and European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice (1990s).

Hatchards – 187 Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9LE

Photo by: Hatchards’ website

Established in 1797, Hatchards is the oldest bookshop in London. The shop was founded by John Hatchard, an anti-slavery campaigner and publisher, and has been located on 187 Piccadilly Street since the Georgian times. Hatchards’ staff have always been known for their expertise, knowledge and book recommendations of fiction, non-fiction and the rare books they stock.

The shop has a special royal relationship and holds the three royal warrants: HM The Queen, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Prince of Wales. They have carried this relationship from their early days with Queen Charlotte being one of their first customers. Along with their strong royal relationship, Hatchards has also been known for their loyalty and friendship with many famous authors. Look out for “Oscar’s table” on the ground floor, named after Oscar Wilde as this was his favourite book shop!

Gay’s the Word Bookshop – 66 Marchmont Street, London, WC1N 1AB

Opened in 1979 by a group of gay socialists, Gay’s the Word is the oldest LGBTQIA+ bookshop in the UK. It became a social space where all the profits made in the store were funnelled back into the business. The store is well known for its warm and welcoming atmosphere and being a safe space for LGBTQIA+ members to talk and receive advice. They host regular meetings for the community, such as the Lesbian Discussion Group and TransLondon. Fiction, poetry, queer studies and politics are just some of the topics you will find on the shelves of Gay’s The Word.

This store has had an influential history and faced many challenges over the years. They were charged with “conspiracy to import indecent books,” and this change was brought to the House of Commons. With the support of many big literary friends, such as Gore Vidal, they won the case. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners held their first of many meetings in the store, and it became a hub for the campaign – to this day, the shop still sells pro-miner T-shirts and pins. The film Pride portrays what Gay’s The Word did for this campaign, and they now have a blue plaque which can be found above the shop.

Cambridge University Press Bookshop – 1-2 Trinity St, Cambridge CB2 1SZ

Photo by: CUP’s website

Cambridge University Press Bookshop is located in the heart of Cambridge city centre. Little do people know that they are passing the world’s oldest publisher at the oldest bookshop site in Britain. Cambridge University Press (CUP) was founded in 1534 with letters patent from Henry VIII. While the current bookshop opened in 1992, to display the comprehensive range of CUP works, the shop itself has been around for much, much longer. The site has been selling books since 1581 when it was run by a man named William Scarlett. In 1583, opposite the site, the first book was printed by CUP in a line of printing which ran unbroken until 2013.

Today, the bookshop showcases over 50,000 different titles, supplying a huge backlist of print-on-demand editions from CUP’s back catalogue. In addition, they stock a wide range of Cambridge souvenirs and bookish gifts such as cards, mugs and tote bags with wonderful literary quotes for visitors.



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