The Best Bookshop in The World

Walking into the Penn Cottage Bookshop for the final time, I heard the woman behind the counter explain that people just didn’t read so much anymore. Clearly a book lover, she fears that the twin prongs of “ah, we can probably get it on Amazon for less” [highly unlikely in this case as The Cottage Bookshop is remarkably inexpensive] and “young people just don’t read as much” has sealed the fate of this bookshop that I first visited forty years ago. This is the place that I came to sell my books when I was ten so I could immediately use the cash to buy more books. Every corner is books books books, mind your head, both because of the low hanging beams and all the potential of education within. It was a melancholy final browse. Some of the books I bought, I am pretty sure I have bought before, perhaps even from this shop.

The last haul was –

Art – The Critics’ Choice [Aurum]

Time – A Traveller’s Guide by Clifford A Pickover

Six Walks in Fictional Woods by Umberto Eco

Realism by Linda Nochlin

Bunuel by John Baxter

Back Holes and Baby Universes by Stephen Hawking

Suspicious Minds by Rob Brotherton

and a Whizzer and Chips and Cor!! Annual

I handed over £20.50.

Support your local bookshops. Thank you Penn Cottage Bookshop, you have given me many adventures in browsing and reading.


I have just found out that the bookshop I wrote about in this blog post is due to close after sixty years of being in business, it’s even been a location for Midsomer Murders and a possible inspiration for Terry Pratchett and his L space. On the same day I heard the news, I was wandering around London, noticing the shops and venues on their way to being transformed into empty luxury flats, the shiny bland has usurped the less profitable kooky and intriguing things and maybe it is only people like you and I who will miss them. Sat on the train by some fashionably trimmed young business bucks with feet on seats, they talked of the swanky bar where they’d just spent over three hundred pounds on a bottle of wine and two beers as they tucked into their pungent big macs and litre bucket fizzy pops – all those ambitions of extortionate Chablis and comfort gherkins may or may not sum something of us up.

Here is an updated post.

I was born to browse.

Some days, I worry that I spend more time browsing for books than reading them. Schopenhauer would not be pleased.

It is the excitement of the potential within.

The cover painting or the back blurb or a rumour going around a bibliophile enclave lures you to a book. It is the potential of what lies within.

What will this book do to your mind?

How will it change your world?

What sort of ride are you going to be taken on?

There is the excitement of finding a book you have been on a quest for for many years, suddenly spying the pine in secondhand bookshop. On the way home, you leaf through it over and over again, not reading, just looking at your conquered quarry.

Desmond Morris described the delight experienced in finding a book you have been hunting for as the modern equivalent of dragging a gazelle back to the cave (I think that was in The Nature of Happiness).

For years, I sought The Alice B Toklas Cookbook for a friend. Finally, I found it. This was probably many years after she wanted it, but nevertheless, I was successful, even if it was a situation of too late the hero.

What is the perfect secondhand bookshop?

Since I was a little boy, I have been going to bookshops with my father. It may be nurture, but one more generation and it may be nature. I went to book fairs where I saw Ivor Cutler seeking out rare Maurice Sendak books and Michael Foot astutely examining the yellowed works of romantic poets.

When touring, I return to Driff’s Guide, an eccentric pocket encyclopedia of secondhand bookshops in Britain. The most recent edition I have is from 1992, so many shops are now gone. (If you would like to know about the author Driffield or Driff Field or Dryfield , ask Alan Moore. Also he appears in Iain Sinclair’s novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. You can also read his essay on him in London: City of Disappearances. I promise you it is an interesting and enigmatic tale).

I like a secondhand bookshop to be too full. In front of the shelves, piles teeter. It is a test of zeal.

Can you be bothered to shift the weighty hardbacks to peek at the bottom shelf of old Penguins?

There should be a semblance of order. It’s not good going into a bookshop that is like a firebombed Borges’ fantasy.

But it shouldn’t have absolute order. You should know roughly where philosophy is, or what the owner judges to be philosophy, but rigorous cataloguing dampens delight. Part of the fun of the search is to leave the bookshop with many things you never knew existed in the first place. Books you woke up unaware of, but by lunchtime you know you cannot live without.

Haphazard pricing systems also add to the adventure. Occasional overpriced tat increases the whoop when you unearth the underpriced gem.

Finally, it is useful if there is an independent tea shop with teetering Victoria Sponges within a short walking distance. To sit with a cake fork in one hand and your new books in the other is an immensely satisfying end to bookwormery, plus a much needed sugar intake after the exertions of scrutinising and lifting up the heavy piles to find out what lies beneath and behind.

Unlike Orwell’s perfect pub, The Moon Under Water, these bookshops exist. If you are drawn to a seaside trip with a bibliophile bent, I recommend Camilla’s in Eastbourne (they have a parrot too) or The Sanctuary Bookshop in Lyme Regis (actually, that one is very well ordered, but great nevertheless).

(I don’t really want to tell you about my favourite shop. Then you’ll go there and snap up all the delights before me.)

My favourite bookshop in England is The Cottage Bookshop in Penn. I visited it many times as a child. I had not returned for almost twenty years, but yesterday I did. It was a rare occasion of nostalgia barely living up to the revisited contemporary reality. I first went when I was nine years old. The elderly man who ran it had an attic room where only the chosen could go with some of the more treasured books that you could be locked into. I would sit in the corner with an annual while my dad browsed with intent. Eventually, that attic room was no more, rumours were that people had been stuck in there for too long on occasion and had taken to weeing in any available vase. I think it is his daughter who runs the shop now. The aisles remain tight, the selection remains wondrous. It’s magnificence is such that it seems close to being a fiction, it is sad that it may soon be a memory.

The shop is a cottage, where every room is full of shelves and books. The stacks teeter, the prices are wonderful. It is in the cusp of being a maze.  I left knowing that there was much I missed. I knew that, somewhere inside, there were many more books I desired, but the 23 I had in my hands were enough for today. (there isn’t a cafe nearby, but the pub is 50 yards away). Maybe I’ll go back for the 1980 Hazell annual and that Huxley in Hollywood book, oh and all those copies of Penguin’s Science News that I couldn’t decide on, and the book of William Blake prints, and…

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles, our book podcast, is available HERE.

Latest interviews include a Stewart Lee two parter, Bryan Cranston, Stella Duffy and Laura Bates. Next up, it’s Matt Haigh.

There are many other shops I adore, why not add your choices or your shop under here, especially if they are in or near my upcoming tour destinations of Salisbury, Bridgwater, Southampton, Aldershot, Cardiff and a five night run in London.

Footnote and Competition.

Can you guess how much this all came to? Best guess (UK only) will get some books I need to get rid off due to my house sinking into the ground

This is what I bought –

Space, Time and Nathaniel – Brian Aldiss

The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat

Mass Control – Jim Keith

BFI Modern Classic: Salò – Gary Indiana

Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader – Sean Redmind (ed.)

Robots: Fact, Fiction and Prediction – Jasia Reichardt

Curationism – David Balzer

Six Existential Thinkers – HJ Blackham

Penguin Science News – 1, 4 , 5, 9, 25 and 28

BFI Classics: The Seventh Seal  – Melvyn Bragg

Dancing Naked in the Mind Field – Kary Mullis

Bright Air, Brilliant Fire – Gerald Edelman

The Sphinx and The Megaliths – John Ivimy

Breakfast with Lucian (hardback) – Geordie Grieg

Victim Prime – Robert Sheckley

Star Wars Official Marvel Collector’s Magazine 1977

Fantasy Art Techniques – Boris Vallejo

Science Fiction Film – Denis Gifford

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39 Responses to The Best Bookshop in The World

  1. Bob says:

    If you’re ever in Liverpool this ticks all the boxes

  2. A noble pastime searching secondhand bookshops. And yes those teetering piles are worth shuffling aside to find hidden wonders. My favourite bookshop is in Ballater, Aberdeenshire. Many a gem to be found here. I do hope they survived the floods with their stock intact. At this point my sons would suggest I donate my entire book collection to them and downsize. Now that would just be too sensible, I have a few I haven’t read yet…….. 🙂

  3. I’m struggling to guess but I will go with £21 the lot.

  4. Glad you had a great time all over again! It’s amazing isn’t it? I am immensely lucky that the Penn Cottage bookshop is just 5 minutes drive from my home. Where do you think we dig up all those obscure facts for QI? 😀

  5. juliawainwright says:

    Treasure Chest Books in Felixstowe, Suffolk, which I’m fairly sure is actually bigger on the inside. Should you ever manage to find your way out, you’ve also got the seafront and cafes aplenty in which to recover/gloat.

  6. Yesterday I got picture books on Tiffany glass, Mackintosh design, and William Morris. They are cozy browsers.

  7. All of the above. And if the shop contains one of those slide-y high shelf book ladders for the bookseller to scale on request, then that’s a morning of entertainment for me right there!

  8. James Cragg says:

    My guess: a bargain £66

  9. mrleeward says:

    I’m going to go with… £35.

  10. joe says:

    53 pounds. There is a brilliant one in Rye but im sure you’ve been there. Massolit in Krakow is worth a mooch.

  11. David Brain says:

    We went past The Sanctuary in Lyme Regis a couple of weeks ago, and fell about laughing at the Daily Express Annual (from 1933) on display in the front window – I genuinely wish we’d taken a picture of it now. [ Mr Google found an image of it here:

  12. Next to the Lady Heyes Caravan Park, just outside Frodsham nr Chester, there is a wonderful secondhand bookshop, which I think is called Cheshire Books. Not only do they have shelves & stacks of books, but they also have, for no discernible reason, some very old TVs & typewriters on display.
    The jewellery shop next-door has a TARDIS & cyberman costume in the middle of the shop, apparently just to scare the shit out of old Whovians like me. Which it did.

    There’s also a candle shop run by Bob Carolgees, of Spit The Dog fame. No, seriously:
    The Lady Heyes Park is a delightfully bizarre little place which should be more well known than it is.

    My guess is less than £40.

  13. Matt says:

    My guess would be about £32.

  14. Carol says:

    If you like disorganised and browsing type bookshops (with coffee included!) come and visit us at Tiverton Books in Margate ( I would guess that your books came to around £55

  15. Some years ago when I was in Cheltenham regularly I used to go to Moss Books (mainly for the internet access I’m ashamed to say) but liked to stay for the vibe. It was a bit like Black Books crossed with The Inbetweeners (I think). Must go there again soon:

  16. Emily Scott says:

    My home is too full for new books but I’m going to guess £20.42

  17. I would guess £170. I love second hand bookshops, even the naff ones can contain unexpected gems

  18. Adrian says:

    Keats & Chapman in Belfast is also a marvelously caverned store with books stacked up to the roof. The design is inspired from Shakespeare And Company second hand book shop in Paris.
    Oh and my guess is £72

  19. Gary Jones says:

    I Guess some came from charity shops so will go with £32.50

  20. Andy Aston says:

    Little Book Shop; Lower Donegall Street in Belfast

  21. Andy Aston says:

    Sorry my guess is £47! Was too busy thinking of book shops

  22. Allan says:

    I’ll go with £67.75

  23. Martin says:

    I’ll say £67.50

  24. Victoria Andrew says:

    £30? And next time you come to the midlands try to get to astley book farm – they have cafe on site selling HUGE locally made slices of cake , a friendly dog and tonnes of books (10 bob barn for the slightly messy piles, rest is organised but fab!). And it’s on the Astley estate – where George Elliot escaped to London from!

  25. Chris Jones says:

    I’ll go for £34.83p

    PS anyone passing throgh San Francisco could go to the City Lights book shop in San Francisco. It has a sign above the door ‘Abandon Despair All ye who Enter Here’ Its also a publishing house that first published all the 50’s beat poets and writers.
    If you’re lucky you might bump into the owner poet/artist/sculptor/publisher/writer/entrpreneur Lawrence Ferlinghetti, still going strong approaching his 96th birthday.

  26. Helen says:

    Surprised that Barter books in Alnwick hasn’t had a mention – always a joy.

    My guess is £45.70

  27. kevpas says:


  28. tinman0 says:

    I’d say £40 on the nose as the total came to a bit more than that but they rounded down because that’s what secondhand bookshops do.
    And I second Keats & Chapman in Belfast, but a shout out to the Oxfam and War on Want bookshops facing each other on Botanic Avenue there as well

  29. Katharina Heu says:

    Lyall’s bookshop in Todmorden is small but beautiful. It nestles between a pub and a (vintage) toy shop. 30 seconds’ walk away are several cafeteria to choose from, The Bear coop has great cake and Kava is a worthy rival. If you’re ever in the Calder Valley it’s worth at least a few minutes of your time.
    I would take a punt at £132.60 just because there are quite a few titles in your list.

  30. Jon Sykes says:


  31. Mike says:

    55 quid I’d hazard a guess.

  32. Paul says:

    There is an amazingly overstuffed bookshop on the promenade in Morecambe, I’m sure there are some very well hidden gems, and the wealth of cafés surrounding it will satisfy your sugar cravings.

    I’m going with £53.50, assuming one (maybe the Star Wars one) was in the £10-20 region, and the rest were anywhere from 50p to £4-5.

  33. Alison Flood says:

    The Studio Bookshop in Alresford, Hants. is good, though you need to go past the new books in the front, also The Winchester Bookshop. my guess is £49.

  34. Dan Davis says:


  35. Andrew Taylor says:

    My wild guess is £43:50. That seems too cheap but I suspect you have an eye for a bargain. My wife, (an ex-librarian), has instituted a “one out, one in,” policy but I’ll be able to clear a space if I’m lucky enough to be the winner. We’re looking forward to seeing you in Loughborough on 9/5. I’m hoping we’ll get the full 2 hours plus extravaganza, although we really enjoyed your truncated show in Leicester.

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