Travel Report: Black Gull Books, London.
Black Gull Books.
May 2019. There’s something about Camden Town that feels good for the soul. In fact, whenever I’m back in London, to Camden I come. Partly because of all the second hand record stores and live music spots. But also to browse its independent bookshops. Places that take me back to my childhood and teenage years. A reminder of a time when I was a voracious reader. A pre-wifi/smart phone/social media age when people were still charmed by the prospect of settling down with a dusty, used book.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many traditional bookshops left anymore. However, one such institution remains in London’s Camden Town. A wonderfully wonky old centre of literature called Black Gull Bookshop & Bindery. Specialising in 19th and 20th century literature, it is an unashamedly no-nonsense place in many ways. They have no website, for example, and the service can be… um…. gruff.
On this particular afternoon I was amused by how many customers tried to converse with the lady behind the counter. But whether it was chit chat, or the whereabouts of the gardening section, she was not into it. “Just buy your book and **** off!” screamed her grumpy expression.
Black Gull Books.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to let anyone spoil my experience. Rather, I set about exploring the place, with its delightful nooks and crannies. I loved how informal the shop is, with sporadic piles of titles stacked up in unexpected spots. I certainly appreciated the tower of travel literature pictured below, including guides to Bhutan, northern Greece and the lakes of Milan.
Moreover, it’s impossible not to smile at the lovely flourishes of art. Cast your eyes above the bookshelves and up to the ceiling and you’ll discover all sorts. Black and white 19th century photos of lords, politicians and working class Londoners. A row of comical and often ghoulish masks. They’re not actually for sale, just part of the furniture so to speak. Black Gull residents, one might say.
Elsewhere, I came across foreign banknotes, handwritten letters, cinema tickets and antique stickers. Right in the centre of the floor, unmissable due to its location hanging from the ceiling, is a large railway station clock. A sticky note plastered onto its face states: This clock refuses to accept the concept of British summertime. On the back of the clock, an engraved message claims: When I first read a dictionary, I thought it was a poem about everything.
Look out for some excellent posters too. Some for sale, some just for show and to cover up the cracks in the walls. One that caught my eye was this amusing animated clipping, artist unknown, from 2002. Perhaps this was Black Gull’s discreet statement about their own lack of sexy volumes.
Camden Town, London.
Eventually, as is always the case, I gravitated towards the music and film shelves. Here, like a kid in a candy shop, my eyes were darting around all over the place. My hands grabbing all kinds of titles as I switched between The Beatles, Dylan, Leonard Cohen and The Libertines. One of the very few occasions where I curse my life as a roaming digital nomad, unable to accept the burden of book weight.
As you would expect, Black Gull has an excellent section on British history, with an entire shelf dedicated to London through the ages. In this respect, one could do a lot worse than London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945 by the acclaimed author Barry Myles. As with all the books here, you’ll find the price on the first page, scribbled in pencil.
It’s not a big bookstore by any stretch of the imagination. And yet before I knew it an hour had flown by and I was consequently late for an appointment. Oops. You can find Black Gull Books at 70 Camden Lock Place. They also have a sister store in another London neighbourhood, East Finchley. The shops open seven days a week from 10:00-18:00. Happy reading!
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What a lovely bookshop! The opportunity to amble among the aisles – even on a one-way system easing the flow of customers – to touch, feel and flick through paperbacks or dip into the heft of hardback heaven is an undiluted pleasure that the online bookselling world and the click of a mouse cannot offer. Have a nice day and thanks for sharing 🙂 Aiva
Thanks Aiva, there aren’t enough of these places around anymore. It’s all so charming I can forgive the rude woman. Have a great week!
Lovely old fashioned book shop, I rarely venture into book shops anymore, maybe just to gaze at the latest releases, I love my kindle app on my iPad.
Kindle is very cool and indeed perfect for a digital nomad such as myself. That said, if we ever settle into a long term base and build a home, I’m sure I will go back to actual books. Thanks for reading!
I love bookshops! My house is filled with bookshelves and I tried a kindle once but quickly gave up 🙂
Ha ha good for you Han! A home full of books is a happy sight I think. Gives a real sense of calm to the place.
What a great find Leighton. I love these kind of bookshops. We are fortunate to have a wonderful independent bookshop where we live and I’m often popping in when I’m at home as it feels so cosy as books are creatively laid out on tables and shelves. We have lots of books at home, too many probably, but they all hold different memories and it’s difficult to part with them. I have a Kindle but nowadays it just gathers dust in a cupboard as I prefer to leaf the pages of a book and be reminded of its jacket cover when I pick it up. When travelling I download ebooks to my iPad from my local library as I find that easier but otherwise it’s traditional print for me. Marion
I’m with you on this Marion, every word. Sladja and I often daydream about having our own little library one day, if we ever make a home.
I’m sure you will one day when you feel it is time. I feel we have the best of both worlds, a lovely old house yet still being able to travel as well! Have a good week. Marion
I love old bookshops. Such a treasure trove. I can almost smell the binding glue from here. They do have a smell all their own. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Allan
Cheers Allan! Somehow I thought you would be a fan of old bookshops. Glad you appreciated the Black Gull vibe.
Love a good old fashioned bookstore with shelves of used books. I never fail to find something to fit my needs or mood. Even found a book on creative uses of Typography at a store in Denver, CO. It’s even better if they have a coffee shop where you can sample a couple of books over a fresh cup. My biggest problem is making the final decision for the day.
Oh yes, a bookstore with a cafe is most definitely where it’s at. How I would love to sample the bookstores and cafes of Denver, Colorado. Cheers Memo!
I love bookstores like this! There really is nothing better than wandering through an eclectic kind of bookstore that seems a world away from the busy chain bookstores. And the old clock is amazing-all the more so with the note attached to it.
Hey Meg, so happy you’re into old bookstores. Camden Town is ‘that’ kind of neighbourhood, a little vintage. Hope you enjoy my upcoming pieces from Camden.
Looking forward to it!
Very cool bookshop – minus the masks ha! I love picking up a book on vacation.
Thanks for dropping by Lyssy!
I used to frequent Borders and Barnes & Noble when I was younger, back when I was really into reading all sorts of literature, from classics to manga. Used bookstores didn’t interest me until I was older, and not too long ago did I purchase a lovely book on expat life while visiting Lithuania, of all places! I’ve briefly visited Camden while in London, but never came across Black Gull Books– I’ll have to pop in someday for some inexpensive reads!
I once popped into a Barnes & Noble during a visit to The States. What did you think of Camden Town?
I only had a brief visit in Camden on my last morning in London; I checked out the markets and found them very bustling and lively, even in the dead of winter!
What a great area Camden is. It’s almost like stepping out of London, maybe even stepping out of England, yet at the same time is an essential part of both. Great atmosphere, any time of day.
Very much so, hoping to give Sladja a tour when we finally get to spend time in London.
So, you’ve spent an hour in that amazing bookshop without the lady behind the counter chasing you out 😁. What a wonderful place! We have a small bookshop (Bargain Books) in our town and I pop in there at least once a week … you never know what you may find! I’ve read the comments here and I can fully agree with Marion & Han on the kindle … my friends bought me a kindle for my 40th birthday (they know how much I love reading), but it’s somewhere in a cupboard while my real books are displayed literally everywhere in our house (I hope they don’t ever get to this post and read my comment 😀). And just to explain my true love for a real book … I’ve left the kindle at home and walked 720km in Spain with a book weighing 500g in my backpack!
So the Kindle seems to not cut the mustard with a lot of folk. Love the dedication of hauling a bulky book around on a cross country hike! Thanks for reading and for your contribution to the thread.
I like a Kindle (so much easier than having to worry about packing enough reading material) but I also love a book and a bookshop like that looks like my idea of heaven! The one downside of not going in to the office and instead working from home is that I can’t nip into Daunt Books on Cheapside at lunchtime. It’s saved me an absolute fortune, mind.
Hey Stella, thanks for your balanced view. Ah the eternal struggle between the things we truly love and convenience. Now I’m off to take a look at Daunt Books online. Thanks for getting in touch!
Daunt Books are VERY dangerous if travel is what interests you… Just saying!
I need to go back to London! I love the bookshops there
Thank you for reading Virona, and for contributing to the thread. Any tips on other fantastic London bookshops?
Bookstores always attract me, even in countries where I don’t read the language.
I think bookshops will survive the relentless march of technology. There will just be fewer of them around.
Another great find Leighton! Like my last comment on your record shop post I think you’d find my wife in here looking at books whilst I’m searching through the record shop.
Thanks for reading!
Ah, this is the place I could spend hours and come out with a pile. There are too many glossy chain bookstores out there. I think this one would have the hidden treasures.
Glossy chain stores are a bit depressing right? Too bright, too much open, useless space, too shiny. Thanks for reading Ruth!
This looks like a hidden gem!! Plus there’s no such thing as a ‘quick look’ when it comes to bookshops lol 😊📚
Very true Cherryl, thanks for reading!
I love a good bookstore though I confess I’m an eReader these days. I suppose I’m contributing to the demise of the genre of bookstore you’ve described. That looked like a great one.
Well, the literature industry is what it is and I have bought a few e-books myself due to our nomadic lifestyle. Thanks for reading!