There's nothing more synonymous with a relaxing holiday than reading a good book - it's the perfect way to unwind, whether that's on the beach with an ice cream in one hand and a paperback in the other, or cosied up next to the log burner in your holiday cottage.
Independent bookshops are also of course integral to many of our best loved towns and villages across the UK, with many stocking a number of local interest books, perfect for getting to know your holiday base, as well as shelves stacked with fictional gems ideal for ultimate escapism. You’re also quite likely to find friendly folk behind the tills, happy to offer book recommendations as well as directions to the best local chippy!
All this to offer and yet some bookshops we've seen on our travels really stand out from the crowd as they offer experiences so unique they can hardly be called book 'shops'. Packed full of quirks perfectly primed for sparking the imagination, they're more like book 'heavens'! So, with all that in mind we wondered, what are the quirkiest bookshops in the UK, and where can we find them? Read on to discover the 10 quirkiest bookshops we’ll be writing home about:
Barter Books – Alnwick, Northumberland
This second-hand bookshop in the heart of historic Alnwick tops our list with a staggering amount of quirky features. It’s worth a visit all year round, with an open fire roaring in the winter months, while you'll find that ice cream is served next door in the Paradise ice cream parlour, part of the Station Buffet. All age groups will be delighted by Barter Books’ train set which travels above the bookshelves throughout the shop in homage to the building’s origins as Alnwick’s train station during the Victorian era. This railway link is kept alive and well at Barter Books with the Aln Railway meetings being held here monthly. Another unique feature is that Barter Books is home to one of the few original 1930’s ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters that have become so synonymous with British culture.
Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights – Bath, Somerset
Mr B’s Emporium does exactly what it says on the tin, combining both eye-catching quirky décor with a truly unique reading experience. You’ll find a staircase decorated in readable comic book pages, a children’s room and ‘Imaginarium’ decorated with the inspiring work of a local artist, as well as the opportunity to enjoy a reading spa for tailored book recommendations from the Mr B’s team, and reading booths where you can try a book out before purchasing. This bookshop has won the Independent Bookshop of the Year award twice so far, but selling books is just one of its many services. Mr B’s also has its own publication house, a bookshop band to enjoy during author events, and a science fiction and fantasy book club known as ‘The Emporium Strikes Back’ (yes, we did award extra points for that punny name choice.) Perhaps mostly famously, being a proud citizen of the city of Bath, Mr B’s has its very own bathtub of books – a fancy clawfoot one at that!
P&G Wells – Winchester, Hampshire
P&G Wells has been a feature of Kingsgate in Winchester for over 300 years, with the name being on the door of their current address for almost 200 years. The shop frontage you see today, with the intricate stained glass, is the very same as that installed in 1891. One part of this long history is that Jane Austen is said to have spent the final days of her life just two doors away, a detail that P&G Wells have used to inspire the wide range of Jane Austen related literature they stock. Bookselling and binding may originate even further here, with records traced back to 1729 at this location.
Find P&G Wells on College Street, off Kingsgate Street, SO23 9LZ
Much Ado Books – Alfriston, East Sussex
Unlike any other bookshop we’ve come across, Much Ado is a quirky bookshop intricately decorated with literary themed paper crafts, including a Shakespeare inspired diorama. The team at Much Ado also run a social enterprise known as Prospero’s Project which puts books into the hands of schools, care homes, migrant charities and many other well-deserving beneficiaries. Admirers of the Bloomsbury group will love the décor here and the selection of books on Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and others local to the area. The books themselves are arranged over two floors as well as in a cabin home to fiction, art and the Much Ado haberdashery, and in a shepherd’s hut packed full of second-hand and vintage books. As well as all these delights, Much Ado sells a range of book-memorabilia, from badges and prints giving new life to old and damaged books, to framed author autographs and paper craft ‘bit’ bags.
Leakey's – Inverness, Scotland
Recognised as Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop, Leakey’s has been a staple of Inverness for 44 years, and the bookshop itself is hard to miss as it can be found in an old church, with beautiful stained glass windows still intact. Inside, visitors will find a stack of wood and a fire roaring in the colder months. The galleried landing, showcasing shelves upon shelves of rare second-hand books, is impressive anytime of year.
Five Leaves – Nottingham
As Nottingham’s leading independent bookshop, Five Leaves offers a range of books outside the mainstream. They take particular interest in independent publishers as well as political publishers, with sections including LGBTQ+ fiction and non-fiction, politics, paganism and witchcraft, as well as a children’s section devoted to diversity. The shop has its own publishing press, mini festival and has close ties to a number of community groups too. Five Leaves is recognised for its alleyway position, where visitors are greeted by a lush garden of potted plants before browsing the bookshop shelves.
Scrivener's Books – Buxton, Peak District
Set in the heart of Buxton in the Peak District, Scrivener’s is an impressive bookshop before you even step inside. A window sign lets visitors know that books can be found across five floors - 40,000 books in fact! Inside you’ll find a few cosy spots ideal for browsing titles of interest, as well as the original fireplace and coals. Whilst the book selection is all second-hand, you’ll also find a number of trinkets available in the shop, including hand carved traditional walking sticks.
Forum Books – Corbridge, Northumberland
The second Northumberland based bookshop to make our list, and one of three independent bookshops owned by the same people in the North East, each of which has its own quirky features; Forum Books is set in a stunning old chapel in the heart of Corbridge, with the bright chapel windows flooding the bookshop with light – perfect for reading!
Find Forum Books in The Chapel on Market Place, NE45 5AW
Sam Read Booksellers – Grasmere, Lake District
Sam Read Booksellers in Grasmere is set in a stunning building made from traditional Lakeland stone. While naturally popular with tourists, Sam Read puts a special spotlight on local writers and books with a natural world theme. The bookshop was shortlisted in the Independent Bookshop of the Year award in 2022, 135 years from its opening as a bookseller in Grasmere. Many visitors to the Lake District come to see the home of famous writers like Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, and according to one of the Sam Read booksellers, EM Forster used this very bookshop to send his letters home.
Find Sam Read in Broadgate House, LA22 9SY
Richard Booth's – Hay-on-Wye, Wales
What could be quirkier than a bookshop that’s also a cinema? Well a bookshop that’s a cinema, a pilates studio and café, of course! Richard Booth’s combines all three features to make for a really special visit in what is regarded as one of the UK’s most book-ish towns, Hay-on-Wye. With a number of comfortable chairs and soothing plants, the bookshop offers a range of second-hand books and the perfect environment for trying them out before you buy. The building itself is the former agricultural hall and was noted as the world’s largest second-hand bookshop in 1978 for having over one million books in stock at that time. Booth himself is something of an iconic figure in the town, once declaring himself ‘King of Hay’ with a plan that independence from the UK would bring renewed tourism interest and re-energise the struggling town. To this day, the town still has its own flag and while Booth’s plans may have been controversial, there’s no doubt that his eccentricity and love for books that been an important factor in establishing Hay-on-Wye as a heartland of book lovers.
Ten Special Mentions
Those were our ten favourite quirky bookshops, but there are ten more that deserve a place on our list and are well worth a visit...
The Watermill – Aberfeldy, Scotland
There are a number of quirky features that ensure The Watermill a place on our list. This converted mill was once one of many in operation along the river Tay before it spent some time as a visitor centre. Then in 2005, it was opened by Michael Palin as The Watermill bookshop you see today. To really maximise on the unique space, the bookshop is also a contemporary art gallery and café, with a homes and gardens shop next door.
Beerwolf Books Freehouse – Falmouth, Cornwall
Beerwolf Books Freehouse in the heart of Falmouth has a majestic exterior, with grand pillars dressing the entrance. It combines two favourite features by offering customers the option to enjoy a pint whilst taking in the pages of a book selected from their plentiful shelves.
The Mainstreet Trading Company – Melrose, Scottish Borders
Mainstreet is the passion project of a tight knit team, including the bookshop dogs, Luna and Torben. It offers not only bookshelves to browse but also a café, deli and home store. Since it opened in 2008, it has won Britain’s Best Small Shop, Independent Bookshop of the Year and Deli of the Year. One of our favourite quirky features of Mainstreet is the window displays painted by local artists depicting scenes from books and special guests to the bookshop including former children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo.
Sarah Key: The Haunted Bookshop – Cambridge
Down a short passageway in the heart of Cambridge, Sarah Key Books can be found. It has been a key feature of the city of Cambridge since 1987, and perhaps fitting for its place in this historic city and being in the shadow of an ancient church, it is said to have a ghost haunting its basement. The ghost of a lady dressed in a long white gown has been spotted, while others have reported the ghost of an elderly gentleman as well!
Category is Books – Glasgow
A self-described ‘fiercely independent’ bookshop, Category is Books is the only LGBT+ bookshop in Scotland, and one of just seven across the UK. They stock a wide range of books on LGBT+ topics and by LGBT+ authors and aim to create a space for learning about LGBT+ history, art, activism, and storytelling. As well as hosting a number of author talks, Category is Books also hosts a range of other events, from craft workshops and yoga sessions to clothes swaps and film nights.
Persephone Books – Bath, Somerset
Voted by The Observer as one of the UK’s 50 most fabulous independent shops, Persephone Books specialises in reprinting the neglected works of mostly women and mid-twentieth century writers. Their collection covers novels and short stories as well as diaries, memoirs, gardening books and poetry with each styled in the distinctive grey jacket and historically inspired patterned endpapers. Book events and concerts are hosted here too to make the most of the 1761 Grade II listed building with its original features, such as fireplaces, a range and bread oven, and a Georgian dresser.
The Bookshop, Wigtown – Wigtown, Scotland
Home to roughly 100,000 books, The Bookshop is the oldest in Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town, having been established over 50 years ago. Outside the shop stand two book shaped pillar sculptures to greet book shoppers, whilst inside the shop’s resident cat ‘The Captain’ can be found surveying the shelves with bookseller Shaun, who has written a number of books on bookshop goings-on.
Scarthin Books – Cromford, Peak District
Scarthin Books makes our list for its vast selection of books and impressive vegan café. Spanning across thirteen rooms, Scarthin’s covers second-hand and new books with a particular eye for children’s literature. The team at Scarthin encourage grabbing a book from the shelves and enjoying it with a cup of tea and slice of something special from the café. With the mix of old furniture and quirky décor, it offers the perfect quirky and cosy reading spot.
The Portobello Bookshop – Edinburgh
Set in Edinburgh’s seaside community, The Portobello Bookshop gives a lot back to the people in the area, with its local library drives and a special Christmas collection too. The shop itself was once a fishing tackle shop and previously an old co-operative, but these days you’ll find a wide range of new fiction and non-fiction between the walls.
Imagined Things – Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Imagined Things is the passion project of radiographer Georgia who set up the bookshop in 2017. Alongside her team of booksellers, the bookshop is also frequented by Fable, the bookshop dragon who is tasked with guarding the books (though there have been a few occasion of books getting accidentally burnt – oops!) One thoughtful and quirky feature is that Imagined Things has its very own bookshop poem which details the shop’s mission to remain independent and one of a kind.
With all those great bookshops to choose from, it's hard to know where to start, but if you ask us it's got to be Barter Books in Alnwick. Ranked first on our list, it offers visitors the chance to set up a base in Alnwick and explore the surrounding historic coastline and stunning national park. Don't forget your deck chair for some afternoon reading in the sunshine!
Methodology - How did we do it?
We found the most featured independent bookshops in online round-ups and compared their quirky features; historical interest; collections; customer service; and mentions of 'quirky' and 'unusual' in Trip Advisor reviews. We then allocated a weight to each feature category to reflect their significance to the overall result, and provided each bookshop with a score. We ranked the overall score to find our top 20 quirky bookshops in the UK.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.