Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Ten Largest Secondhand Bookshops in Britain

What is the biggest secondhand bookshop in Britain? I don’t think anyone holds the undisputed claim and maybe it doesn’t matter. These ten are all very big, and all well worth a visit. I suspect only a trained librarian or archivist could estimate the number of books very cannily. So the following is simply a summary of some of the contenders, either overall or in one country or region. Other suggestions are welcome.

Astley Book Farm, Warwickshire
- “the largest second-hand bookshop in the Midlands” according to its website, and that sounds right. “We hold about 75,000 books” they note. One large former farm building, with two outhouses. Also has a café.

Baggins Books Bazaar, Rochester
– “England’s Largest Secondhand and Rare Bookshop”, it proclaims, though some visitors are not so sure. Note that this doesn’t therefore challenge the two big bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, which is (just) in Wales. “More than half a million…” books says a local press report from November 1996 quoted on the Bazaar’s website. Over two floors.

Barter Books, Alnwick
– cautiously describes itself as “one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain” In a former railway station, it has one entrance room and then a great hall stretching out quite a long way (and with a model train set traversing some of the shelves). However, it is only on one floor. Also has a buffet.

Book Barn International, Temple Cloud – an internet seller whose depot is also open to browsers, described as “one of the largest used bookshops in England” with “hundreds of thousands” of books, very cheap. Café. Could certainly claim to be the largest in the West.

Book Case, Carlisle – makes no claim of this kind – the owner was diffident when I said it must be in the running, but it certainly is. Occupies an entire large Georgian house, rambling over three floors, with a warren of rooms. Also has a café, and records in the basement.

The Bookshop, Wigtown – claims to be “the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland,” (though that is sometimes disputed) “with over a mile of shelving supporting 100,000 books”. An interesting old town house with about four large rooms, some passages and a landing.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye
– two long floors and a cellar, much brighter and better organised under new ownership and now with a café and cinema, but possibly with a certain loss of quantity.

The Carnforth Bookshop, Carnforth
– has never claimed to be the biggest but has a painted sign announcing 100,000 books. Two floors, though under recent ownership the stock has been winnowed down a bit, particularly the vintage hardback fiction.

Cinema Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye – probably the largest bookshop in Wales, over two very large floors in the town’s former cinema and with no space spared. Their website says the stock “runs to 200,000 volumes on all subjects.”

Leakey’s, Inverness – a characterful bookshop in a former church whose stock has been estimated at over 100,000 books, and which may compete with The Bookshop, Wigtown for the title of Scotland’s largest.

Mark Valentine


  1. I am a regular at Book Barn International - every book a £1 . It is pretty big with the potential for finding hidden gems - my last discovery being the three vol Panther edition of Musil's ' The Man Without Qualities' - with Alexis Lykiard's book stamp in vol 1 . Books are in varying condition, but if you fancy trying to build a reader set in p/b of any particular author, it can be rewarding. It also has a rare book room, nascent at this stage, I would say. BBI also sells orient carpets for those who wish to be transported!

    Jean du Bois

  2. I would say since the introduction of the cafe and cinema to Booth's, the quality as well as quantity has declined...

  3. I've enjoyed learning about the bookshops of Britain from these recent posts. But there's one aspect of the used book trade that hasn't been addressed: pricing. In the pre-internet days a dealer relied on his knowledge which, however vast, was fallible. Thus bargains could be found by the resolute hunter. But nowadays any unfamiliar book is looked up online and priced according to what is found there. Obviously, mistakes are still made and some books creep through the process without being properly researched. But far fewer. The upshot is this: People are buying from online dealers since there is so little financial advantage from visiting actual shops--albeit much pleasure and the occasional find due to serendipity. If you're going to pay what a book is going for online, you might as well just order the book from ABE.
    To my mind, you need to go as low down the food chain as possible if you want to find treasures: yard sales, jumble sales, church sales, thrift stores. The problem, though, is that the more interesting books so seldom turn up and you need to look through a lot of best-sellers before you find something unusual. --md

  4. Book Case in Carlisle is my local, and even repeated visits don't do it justice. If you're ever in Cumbria, make a point of paying a visit, just be sure to allow a day or so ;)

  5. Michael Dirda, above, puts it well when he says you have to trawl the nether regions of the food chain these days to unearth the real bargains. My specialism is photography, and I was delighted to find a scarce monograph by Andre Kertesz for a tenner in a charity shop in Dymchurch! As for size - the guvnor of Baggin's in Rochester told me a few years ago that he had about 750,000 books on the shelves - but had stopped counting.

  6. Went to Baggins recently and was disappointed. A lot of the stock was old and not in the best condition. 750,000 is a ridiculous boast. Possibly at tenth of that at best and probably closer to 60,000 as a lot of the shelves weren't exactly crammed.

  7. Thank you for sharing this selection - I just moved back to London and I am definitely planning to have day trips in the UK and of course, buy myself some good titles. Who doesn't love huge bookshops filled with second hand goodness?

  8. Westwood Books is sizable must be a least 70000 and quite nicely priced.