The door to dreams

Karen Neville


Stepping into a bookshop is like catching up with an old friend, the familiarity and love come flooding back and yet you just know there will be something new to discover. Karen Neville invites you to step inside these independent havens of literature…

As a child I loved pushing open the big wooden door on the bookshop in the town where I grew up to be greeted by an Aladdin’s cave of words wrapped in colourful covers.

There was a whole world waiting to be discovered that ate up much of my pocket and birthday money. The delight I felt when collecting the special copy of Ballet Shoes I’d ordered and handing the assistant the piece of paper with the details felt like I was joining an exclusive club – the bookshop club.

Sadly that shop is no longer but fortunately for all of us bibliophiles according to the Booksellers Association at the end of 2022 there were 1,072 independent bookshops sharing the love I treasured.

Caper in Magdalen Road is an independent family bookshop with a difference – as well as wonderful books for children and a great selection for grown ups, it’s also an activity and event space full of quirky things to play with. Among the activities on offer are toddler art classes, cooking classes for kids and events for grown ups such as poetry and writing workshops.

Specialising in rare and secondhand books in the humanities, St Philip’s Books in St Aldates stocks works of theology, history, literature, philosophy, art, classics and antiquarian. Particular interests include Roman Catholic books, John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, Eastern Christianity, patristics, medieval studies, Biblical studies and Christian spirituality. They have over 10,000 books in stock and are always interested in buying.

The Book Stop in Magdalen Street and Last Bookshop, Walton Street, are both part of Bill & Ben Books. They specialise in remainders, returns and samples, office copies and overstocks of books to which they give a second life, so expect to find gems and oddities on their shelves.

Summertown is home to Daunt Books, an independent bookseller with a special emphasis on travel and world literature, with a wide range of stock and an extensive children’s section as well as gift wrap, handy if shopping for presents.

Good books and good customer service were the ambition of Jaffe & Neale in Chipping Norton when they opened in 2006 and in 2024, they are going strong with that same ethos. Having fulfilled that dream, owners Patrick Neale and Polly Jaffe realised the second part of their vision with the opening of a café as a hub for the community surrounded by books. They invite you to grab a table and a good book and tuck into a cappuccino or mint tea and locally baked cake. They also stock a range of gifts, cards and stationery.

Book-Bar evenings, signings and a book club are all features of The Madhatter Bookshop in Burford which aims to be a community hub for “all things literary, arty and anything else you want it to be”. You are welcomed  to wonderland “to help make your adventures happen, to make you smile, to make you cry, to educate you, to amuse you, to comfort you and to enlighten you, to shock you, to soothe you… just add a little imagination and the wonders of the written word”. Enough said!

If you’re looking for children’s books then Woodstock Bookshop has shelves packed with them, about a quarter of their stock caters for younger readers with the rest a selection of the best recent reads. The bookshop opened in 2008 and has been shortlisted for Independent Bookshop of the Year three times. They also hold talks and run several book groups. Poetry lovers should put a date in their diary for their Woodstock Poetry Festival in November.

The indie Wantage Bookshop sells books to suit all tastes from the latest releases and bestsellers, to bookseller favourites and classic titles, there’s also a welcoming children’s area for young readers, as well as a fine selection of beautiful cards, wrap and book related gifts. Looking for a special gift for the book lover in your life? Why not try a bespoke book subscription which includes a coffee from the next door shop and a chat with a bookseller to find your next favourite read or how about a book hamper complete with packaging, chocolates and bookmarks – sounds perfect!

Mostly Books in Abingdon has won a host of awards in its 12 years including Independent Bookshop of the Year for the south east last year. Join their online book club, Cosy Club and choose from six books each month to read and review, with in person get togethers once every three months. A podcast series Mostly Books meets…has them speaking to authors, poets, journalists and publishing professionals about the books that shaped their lives. They also offer a range of gift ideas with books throughout the year, have a blind date with a book or how about a mystery book bundle?

The Bookstore in Abingdon’s town centre has been a much-loved local spot since 1998 with everything from thrillers to the classics, biographies, children’s books and histories and what’s more you can also shop for greeting cards, wrapping paper and even handbags and scarves – sounds like the perfect place for me!

“This bookshop is a real gem” proclaims one review of The Wallingford Bookshop. Serving and helping readers find the perfect book since 1983, it’s a familiar face in the community. If you can’t find what you want among the more than 6,000 books they stock, they’ll happily order it in for you and just love a challenge so don’t worry if you can’t remember the title or author, they’ll solve the clues and track it down for you!

Even the most hard to please reader will find something among the more than 20,000 books adorning the shelves of The Bell Bookshop, Henley. Find hidden gems among the paperbacks, hardbacks and classics, biographies, travel guides, cookery, history, children’s and many many more. This destination bookshop has been feeding the appetite of book lovers around Henley and beyond since 1966 with the shop itself dating back to the 18th century – I’ll bet it has some stories to tell.

You’ll probably recognise Roald Dahl’s Matilda outside The Book House, Thame which has a fascinating story behind it, as does Fat Puffin, a gift from Puffin Books to mark the opening in 1972 as one of the first specialist children’s bookshops in the country – he could write a book about his ‘adventures’ since he’s been standing sentry. Through the shop discover the bookshop’s very own ‘secret garden’, take a seat and dip into your new book. Books range from first books for babies to young adult reads while adults aren’t forgotten with more than enough to fuel their imaginations too.

As author Evie Woods writes in her novel The Lost Bookshop: “The thing about books… is that they help you to imagine a life bigger and better than you could ever dream of.”

Show your support for independent bookshops in Independent Bookshop Week, June 15th to 22nd, part of the Books Are My Bag campaign, an annual celebration of independent bookshops nationwide, and the role they play in their communities.