During the pandemic, a lot of us had no choice but to switch to shopping for books online. While this was quick, safe and convenient, I know I won’t be the only person who missed shopping for books in-person. There’s something inimitable about the experience of perusing real shelves and holding books in your hands. I find I’m far less likely to pick up something new or unfamiliar to me while shopping online, as websites tend to push you towards their big names and bestsellers.
Another unfortunate side effect of lockdown was that a lot of people switched to shopping for their books on Amazon, and already struggling independent bookshops took a big hit. This is why it’s not just a privilege but important that we return to shopping in-person and in indie booksellers where we can.
With my time in Cambridge soon drawing to an end, I thought now would be a good time to revisit and appreciate some of the lovely bookshops in Cambridge, including some at which I’m a regular and some I’ve never visited before. In the past week I’ve managed to visit six, though I know there are more I didn’t get to.
If you do visit Cambridge, I hope this can act as a guide, and if you don’t I hope it inspires you to go out and explore the bookshops in your area.
Like most towns in the UK, Cambridge has a Waterstones. Though it’s a chain I find most branches of the UK’s biggest bookseller do have distinct characters. The Cambridge Waterstones is bright, spacious and open, with several floors of books for you to get lost in and a very cosy café to boot.
On this occasion I came to finish writing an exam in the café and treated myself to a book afterwards. I recently added a whole bunch of mythology retellings to my reading list with help from a brilliant post by Siena @ Booksophobia, so I was very pleased to find a whole table dedicated to them here. I picked up The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – a choice the cashier heartily approved of.
The next stop on the tour is G. David. This independent bookstore is tucked away in a quiet passage in the centre of town. It may look small, but inside the narrow aisles reach surprisingly far back. I feel like every time you think you’ve reached the end you turn and find a new room or a staircase you didn’t spot before. As you can also see, it’s practically overflowing with books.
G. David has a vast collection of secondhand, remaindered and antiquarian books. They have a lovely selection of first editions which you can view in glass cabinets, as well as plenty of not-so-rare books which they usually sell at discounted prices. On my trip I picked up this copy of The Greek Myths by Robin Waterfield, which had been reduced from £9.99 to £4.50.
I feel like Heffers is a bit of a Cambridge institution. As it says on their website, “No trip to the city is complete without visiting Heffers!”
Before the relatively recent arrival of Waterstones, Heffers was by far the biggest bookshop in Cambridge. It’s the perfect kind of bookshop to waste an hour wandering in.
On this trip I particularly appreciated the folklore section, pictured below. In the end, however, I ended up picking up a copy of the The Iliad because, if you couldn’t tell, I’m a little into Ancient Greece at the moment. Instead of giving me a 10% student discount the the lady at the till offered that she could price-match my book for me, so it was reduced from £8.99 to £6.99.
Never underestimate a secondhand bookshop! I was majorly impressed by what was on offer at the Oxfam shop. And the average price for most of the books I picked up (mostly fiction paperbacks) was £2-3! Most impressively I spotted a fresh-looking hardback edition of The Thursday Murder Club just inside the door.
Cambridge University Press
Before this, I had never been into the CUP bookshop. They sell the kind of books I would usually just borrow from the university library, so I’ve never had any need to visit.
That being said, it was nice to pop in and have a look around. Of course, all the books are academic, but it was interesting to peak through some of the titles and see what was on offer. They also had some nice touristy bits and bobs.
At this stage, I had determined that Ancient Greece was the theme of this tour, and so I made a point of finding the Classics section. I also found a book on children’s fantasy literature and skimmed the chapter on modern young adult. It wasn’t very complimentary.
The last stop on this tour isn’t a bookshop. I believe there are actually multiple bookselling stalls at the market, though I’ve only visited the one.
What I said about Oxfam applies here too. Never underestimate a secondhand bookseller. You never know what gems you might find at what prices. It’s also so much more satisfying when you find something great amidst the mixed crates than when it’s presented to you in the window of a conventional bookseller. It’s like finding buried treasure.
And yes, I did find some books on mythology here. I was tempted by a dictionary of Norse mythology but figured at this stage I should probably restrain myself.
This has been a different kind of post, but I’ve enjoyed writing it. Over the course of my years in Cambridge I’ve often visited bookshops for a wander around when I’m feeling stressed or overworked. Visiting these bookshops over the past week to have a peruse and take some questionable photographs has provided a very pleasant break from studying and exams.
I am definitely going to miss Cambridge’s bookshops when I leave. There aren’t nearly so many near me back home – and certainly not many indies. I suppose I’ll use that as an excuse to stock up before I leave.
I’d love to hear from you about any of your favourite bookshops in your area, any hidden treasures you’ve found in a secondhand store or where you buy your books if there aren’t many shops near you.
And if you, like me, don’t have many indies near you at home, remember you can still support indies by shopping at Bookshop.org!