Bookshops in York

York Bookshops 1

I am spending this week in York, the city in which I lived from the age of two until the age of nineteen; returning, after four years in Sweden, for three years before moving to Amsterdam last October. York’s city centre is compact but plentiful, with a decent variety of shops, an abundance of places to eat and drink, and a steady group of cultural venues: although York Art Gallery, traditionally insufficient, is currently undergoing an £8 million redevelopment – set to increase the gallery space by 60%, furnishing it with its own garden, and due to be completed by spring 2015 – there are a handful of contemporary art spaces, notably at Bar Lane Studios and According to McGee; the central cinema, City Screen, shows a consistent selection of foreign and classic films; the city boasts the National Centre for Early Music; and there are various jazz performances, and comedy evenings at the city’s two theatres and at the City Screen basement.

One of the things York most excels in is books, for there are a profundity of secondhand bookstores across the city. These have stood and have even flourished – or at least slightly increased in number – following the demise of Borders in 2009 (which has however left the city short of magazines and international newspapers), and whilst WHSmith continues to excise and limit its range. I know these secondhand and antiquarian bookstores fairly well, and thought I’d depict them here for the sake of planning, general knowledge, or narrow interest.

Entering the city through Micklegate Bar, one will ineluctably spend a period of time on Micklegate itself. The street has been popularly known for the ‘Micklegate Run’, a figurative term suggesting the profusion of bars along its course, and the traversing of the street at night by inebriated revellers. Micklegate used to possess two music shops devoted to new and secondhand classical, jazz, and world music, but these departed years ago, along with the much-missed Track Records in the very centre. York retains several independent shops selling new and secondhand LPs. Passing beyond Bar Lane Studios at the top of the street, the first good bookstore arrived at is Ken Spelman (70 Micklegate), arguably the best in the city. It sells books of all sorts over two floors, with a particularly strong collection of works about literature, and in art, architecture, and design; a wide selection of travel writing; and some rare books and manuscripts. Ken Spelman is also increasingly showing the drawings and etchings of contemporary artists throughout its store, offering for sale prints and photographs. The books that you buy will typically come wrapped in heavy green paper.

The first of two Oxfam bookshops is located just a few doors further down Micklegate. This Oxfam (46 Micklegate) has a solid selection of literature, including foreign language literature and poetry; of history and politics; and it stands out as it specialises in secondhand classical music LPs, bearing by far the most extensive and accomplished accumulation of these in the city. There are also popular music LPs, books on music, and DVDs. Continuing on down Micklegate, over the bridge crossing the River Ouse, and Waterstones (28-29 High Ousegate) is the outstanding chain bookstore in the centre (there is also a Blackwell’s out on the campus of the University of York).

Fossgate bears three offerings to the world in bookstore form. Fossgate Books, the furthest down the street (36 Fossgate), has a superb collection of books containing and concerning literature, and on poetry, art, and architecture. Up narrow stairs, there is rare and antiquarian literature, and sections on philosophy, film, food, and languages. Lucius Books, a few shops up (37 Fossgate), is dedicated to rare books, first editions, and manuscripts, with an inclination towards illustrated books, crime, fantasy, and science-fiction. Across the road, the Barbican Bookshop (24 Fossgate) is a Christian book store, with a large gathering of books about York and Yorkshire, on wildlife, aviation, the railways, and upstairs nineteenth century literature, poetry, and the Classics. Beyond Fossgate, Martin Philip (51 Walmgate) specialises in music, sheet music and musicology, but with some literature and biographical non-fiction.

Along Colliergate, there is an Arthritis Research UK bookshop (14 Colliergate), with a decent range of books on two floors at good prices. St Pauls Bookshop on Kings Square (5 Kings Square) hosts, in its book section downstairs, not only a wide assortment of religious books, but also a significant collection of theology and philosophy. The second Oxfam store focusing on books is down Low Petergate (69 Low Petergate), with a ranging selection including much contemporary fiction and classic literature. The Minster Gate Bookshop (8 Minster Yard) – on a short street which opens out onto the south façade of York Minster, usually the Minster’s entryway (though not while restoration works are ongoing) – possesses all manner of books across five floors. The basement contains literature and various books on art, travel, and culture at reduced prices; the ground floor boasts maps, lithographs and prints in addition to antiquarian and oversized books; the first floor has a fantastic array of art, architecture, design, and religion; and the next two floors are home to books featuring history, literary biography and criticism, foreign literature, and the Classics.

Books For Amnesty on Goodramgate (42 Goodramgate) offers an interesting choice of books on a variety of subjects, including a few rare items. The Red House Antique Centre (1 Duncombe Place) has, on its upper floor, an antiquarian collection, as well as maps and prints. Finally, Janette Ray towards the top of Bootham (8 Bootham) bears rare and out of print books in architecture, art, urban planning, and garden design.

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A Top Three for Books Alone

Ken Spelman – 70 Micklegate, York

The Minster Gate Bookshop – 8 Minster Yard, York

Fossgate Books – 36 Fossgate, York

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Four Purchases Memorable at This Moment

B. V. Birjukov Two Soviet Studies on Frege trans. Ignatio Angelelli (D. Reidel, 1964) – bought at Fossgate Books

Frege 1

Lo Kuan-Chung Romance of the Three Kingdoms trans. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor, 2 volumes (Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1975)- procured at Ken Spelman

Romance Three Kingdoms

Vladimir Nabokov King, Queen, Knave (Heron Books, 1968) – discovered at the Red House Antique Centre


Edmond and Jules de Goncourt Pages from the Goncourt Journals trans. Robert Baldick (Oxford University Press, 1963) – via Ken Spelman once again


Since writing this piece a couple of years ago, Waterstones has moved from 28-29 High Ousegate to better premises – with a café – at 15 Coney Street, once the site of a Virgin Megastore. The Barbican Bookshop closed down after fifty-three years in business; and St Pauls moved from Kings Square to 26 Fossgate. Blackwell’s closed, absurdly leaving the university campus without a bookstore; the Arthritis Research bookshop departed; but everything else remains just about intact.

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