London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Foyles - The World's Largest Bookstore

20/07/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 18691 votes

The first thing you need to understand is that books are special, all books, books of any kind, books dealing with a host of subjects - without books to read and pore through and keep one company, the world would be a poorer place indeed. I’ve always felt that way, ever since childhood. Always will. There are few things to compare with the pleasure of spending a good part of the day in a really well-stocked bookstore.

And that’s why one of the highlights of a trip to London is a visit to the legendary bookstore Foyles. Among bibliophiles Foyles is spoken in the same reverential tones as, oh, say, cricketers and fans would refer to Lords, the home of cricket.

For years Foyles has billed itself as "the world’s largest bookstore," though in the these days of Amazon and other Internet retailers the term may have lost some meaning. But then again, to my knowledge, Foyles can still lay claim to being the largest ‘bricks and mortar’ or physical bookstore - at least that’s according to the Guinness Book of Records, and they should know. Shouldn't they? Foyles, says Guinness, is at the top of the list with more titles in stock than any other bookstore. Size? We're talking about some thirty miles of shelves - miles of aisles, if you will. Take that, all you on-line booksellers.

Like books? Then a visit to Foyles can be put in the same category as a pilgrimage, an almost religious experience, complete with it trials and tribulations, though fewer than in the past (more about that later). To the avid reader going to Foyles is in the same category as going to a place that one holds in reverence much like a cathedral.

That’s not a bad way of looking at Foyles - a cathedral for the printed word. The visitor finds floors and floors and rows upon rows of books; books on just about any subject you can imagine and quite a few you probably have not thought of.

Through the years the famous as well as everyday readers have brought their custom to the bookstore known the world over. Just one of those falling into the famous category was the Argentinean first lady Eva Peron – Evita - and word has it that, having forgotten to carry any cash she paid for her books with a crocodile skin handbag. I guess one can do those sorts of things when they're married to a strongman who runs a country like his own private preserve.

As far as beginnings, the business that would become the legendary Foyles started in 1903 when a couple of brothers, William and Gilbert Foyle, still in their teens, sold some wholesale books out of their parents kitchen. Seeing an opportunity the two decided that bookselling might not be such a bad line to get into. A few years later they bought a shop on Charlng Cross Road and the brothers were off and running, proceeding to make waves in the business of merchandising books. As a matter of fact they would become so good at it that at one point William Foyle was known as the ‘Barnum of Books’, a comparison to another legendary figure, the American showman and impresario P.T. Barnum.

Now as revered as Foyles is among lovers of the printed word it, in the past, was a place that many approached with some - how shall we put it? - mixed feelings. Remember mention above of trials and tribulations? That’s because for years Foyles steadfastly resisted and rebuffed any nod toward modernity. Computerized check-out? Forget it. Purchasing a book evoked a process that could have come out of a Dickens novel. Titles arranged systematically with any thought toward an organizational scheme or the convenience of the shopper in mind? Well, other stores might do that sort of thing, but not Foyles. Helpful, knowledgeable sales assistants? Oh surely, you must be kidding.

One didn't have to look very far to find the reason for the unceasing efforts to stand astride the march of time. Christina Foyle, daughter of William and who as a teen during the late 1920s had started working at her father’s business throughout the years ran the business as if nothing had changed since her youth. For over 40 years she treated the store as her own personal fiefdom.

But after Christina s death in the late 90s management of the business passed to a couple of her nephews, Christopher and Bill Samuels and since then they've done much to bring Foyles into the modern era. A prime example of Foyles making peace with the present: the recently unveiled website where patrons can order titles on-line. And these days shoppers in the store will find computerized cash registers and a friendlier, more knowledgeable sales staff.

Now for some personal remembrances of the great of hall of the printed word. My memories are of a place where the search for a particular books was every bit as thrilling as a big game hunter must find it stalking wild game in the bush in southern Africa- remember Foyles is still a bit eccentric in the way they categorize books. That only makes finding a title all the more exciting and satisfying because of the effort you put into tracking it down.

The other great thing about Foyles is that if you're looking for it, you'll probably find it since Foyles has a tradition of keeping things in stock. It’s not unusual to find titles from 40 or 50 years ago still on the shelves. No returning unsold stock to the publishers to be ground up into cardboard for the folks at Foyles. Eventually the day will come when someone will walk through the door and will select a volume that has remained unsold for many years and the Foyles will be ready for that particular customer.

Do you remember a time before the big chains ruled the bookstore business; when something other than market surveys determined what you could find in a bookstore and titles with a certain eccentricity might have a chance at breaking free from the pack and making it onto the bestseller lists? Would you like to journey back to such a time? Then begin your journey at ‘the world’s greatest bookstore’ - Foyles.

David McIntosh

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Re: Foyles - The World's Largest Bookstore

By Kathleen Pook Gaioni 01/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17426 votes)

Foyle's was a household name when I was a child forty years ago and my father took me every Saturday to buy a book at this wonderful store. This was when superstores were unknown and when walking from Stoke Newington to Foyles was normal.

I still fondly visit the store when I am in London, usually with a troop of Italian students in tail, and I must say it always brings back fond memories.

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Re: Foyles - The World's Largest Bookstore

By Mererid 01/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17203 votes)

For those of you who love books and can't hop a plane to London to visit Foyles in person you can visit them on the web at

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Re: Foyles - The World's Largest Bookstore

By Judy 01/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17320 votes)

As a lover of both books and the U.K., I was thrilled to find Foyles while walking through London in 1990. However, at that time, I was less than thrilled trying to find a particular book inside the building. Frustrated, actually. It's good to know that the organization has improved. I'd love to go back and spend the day just looking for the perfect books to take home from another wonderful trip to London.

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Re: Foyles - The World's Largest Bookstore

By Jane 02/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17222 votes)

It's exciting to find somebody else who feels the same way as I do about books! No trip to London is complete, in my opinion, without a day spent "booking", and the Charing Cross Road, though not what it was, is still a mecca.

I spent a lot of time in London when I was a kid as my Nan lived in north London (Enfield). I was a bookish child, so the best gift that I could be given was a book token, like a gift certificate that could be spent on books. I don't recall exactly how it worked - whether it was restricted to particular stores or not, but back in those days a one pound token would buy you a couple of books! Bear in mind that a children's paperback was in the 50 pence price range - and this was in the 1970s!

The best, though, and remembered long after everything else about the summer had faded was a trip up to London to go to Foyles!! Going there was like entering the magic cave of wonders.

In 1995 I went to Foyles, not having been there in probably 18 years or so (and now a grownup), and I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I couldn't find anything! This was prior to Miss Foyle passing on, so things were still rather a maze in the store. I did buy one book, and remember being very confused about where to actually pay for it, as they didn't have anything like centralized cash registers. (You had to pay in the department you found it in, which rather discourages wandering around)

I haven't actually been back into the store since as it was just too difficult to deal with, though I usually walk by and enjoy a few seconds of nostalgia (although any trip to London is a pretty big revelry in nostalgia for me anyhow.) When I was in London in May, I confess to patronizing the Blackwells a little further up the road, and it was very good.

However, I am very happy to hear that things have turned around, and that the best things about Foyles have been retained, and the irritating things corrected. I'll definitely renew my love affair with Foyles on my next visit to London!

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Re: Foyles - The World's Largest Bookstore

By Richard W. 09/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 17226 votes)

"Yes, Foyles is fun, just one of the many great book shops in London...the 'Pro-Shoppers Paradise'."
points to self...

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