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From Foyles to Hatchards, slip between the covers of London bookshops

A book fan's first London stop is to Charing Cross Road, where just a few bookshops remain

My geeky teenage years were filled with escapes to this city's bookstores. Most weekends were spent leaning against their bookcases and reading seemingly a little bit of everything, from Russian short stories to picture books about steam trains. I was a nerd, but not in today's hipster-cool way.

On a recent visit, I cracked open the cover on some of the city's bookshops, fearful that the age of e-readers had killed my favorite haunts.

First up: Foyles (107 Charing Cross Road).The flagship of this six-branch mini-chain opened its shiny multifloored shop in June, relocating from up the street. It has more books than you can shake a Kindle at, plus a cafe, a small art gallery and a full calendar of readings in a purpose-built auditorium.

This bells-and-whistles approach is all about community-building, to borrow a Digital Age term. Although the store brimmed with shoppers, I felt nostalgic for the modest, musty-smelling enclaves I once frequented. Charing Cross Road was formerly the heartland of these, but few remain.

Nearby, the green-painted bargain boxes outside Any Amount of Books (56 Charing Cross Road) are honey traps to passing pedestrians. But bookstore browsing is about burrowing into the stacks, so I headed inside to survey the used volumes on its floor-to-ceiling shelves.

My approach hasn't changed: Read the pricey tomes in situ but don't pay more than a few pounds for takeouts. I flicked through alluring art books before finding — for 2 pounds, or about $3.25 — an intriguing history of London gin. I later spotted the same title selling new for 14 pounds, or about $22, in another shop.

Several doors up, I was lured by the hardback-lined window displays at Quinto (72 Charing Cross Road), which combines vintage volumes, including old London souvenir books, with a jumble of dog-eared bargains. My 2-pound find here was an obscure birding tome for my ornithologically minded girlfriend.

But it's not all about penny-pinching and secondhand shopping. I hopped the Underground to Holborn and soon was nosing around Bloomsbury's London Review Bookshop (14 Bury Place), a handsome independent store run by the British literary magazine.

I sidestepped the elbow-patched regulars and newly published books because I was here for alternative sustenance. The store's on-site cafe serves trendy teas, bulging baguette sandwiches and treacle tarts and chocolate cakes, which suggest twinkle-eyed grandmothers are baking their favorite treats.

I chose the quiche and a thick slice of jammy Victoria sponge cake. It's just what Hemingway would have ordered if he were here. Probably.

Back on the Underground to Russell Square, I headed for Skoob Books — get it? — an Aladdin's cave for bookworms and the day's final destination (66 The Brunswick). Every surface, including a piano, was slathered with books. There were six shelves of vintage Penguin crime paperbacks, and a wall of juicy travel titles inspired fevered examination.

Mindful of my airline's weight restrictions, I limited myself to looking for almost two hours.

Next afternoon, I plotted three final chapters, including one that wasn't a store.

I started in affluent Chelsea, where I found John Sandoe (10 Blacklands Terrace), a welcoming shop that's been selling new books since 1957. Staffed by plummy-accented locals, its black-painted floors creaked under the weight of a large but carefully curated collection.

I spent ages stroking its pricey photography volumes — e-books will never trigger the same physical lust — but because none met my 2-pound maximum, I returned to the Tube empty-handed. It was time for a break from shopping.

When the gargantuan British Library (96 Euston Road), recipient of every publication produced in Britain, opened its Euston Road headquarters in 1998, it became a pilgrimage destination for bibliophiles. But its little-known behind-the-scenes tours are the best way to slip between the covers.

Led by a friendly guide, our group examined the conveyor-belt system that delivers items from the library's 14 floors (five below ground) and salivated outside George III's glass-encased private library, home to hundreds of precious volumes.

The building's greatest hits line its Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where display cases house jaw-dropping treasures such as Shakespeare's First Folio, a Gutenberg Bible and a handwritten "Alice in Wonderland."

My final stop was Hatchards (187 Piccadilly). Opened in 1797, it's London's oldest bookstore and Queen Elizabeth's chosen bookshop. You enter beneath a huge royal warrant coat of arms to find five floors of new volumes encircling a central staircase. The wood-paneled walls are also studded with photos of book signings with authors from Bette Davis to Salman Rushdie.

After some intense perusing, I made my final purchase. Mark Forsyth's "The Unknown Unknown" is an entertaining, pamphlet-style volume praising bookstore browsing over soulless Internet shopping.

"A bookshop," he writes, "is a room where you find what you never knew you wanted, where your desires can be perpetually expanded."

Back on the Tube, alongside passengers hunkered over flickering digital screens, it was easy to agree.

travel@latimes.com

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