North London's Cultural Guide


Walden Books celebrates 40 years in Chalk Farm

Founder David Tobin on the story of a local literary institution

In August 1979 I opened a bookshop at 38 Harmood Street, just off the Chalk Farm Road. I didn’t have a name, but a friend suggested Walden Books, as we both liked Thoreau, who among other things, advocated not dedicating your life to work: “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

At that time the surrounding Chalk Farm and West Kentish Town area still comprised a quite mixed population, which included longstanding private householders and council tenants, as well as numerous premises taken over by squatters.

Nearby to Harmood Street, Camden Lock and The Stables Markets weekly drew many locals along with eager tourists and dealers from both near and far. The quality of the unusual antiques, collectibles and bric-a-brac featured made both busy sites quite special destinations.

Two years earlier I started selling books at Hampstead Community Market: from a child I always read a lot, and needed, as Thoreau put it, “to solve the problem of how to live”. The idea of having a place where people could find books to read and ideas that might challenge and stimulate them seemed a good plan, too.


I soon learned that it was very hard work, with the need to keep buying good stock, but it was equally possible and satisfying to make a living in the way I’d chosen, selling literary, good quality, carefully chosen books.

Fast forward four decades and today Walden Books is simultaneously a long-time, much-loved familiar destination for book-seekers from all over the world, as well as a seemingly “secret” location, located down an otherwise residential road, thrilling those passers-by who happen upon it.

We’ve had a website and sold on since 2000; the online sales help, but I’ve found in the last few years there has been a resurgence of interest in old books by especially young people, who appreciate the design and well-made quality of items from another age, where the printed word was the main source of ideas, and reading for pleasure was seen as a joy.

Its magic, said one recent customer? That “it reminds me of the simple beauty of a row of old books and the promises they make to anyone brave enough to pick them up.”

Walden Books, 38 Harmood Street, NW1, open Thurs-Sunday 1030am-630pm, browse stock online here

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The award-winning print and online title Kentishtowner was founded in 2010 and is part of London Belongs To Me, a citywide network of travel guides for locals. For more info on what we write about and why, see our About section.