Updated: Nov 13, 2020
I can't help it. I see one, I have to go in. I know I have "enough" of what they sell already (whatever that means). There's no big "reason" I need to sideline whatever I'm doing at that moment to accept this new mission. It just happens. It's autonomic, semi-robotic, one could argue catatonic. It's habitual, sacred ritual, truth be told, quasi-victual.
I'm talking about bookstores. And I'm guessing you can relate or you wouldn't be here!
So what do you love best about a good book shop? It's hard to pin down sometimes, but it's alway a delight trying.
Is it the selection? The staff? The ambience, the lighting, the layout? The reverential silence that comes with being in the presence of so many authors' collective brilliance, imagination, and hard work? Or maybe something more primal, more narcotic, like the non-digital feel of those pages or the smell of all that paper, ink, and glue.
Whatever is it, if you're looking for something new on your travels and want to support local booksellers, here are ten beloved gems to add to your list. (Yes, my choices are a little biased - guilty as charged.)
10: SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY (Paris, France). It’s the only fully English-language bookstore in the city and was where Lost Generation authors like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, and Joyce hung out and waxed creative. The latter’s book Ulysses was published there and during World War II, owner Sylvia Beach refused to sell books to Nazi soldiers. Check it out next time you’re in the City of Love!
9. RUSSELL BOOKS (Victoria, Canada) Family-owned for three generations, this multi-floor, multi-building wonderland has no apparent end of books old and new, full-priced and bargain, including an antique section second to none.
Don’t miss it when you’re next visiting British Columbia’s capital city!
8. BART’S BOOKS (Onai, California) In the style of “les bouqinistes” bookstores along Paris’ Seine River, most of the new and used books are kept outdoors for customers to buy 24/7 on the honour system.
According to manager
Matt Henricksen, statistical trends suggest that “more bookstores are opening than closing in the last five years." While COVID has definitely put a damper on things globally, staying at home with a good book is on the rise. Fingers crossed!
7. CARTURESTI CARUSEL (Bucharest, Romania) Part of the Carturesti chain of bookstores, Carusel was built in the 19th century with 6 levels and 1000 square meters of books. (Sigh!) In 2015, a five-year rehabilitation process began, restoring and strengthening the building in key areas. Dubbed "the prettiest bookstore in Romania, you can browse for hours in both Romanian and English. P.S. don’t miss that great gift shop in the basement!
6: HONESTY BOOKSHOP (Hay-on-Wye, Wales) In a town with only 1000 residents but 30+ bookstores, this one literally puts itself out there with its books on constant public display and a name that doubles as its policy. Part of Richard Booth's Bookshop, it was Booth's idea to create a biblio-mecca when he opened his first store in 1961.
5. LIBRERIA ACQUA ALTA (Venice, Italy) This well-stocked (and well prepared) flood of treasures is protected against constant flooding by being stored and displayed in boats and bathtubs. Quirky, cat-loving, and famous for its great customer service, the store's name and signature setup came to be after floods, ice, and snow in 2008 destroyed a good chunk of its inventory. To Lino, Frizzo, and family, a resounding "grazie" for not letting the water dampen your your business or our pleasure!
4. CHONGQING ZHONGSHUGE BOOKSTORE (Chonqing, China) Mirrored ceilings, zigzag staircases, cone-like bookshelves, and doorways between cases that lead to the lobby are designed to echo the buzzing urban landscape outside and foster a sense of community. Talk about an environment that enhances the reading experience!
3. THE LAST BOOKSTORE (Los Angeles, USA) What used to be a bank vault is now effectively a safe for priceless treasures stacked in precarious piles and arches. Boasting "500,000+ used books, records, magazines, CDs, DVDs, art, collectible books", TLB is the West Coast's perfect indie alternative. Put it on your City of Angels checklist!
2. EL ATENEO GRAND SPLENDID (Buenos Aires, Argentina) A converted theatre built in 1919 now praised as “the world’s most beautiful bookstore”. Tango dancers and singers of old have been replaced by 120,000 books, CDs, and DVDs in a city that boasts the highest number of bookstores on the planet per person (total: 700+). Yes, please!
1. BANYEN BOOKS (Vancouver, Canada) It’s been a total blast exploring the planet’s great bookstores (so many!) and I saved the best for last. Nestled in Vancity’s Kitsilano district, Banyen is that big cozy living room you always dreamed of, loaded to the top shelf with books in every genre imaginable.
It's not the biggest, it's not the fanciest, but it's the one that feels the most like home. A sensory delight the moment you enter, you’d be forgiven for assuming the whole thing was hand-carved from a giant tree. Meditation pillows, incense, music, instruments, and more. It’s not the biggest or the flashiest, but it is the closest thing to heaven on earth.
Enjoy, and please feel free to share what you've discovered!