And while no one can deny the convenience of e-readers, we still love the beauty of a well-designed trade paperback, the solid feel of a hard-cover. The experience of buying new e-titles is quick and easy, but there’s little potential for joy while scrolling down a screen, compared to browsing a row of colourful spines on a solid wood shelf.
For those of us who still love the experience of buying books in a bricks and mortar bookstore, we’ve put together a list of ten of the most atmospheric, satisfying book-browsing experiences you can have around the world. Once we're all out and about again, be sure to visit one of these on your travels!
Ten of the World's Best Bookstores
Munro’s – Victoria, BC
This 50-year old Canadian business was founded by Nobel Prize Winning author Alice Munro and her (then) husband Jim. After their divorce, Jim would go on to turn Munro’s into not only a book store, but a long-standing tourist attraction in downtown Victoria, BC. Housed in an early 20th century bank building, the store’s characterful hardwood floors and lofty coffered ceilings invite bibliophiles to savour the book buying experience.
Libreria Acqua Alta – Venice
This Venetian book store is one of the more unique ones you’ll ever come across on your travels. Part flea market, part book-store, you’re less likely to buy a book here (which are mostly in Italian) than to simply soak up the experience. Cats roam the store, bathtubs, and a gondola full of books sit inside, and books line the multiple courtyards, even creating an outdoors staircase, which brave souls can climb. “Acqua Alta” means high water, and this store is prone to flooding in the fall. Bring your boots!
The Strand – New York
The Strand, founded in 1927, originally sat on New York’s “Book Row” but moved to its current location at East 12th St. and Broadway in 1956. Housing over 2.5 million books (new and used), this is definitely a store in which to immerse yourself in great literature. The bookstore staff are well-read and helpful, and if you really fall in love with it, the front of the story displays an extensive line of “Strand”-related tchotchkes for you to bring home.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid – Buenos Aires
Routinely recognized as one of the most beautiful book stores in the world, El Ateneo is housed in an ornate neo-classical theatre building, originally home to tango performances. Now customers can sit in the former theatre’s boxes and read books picked from the shop’s many shelves. Our Buenos Aires guides tell us this book store is an excellent place to study and even have a snack: there’s a café with seating right on the original theatre stage.
Shakespeare and Co – Paris
The crowded, creaky shelves of Shakespeare and Co are an ode to an earlier time: the time of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Its founder, George Whitman, once called his shop “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore,” and the 13 sleeping beds within the store have provided rest to more than 50,000 people over the years, many of them aspiring writers and artists. Sitting pretty on the left bank of the Seine, this is a don’t-miss-it stop in Paris.
Powell’s City of Books – Portland
This massive bookstore occupies several stories of a full city block at the edge of downtown Portland, Oregon, and claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. Books are organized into subject areas laid out as rooms: the “rose room” houses children’s books, the “purple room” is home to archeology texts, and so on. Best are the thoughtfully curated “staff picks” which may lead you to bring home a book you would never otherwise have heard of.
Livraria Lello – Porto
Founded in the late 19th century, Livraria Lello is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugual. It’s a stunning example of a purpose built bookstore incorporating eclectic design elements. Stained glass ceilings, a “stairway to heaven” and intricately panelled walls create a beautiful space to browse. Don’t miss sitting down for coffee and port at the intimate café on the book store’s second level, a lovely respite from the hustle of downtown Porto.
Bart’s Books – Ojai, California
This book shop is unique for several reasons: first, it’s almost entirely outdoors – the largest outdoor bookstore in the United States, in fact (although we doubt it has a lot of competition in that category!) Second, many of its book sales are based on an honour system. Patrons who come by after-hours are asked to place coins in a deposit box to pay for any book they wish to purchase. The owner, Richard Bartinsdale, has been running business this way since the store first opened in 1964.
Selexyz Dominicanen – Maastricht
A 13th century Dominican church converted into an impressive contemporary bookstore: don’t even consider skipping this one! Hidden in a little street next to the Vrijthof square in the Dutch city of Maastricht, this 800 year old church now attracts a different kind of worshipper. Its altar has been replaced with a coffee shop, and steel shelves vault thousands of books close to the frescoed ceilings.
Cafebrería El Péndulo – Mexico City
Filled with greenery as well as books, the multi-story El Pendulo is an excellent place to escape the heat and crowds of Mexico City. While the large bookstore has only a small selection of English books, its café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and live entertainment is always on the menu. Plus, it’s one of the few book stores in the world that serves a mean mojito along with a side of literature.