What makes a good bookshop? Thinking back to my bookselling days I always believed it was a great range of books (something for every reading taste), a welcoming atmosphere (somewhere that doesn’t appear inaccessible or threatening) and, of course, great people. People make places don’t they? In the now crowded retail market, I think it’s harder for bookshops to stand out from other stores and to attract new customers. In Australian cities there are a few bookshops that are veritable institutions, but if you were looking to go on a world tour of bookshops there would be many that would have to be high on your list. Here’s some you might like to add.
High up the quirky list would have to be Wild Rumpus, a bookshop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Once inside (your kids can let themselves in by using the child-sized door) you’ll meet some unusual friends who make the bookshop their home. If you have a fear of small animals then this may not be for you, but if you’re game (pardon the pun) get ready to ooh and ah. There are two chinchillas, two ferrets, three cats, two doves, three cockatiels, two chickens, Spike the lizard, and hopefully you don’t discover you have arachnophobia when you meet Thomas Jefferson, a very hairy tarantula. And watch out for Tilly and Pip, two rats who live under the floorboards in a glass cage. Puts our one-dog office to shame.
If you’re in Venice, Italy, then it’s recommended that you poke your nose into Libreria Acqua Alta. This bookshop on the canal floods yearly so the owner keeps his books in a gondola, a variety of boats and, apparently, even a bathtub. Of course, he welcomes stray cats like every good bookshop should.
Architecture plays a big part in making a bookshop stand out from the crowd. El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is housed in an old 1920s theatre where you could find yourself relaxing in an old theatre box while browsing through a selection of books. Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto, Portugal, founded in 1881, is another that will have you admiring the building as much as the books. The fabulously intricate neo-gothic looking façade would surely lure you in and once inside, a red-carpeted staircase leads you up to the second storey, where you will find yourself ogling the huge stained glass ceiling (as well as the books, of course!).
One of the most famous bookshops in the world, and one that shouldn’t be left off any essential bookshop world tour, is Shakespeare and Company in Paris. This is not a store you visit for the architecture but rather for the atmosphere. It was opened in 1951 by George Whitman who said, ‘I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.’ Any reason to visit Paris is a good one but this place just oozes literary history, having been the local for such greats as Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence Durrell and James Joyce, who hung out amongst its shelves. It has a fascinating history.
Back in the USA in Portland, Oregon, you’ll find Powell’s Books. The site, which was once a car yard, now features a seven-storey building packed to the rafters with over a million used books. It is a mecca for those of us who love to lose ourselves in pre-loved books. John K King Used and Rare Books in Detroit, Michigan, another mammoth store with over a million books, is housed is an old abandoned glove factory in the industrial town. It brings a whole new meaning to books being musty.
There are so many fascinating bookstores overseas. I would love to visit Selexyz Bookstore in Maastricht, Holland. It’s in a converted Dominican church – such an incredible building in which to house a bookshop. The Guardian describes it as ‘a bookshop made in heaven’. Cafebrería el Péndulo in Mexico City is for those who love to be surrounded by books and plants while drinking good coffee. Or wouldn’t it be lovely to be browsing in Bart’s Books in Ojai, California, which is the worlds biggest outdoor bookshop? But what are Australia’s great bookshops?
I’m sure that you have many favourite or unusual bookshops that you have visited while travelling. Or maybe you have one or more haunts in the city where you live? We’d love to know about them. Tell us and we’ll share them with other gr readers, and put together a list of places to include in a tour of Australian bookshops. Maybe we’ll meet each other amongst the shelves!