For anyone who loves the printed word, a bookshop is an almost magical place, its shelves overflowing with stories that take you somewhere new every time. While books are, by default, the most important things in a bookshop, some stores are more memorable than others. Whether it’s the architecture, history or location, some bookshops stand out as institutions and destinations in their rights.
Here is The Peak’s selection of some of the world’s most unforgettable bookshops.
01: Atlantis Books, Santorini
If we were to judge a bookshop by its location, then Atlantis Books wins hands down. Santorini, on the southern Aegean Sea, about 200km south-east of the Greek mainland, is the proverbial sun-kissed island, with soaring cliffs that plunge into the ocean. The amazing views are only equalled by the food, wine and beaches, and the last thing you would probably expect to see is a bookshop.
Yet, Atlantis Books, in the north-west town of Oia, is one of Santorini’s institutions. Located in the basement of one of the island’s ubiquitous white villas, Atlantis Books stocks bestsellers, first editions and English-language books about Greek culture and history. It also organises the annual Caldera Arts and Literature Festival, and hosts food and film festivals, and concerts. One of the best things about Atlantis Books is its terrace upstairs, where you can read and sip wine against a panoramic view of the Aegean Sea.
02: Strand Book Store, New York City
If there’s only one bookshop you can visit in the Big Apple, make sure it’s the Strand. Located on Broadway, two blocks away from Union Square in Manhattan, Strand celebrates its 89th year by living up to its tag of ’18 Miles of Books’, offering more than 2.5 million used, new and rare books. The New York City institution sprawls across three floors and is still run by the founding Bass family.
While the store organises regular literary events and has an extensive array of merchandise – from the ubiquitous mugs and t-shirts to iPhone cases and onesies – it has never lost its independent streak, the one that ensures that the Strand is, at heart, a community bookshop for lovers of the printed word.
03: Shakespeare and Company, Paris
When George Whitman renamed his bookshop Shakespeare and Company – to honour the pre-World War II institution of the same name started by Sylvia Beach in 1919 – he probably never realised he was creating a legend among both writers and readers. Over time, the store has put up 30,000 aspiring writers (Whitman called them ‘Tumbleweeds’) in return for a couple of hours of work a day and a promise to spend at least some of their downtime reading and writing. Readers were drawn to the eclectic collection amassed by the idiosyncratic Whitman, who was devoted more to the idea of making books available than actually selling them.
More than half a century later, the bookshop, situated a stone’s throw from the Seine and with views of Notre Dame across the river, is now run by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, and has finally caught up with the modern age by opening a café next door. The rest – Tumbleweeds and books – remain, happily, quite the same.
04: GEORGE BAYNTUN, BATH
There is much to love about Bath. This bijou gem of a city in England’s Somerset county is packed with history that stretches back to pre-Roman times. Not surprisingly, there is also plenty of history behind George Bayntun, the bookshop and bindery on Manvers Street. Although it only moved into its current space in 1938, the building, originally the Post Office sorting centre, dates back to 1901.
Through its arched doorways is a treasure trove of books and prints, many of which are rare and collectible, spread over three floors. The attached Bayntun-Riviere bindery, the last of the great Victorian trade binderies still in family ownership, dates back to 1829 and currently has 11 craftsmen, all of whom still lovingly restore books by hand for customers all over the world.
05: BOEKHANDEL DOMINICANEN, MAASTRICHT
The question of what to do with an abandoned 13th-century Dominican church found an unlikely response in the city of Maastricht, in the south-east of the Netherlands. The stunning Gothic building, with restored frescos on the vaulted ceiling, features an imposing steel three-storey bookcase, with walkways, staircases and an elevator, which stretches the length of the nave, while the apse has been transformed into the seating area for the café.
Despite the modern touches, the serenity of the space is never compromised. The hushed and almost spiritual atmosphere would suit readers, many of whom take their books seriously. The remodelling was helmed by Merkx + Girod, the same Dutch architects who were also behind the transformation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.
06: LIVRARIA LELLO & IRMÃO, PORTO
If you don’t believe that bookshops can be magical places, then you haven’t seen Lello & Irmão. One of the oldest and most beautiful bookshops in Portugal, this purpose-built Porto institution, which was completed in 1906, has an impressive Neo-Gothic façade, which is immediately forgotten the moment you step into its gorgeous Art Nouveau interior.
A spectacular winding staircase stretches across the hall, accentuated by beautifully intricate panels and a stained glass ceiling, while books are displayed in beautiful wooden cases. If it all looks just a bit familiar, do know that JK Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, lived for 10 years in Porto in the 1990s. Magical and inspirational? Come decide for yourself.
If you can’t make it to Porto but need a book fix desperately, head to Livraria Bertrand Chiado in Lisbon, which dates back to 1732. Rebuilt after being destroyed by the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, this beautiful store, with its wood-panelled walls, is the oldest bookshop still in operation.
07: EL ATENEO GRAND SPLENDID, BUENOS AIRES
The Argentine capital, on the western shore of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, is charming, with a rich cultural life and warmly embracing people. It is also quite the haven for readers: at last count, the city boasts nearly 750 bookshops, including El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which is as splendid as its name suggests. Located on Santa Fe Avenue in the tony neighbourhood of Recoleta, El Ateneo is housed in a former theatre that was built in 1919.
The store lives up to the ‘grand’ in its name, thanks to its stunning cupola with an allegory for peace after World War I, as well as original frescos painted nearly a century ago. The books are predominantly Spanish with a (very) small selection of English titles. That, however, shouldn’t hold you back from making the trip, if only to just have a drink in the café, which is located on the stage, affording you the best view in the house. Particularly if you’re a bibliophile, that is.
08: FOYLES, LONDON
There are many reasons to love Foyles, not least of which is that it represents one of the last glories of Charing Cross Road, the London street synonymous with books. Even as many of the bookshops that once dotted Charing Cross Road disappear, Foyles, founded in 1903, not only remains in business but has also thrived and moved ahead.
Gone are the famously archaic arrangement of books by publisher instead of title or genre, and the byzantine payment system that requires customers to queue at three separate counters just to buy a book. Instead, the new flagship store, two doors down from the previous one, offers 6.5km of bookshelves over four brightly and airy floors that rise around a gorgeous atrium.
Foyles is still run by the descendants of the founders, who have embraced technology – it has an app that allows your mobile phone to track the book you want inside the store – but only to enhance convenience. It might be an institution but Foyles remains warmly welcoming, a space for readers to both enjoy and explore. The sign inside that reads, ‘Welcome book lover, you are among friends’, says it all.
09: BERKELOUW BOOK BARN BOOKSHOP, BENDOOLEY
Surrounded by vineyards, Berkelouw is a bookshop with a magical, time-transporting quality. The barn, built in the early 20th century, is located in Bendooley Estate in Berrima, a historic village in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia. Berkelouw has long drawn literary lovers who come to browse its numerous aisles, each heavily-laden with thousands of titles – new, pre-loved and rare – covering a wide range of genres from Australiana to history, fine art and esoterica.
Just down the lane is its precious Antiquarian Book Department, a veritable treasure trove for those seeking rare and out-of-print books, maps and prints. Lunch is also served daily, where visitors can enjoy coffee, wine and delicious, sophisticated tucker in-between browsing. If you haven’t perused to your heart’s content, you can spend the night at The Book Barn Cottage, allowing you to browse (and buy) another day.
10: CAFEBRERÍA EL PENDULO, MEXICO CITY
Some bookshops invite you to linger, tempting you with, not just books, but also a warm, inviting atmosphere. There are six Cafebrería El Pendulo outlets in Mexico City but the one in the upscale district of Polanco is particularly cosy. The two-level café serves meals all day, while there are regular events like live music, poetry readings and stand-up comedy.
The floors are wooden and the balconies come with curvy handrails. Living plants protrude, adding colour to an already lively ambience. There are books, of course, stacked up in shelves against the walls, but they are just another excuse to stay and chill out. Sounds just the place to idle the day away.
11: FAQIR CHAND & SONS, DELHI
It’s a little hard to believe that this hodge-podge of alleyways and hole-in-the-wall stores is actually India’s most expensive retail space. But the dusty but hugely popular bazaar that is Khan Market (established in 1951 and named in honour of Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, a pioneer of India’s Independence campaign) is a retail magnet, particularly for book-lovers.
A bevy of big names have been spotted shopping here, including Sonia Gandhi, Orhan Pamuk and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But what makes Khan Market particularly endearing is the fact it is home to a number of wonderful, Aladdin’s Cave-like bookstores. Our favourite is Faqir Chand & Sons, which is just a space that’s crammed, literally, floor to ceiling, with every kind of book you could imagine. From traditional comics by Amar Chitra Katha to the latest bestsellers, it’s a joy as well as adventure to browse and buy here.
If all the page-turning is dusty, thirsty work, saunter over to yet another bookstore, the Full Circle, which hides the quaint Turtle Café on its upper level. Here, perk up shopping spirits with a spot of earthy and aromatic South Indian filtered coffee, or perhaps a cup of Kashmiri Kahwa tea, paired, preferably, with a slice of their delicious cakes.