Avid reader Natarsha Brown peruses the shelves of the most beautiful bookshops in Europe.
As British author Neil Gaiman once said, “A town isn’t a town without a bookstore.” Whether you are passing time on a rainy afternoon, losing yourself in the magic of fiction when longing for home or sating your curious mind by discovering what the locals are reading, bookshops have been a traveller’s best friend for centuries. From the gorgeous decor to the staggering scope of the books themselves, perusing the bookshelves of Europe is as enchanting as stepping into the pages of the stories themselves.
Shakespeare & Company, Paris
In 1951, a charismatic and eccentric American proprietor named George Whitman opened a bookshop overlooking Notre Dame with the dream of creating a literary hub in the heart of Paris. Deciding he would welcome all writers needing a place to stay, Whitman painted the bookshop’s motto across the inner door: “Be kind to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” The rules were simple: on a first-come, first-serve basis, guests – whom Whitman called the ‘Tumbleweeds’ – must work for a couple of hours each day in the store.
With 13 beds concealed between bookshelves during opening hours, the bookshop continues to be a bohemian refuge for travellers and artists looking for a place to stay, with as many as 40,000 people having slept in the shop over the years. Whitman himself calls the bookstore “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” and the romance between this becomingly ramshackle bookstore and the city’s literati dates back to the era of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, who frequented Sylvia Beach’s original Shakespeare and Company at Rue de l’ Odéon often in the Roaring Twenties, and was once the hangout of American beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs.
Now under the care of Whitman’s daughter Sylvia, the creative, chaotic spirit of this celebrated store remains. The interior is as askew as the outside: chunky wooden beams crisscross the ceiling; the floors comprise mismatched tiling; pocket-sized rooms overflow with literature, poetry and biographies; scattered beds, sofas and pianos stand as relics from earlier days; and the comforting smell of books hangs in the air.
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Keeping a collection of books in a city where the roads are made of water is a dangerous undertaking to begin with. This small and unassuming Venetian bookstore, whose name translates to ‘Library of the High Water’, protects its inventory from constant flooding by storing its titles in bathtubs, boats and, in one room, a full-sized gondola.
Just steps from St Mark’s Square, the self-proclaimed ‘most beautiful bookstore in the world’ is a labyrinth of antique shelves, dilapidated furniture and exposed stone walls, with every inch of space stacked high with books. The store’s whimsically cramped layout is even embraced by its fire escape – a rickety door opening directly onto a canal. Owner Luigi Frizzo and his four resident cats are happy to help you pick out your next read and will merrily point you in the direction of the back courtyard, where hundreds of old books that have outlived their usefulness, such as outdated encyclopaedias, create a makeshift staircase for guests to enjoy views of the surrounding waterways.
Boekhandel Dominicanen, Maastricht
Located in the middle of the historic town of Maastricht in the Netherlands, this once active Catholic Church became a storage unit following the French Revolutionary Wars in 1973. Housing equipment and personnel during the siege, it was simply abandoned afterwards, and went on the act as a warehouse, an archival space and more recently, a bike depot. Finally, in 2006, the 700-year-old Dominican church was refurbished by architects Merkx+Girod into an award-winning, architectural triumph and a peaceful haven for book lovers.
Among the ornate frescoes and grand stone arches stands its crown jewel: a towering three-storey steel bookshelf rising towards the heavens. It is minimalist, leaving the nave’s grandeur intact while creating over 1,200 square metres of selling space. Soaring stone pillars separate hidden-away alcoves set up as quiet reading nooks, 14th-century paintings depicting the life and times of St Thomas of Aquinas adorn the ceiling and the altar has been superseded by a cafe decked with a halo of lights.
Livraria Lello, Porto
The Art Nouveau façade of this former library barely hints at the neo-gothic opulence inside: carved wooden surfaces, exquisite copper and glass bookshelves, ornamented ceilings, gilded pillars and in the centre of it all, a deep-red, curvaceous staircase spiralling towards a stained-glass atrium. This lavish bookshop has been spreading its love of literature since 1906 and features more than 100,000 different titles in several languages, including English translations of Portuguese talents Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago.
Designed by engineer Xavier Esteves, above the windows are small figures painted by José Bielman, representing ‘Science’ and ‘Art’, along with a skylight bearing a monogram of ‘Lello and Brother’ with their motto Decus in Labore (‘Honour in Work’). Competing for attention, the books themselves are encased by bronze panels carved with portraits of Portuguese literary figures and, on the second floor, crowned with sculpted heads of famous authors.
House of Books (Dom Knigi), Saint Petersburg
This literary temple was originally built for Singer Sewing Machine Company as its Russian headquarters in 1904. The company had wanted a skyscraper, similar to its New York predecessor, but Saint Petersburg’s laws decreed no building be taller than the Winter Palace. As a solution, architect Pavel Suzor topped his design with a 2.8-metre glass tower and globe structure by Estonian artist Amandus Adamson to give the impression of height while still abiding by the law.
The store soon became one of the city’s most beloved historical landmarks and one of the largest bookstores in Europe with over three floors of bookshelves spanning subjects from travel writing to Russian photo journals. The grand windows in the upstairs Café Singer afford unparalleled views of Nevsky Prospekt and Kazan Cathedral, best enjoyed over pancakes with red caviar and a tipple of Russian Champagne Brut.
Cook & Book, Brussels
So much more than a bookstore, Cook & Book is the size of a supermarket and divided into eight different sections, each decorated with delightfully ostentatious kitsch. In travel sits a full Airstream caravan; Märklin’s largest model railway track winds through the kids’ area; a collection of vinyl records decorate the inside of the music room; a greenhouse is home to the store’s nature titles; a refurbished Fiat is parked inside the cooking department, La Cucina; while a multitude of superhero toys bedeck the walls of the comic book entryway.
The red and black colour scheme, the 800 or so books suspended on the ceiling and a series of lights made out of Campbell’s soup cans are finishing touches that almost go unnoticed among the extravagant eccentricity. Merging the delights of reading and food, with a number of places to dine within the unconventional space, this bookshop adopts a delicious approach to literature.