Bookshops? you may inquire. Who goes to bookshops anymore, when you have Kindle, Amazon, and the easy kiosk bookshops at airports? Fortunately there are still people who love the smell of books and the feeling of picking an unknown but intriguing book off the shelf, knowing it may change your world if you just sit down and give it attention. Fortunately there are still people who love the excitement of discovery in 3D which is not possible if you browse Amazon, like a holiday trip but much cheaper (unless one comes out carrying one’s weight in paper).
My opinion is that every bookshop is important. And then there are bookshops which are both important and special, somehow. Perhaps because of their history, or how they are run. Or simply by the books they carry. Here below are a few of my favorites in no particular order, the ones that I easily lose an hour or two in. If it is not on the list it may be because I have not yet visited it – so please drop me a note!
Shakespeare and Company (Paris): English language books in a maze-y bookshop from the 50s on the Left Bank in Paris. That is an amazing combination in itself already, but it gets better: if you are an aspiring writer you can stay for free in any of the small beds hidden away between the shelves, writing away on any of the old typewriters ensconced in quiet nooks. All you have to do in return is help around, maybe read aloud, and read and review books. You will be one of tens of thousands of writers who stayed, and if you are lucky you will run into celebrated writers who occupy a room upstairs. This wonderful shop is named after the legendary shop which entertained Hemingway, Pound, Fizgerald, and the lot in the 1920s, until WWII broke out. In summer there is usually a line outside so come early in the day. It’s worth the wait.
City Lights Bookstore (San Francisco): The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights just a few years after Shakespeare and Company was re-created in the 50s. He called it the sister of the shop in Paris, perhaps because both drew crowds of beat poets and writers. While the browsing experience is not at all like that of an old nearly derelict Parisian riverside building, I love this shop because of its history, the founder’s wonderfully hilarious poetry, and the book content. If social activism, world history and politics or poetry is your thing, this shop is for you. The most-bought book is probably the beat poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg.Powell’s City of Books (Portland, OR): 1970s shop specialized in vintage and rare books, but also carrying a big collection of new books (side by side with the old ones). The key to visiting Powell’s is time: the building spans an entire city block and the rooms are color-coded, to help navigate with a map you can request. Powell’s also has a café and when I visited the place 10 years ago we were invited to take our book picks and read – even if we had not paid for them just yet. The shop also has a Rare Books Room which you can request access to if rare books are your thing.
Daunt Books (London): Edwardian building with a glass roof, specialized in travel books, even publishing its own collection of interesting books around the world. What can be a better reason to visit London? The top photo of this post is from Daunt Books and as you can see, the shop is to be browsed according to geographical location, save for the front room which has a traditional by-topic setup of mostly non-travel books. Daunt Books owns a few other well-curated bookshops around the UK, disguised under other names, so have a look at their store listing before you visit.
Pilgrims Book House (Kathmandu): Deep in the old town maze of Thamel hides a surprisingly large bookshop, with not only books but wonderful crafts, incense, and gift items. While the company is over 25 years old, the old bookshop burnt down in 2013 and the new shop probably does not stock quite the same selection of rare books, but you can still find them here. As well as books on mountaineering, Nepalese and Tibetan history and culture, outdoors, and of course Hinduism, Buddhism, and actually pretty much any other world religion or philosophy.
Heffers (Cambridge, UK): My favorite haunt when I studied in Cambridge. The last time I visited this shop was in 2015, with the result that I together with my sister lugged home about 10 kg of books in our suitcases. Including the ones below. Heffers is catering for world-class university students and scientists, and so if you are interested in micro-topics like the social life of trees, quantum biology, or famous historical people who liked to talk walks in London at night, this shop is for you.Blackwell’s (Oxford, UK): As of a few years Heffers is actually part of Blackwell’s, a UK university-town bookshop chain. Like Heffer’s, Blackwell’s caters for academics and the Oxford shop is another fabulous place to get lost in, as well as the original base of Blackwell’s, founded in 1879. Part of the shop is underneath Trinity College, including the Norrington Room which holds a Guiness World Record for its 5 km of shelves of books: the largest room of books for sale in the world.
When longing to visit a most-wonderful bookshop: If you really love books, perhaps you’d like to smell like one? The scent of old books is a science in itself, and the past few years boutique perfume companies have issued scents that smell of old paper, books, and everything we like to associate with it: perhaps a little leather from the book cover, smoke from a pipe or cigar, wood from the shelves, or dried pansies from grandmother’s table. The only one I have been privileged to smell is Bibliothèque by Byredo, available both as a candle and perfume so we can all dream of bookshops when we are not in one.(Vejle, Denmark; October 2019)