In the age of technology, owning a physical book might seem redundant when you can easily download a copy onto your tablet. But is more than just glancing at words on a page―it is a tactile experience that involves turning the crisp pages of a book, highlighting and annotating meaningful quotes, and placing a bookmark to signify your progress.
Plus, buying a physical copy of a book is a great way to support your local bookstores. As someone who used to volunteer at an independent bookstore, I can confidently say that we bookstore workers treat books―whether new or used―with the utmost care and attention.
So, consider adding a local bookstore to the itinerary whenever you plan your next travel destination. It’s a great way to support independent businesses, and quite frankly, the majority of books are beautiful.
Without further ado, here are some of the most popular and glorious bookstores in the world:
Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal
Tucked away in the port wine capital of the world is Livraria Lello, a neo-gothic jewel with an iconic red staircase at its center. The elaborate wood carvings, stained glass, and busts of famous Portuguese literary figures spectacularly add to its unique aura of beauty and scholarship.
If Hogwarts comes to your mind, your intuition isn’t wrong―the bookstore inspired parts of J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter too!
Books are available in English as well as Portuguese, so go ahead and purchase an excellent book before heading to the store’s second floor, where a stained-glass skylight shines upon the cute little cafe.
Shakespeare & Company in Paris, France
Located across the Notre-Dame Cathedral on the Rue de la Bûcherie in Paris is one of the most famous bookstores of all time: Shakespeare & Company. Originally a 17th-century monastery, this bookstore became a retreat for wandering poets, intellectuals, and writers. The writers who hung there became known as “Tumbleweeds” in the early 20th century. Literary legends like James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg were among the first writers to stay here. And yes, stay – the bookstore was not just a community of writers and thinkers but also an actual refuge for writers, offering them a place to sleep.
Today, it is a full-fledged bookstore complete with regular readings by contemporary authors, a Sunday Tea, and a temporary refuge for nomadic writers. Founded by American proprietor George Whitman, books are sold primarily in English, but, of course, all are welcome!
El Ateneio Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, Argentina
El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which previously functioned as a theatre and a cinema in the 20th century before being renovated by Fernando Manzone in 2000, is a wondrous bookstore to behold. The grand ceiling displays a beautiful fresco akin to the Sistine Chapel. Balconies lined with golden lights surround the interior, and a luxurious red curtain embraces the stage repurposed for patron’s usage as a literary space.
The spectacular space feels like a theater, but in this case, the audience is the books! Meanwhile, the former theatre boxes are now intimate reading rooms, and the stage now houses a cafe and reading area behind its red curtains. It is heartwarming to see a place, once focused on the performing arts, now dedicated to promoting the literary arts. Even though El Ateneo Grand Splendid sells mostly Spanish books, this stunning book store is one not to miss.
Keibunsha in Kyoto, Japan
If language barriers have never deterred you from visiting a country, neither should it deter you from visiting the serene Keibunsha bookstore in Kyoto. Some attribute the bookstore’s warm, cozy atmosphere to the dim, spherical lights, while others say it’s the little galleries embedded in the bookshelves.
Whatever the case, all patrons who enter to explore its uniquely-assorted walls feel this bookstore’s coziness. In addition to selling Japanese and English-language art books, Keibunsha offers year-round cultural events and hosts local art exhibits to maintain a sense of artistic community.
The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, USA
The Last Bookstore’s name subverts the notion that physical books are redundant and a dying breed―and it does this with ironic style. This LA bookstore sells products that some may have forgotten about (or, like me, were not even alive, when they were popular), such as vinyl records and old graphic novels.
Thankfully, The Last Bookstore’s very existence and continued success prove that these things are here to stay. Aside from the content it sells, the building itself is worth a visit due to its famed tunnel of books, marble columns, and the labyrinth of bookshelves. The aesthetic is whimsical yet stylish, old yet modern―a seemingly contradictory yet fitting appearance that matches the bookstore’s genre of products.
Stanfords in London, England
Situated in the bustling district of Covent Garden is Stanfords, a specialist bookshop of maps, travel writing, and guidebooks for travelers like you and me. First established in 1853, Stanfords was extremely popular due to the increase in cartographic interests stemming from British colonial expansion. In the past, the bookshop boasted esteemed patrons like Florence Nightingale, Captain Scott, and the British Army, and today welcomes anyone interested in the art of exploration.
When you enter the building, you will immediately notice the ground floor’s intricately detailed world map. National Geographic imposed this map, along with maps of London and the Himalaya on other floors, to celebrate the iconic travel shop’s 150th anniversary in 2003. In addition to functioning as a bookstore, Stanfords contains an in-house cafe for aspirational explorers to congregate and discuss their future worldwide journeys.
In a world where we increasingly rely on technology for many aspects of our lives―work, study, entertainment, exercise, etc.―we sometimes forget the simpler things, like the smell of a new book after opening it. While it is true that the digital world is extremely efficient and can make our lives easier, technology doesn’t have to permeate each and every facet of our daily routines.
Also, reading a real book rather than reading on a digital device is better for deeper, more restful sleep, as CBS News reports.
Bookstores―and not just the ones I mentioned above―are a testament to the value of physical literature. I hope that the next time you pass a bookstore, no matter if in your local neighborhood or during your travels, you pause and enter to browse through and appreciate its contents.
Podcast series – from Shakespeare and Company
Stanfords Travel Podcast – from Stanfords
Inside ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Bookstore’ In Argentina – article from NPR