Greetings, fellow bibliophiles!
If you missed last week’s guest post,
Now onto this week’s discussion question. As I write this, I’m sitting in a lovely biblio-café here in Aix-en-Provence, and it has got me thinking about what makes a good bookshop. Good books are a given of course, but there’s something else too. A mood. A vibe. A secret sauce that separates the best from the rest.
So I want to hear all about your favourite bookshop. Where is it? What’s special about it? Why is it particularly dear to you?
What’s special about your favourite bookshop?
Oh I just thought of another. The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. I only discovered this place a year ago and, come to think of it, the tunnel of books there is like an adult version of the other bookstore I loved as a kid that I just commented about.
This bookstore is amazing though. It's got separate rooms, two floors, and the top floor is this winding path through unique bookcases and little passages of books. There are rooms off to the side with different genres and all kinds of decorations. And the top floor also has artist spaces, little shops, and more delights. It's so good. There's also a record section for people into vinyl.
Hard recommend for anyone visiting LA. It's around the corner from Grand Central Market which is a great place to get a variety of yummy food too.
My favourite bookshop is called St. George’s. It’s on a cobblestone street around the corner from where I live, and one of the few which carry exclusively English titles in Berlin. Before ordering a book online, I always check to see if St. George’s has it in one of their 15-foot shelves (there are sliding ladders so you can access the top shelves). Or I email them to see if they can order it. They usually reply within an hour and can get most titles within a week. There’s an old-school café and a Japanese shaved ice cream shop across the street—two great spots for getting into a new book.
An obscenely large cat!
My favorite bookshop is Persnickety Books in Burlington, NC. Partly, it's because they sell used books for either $4 (paperback) or $5 (hardcover). Partly, it's because they host events and offer their space for free to writers for signings and readers for book clubs. Partly, it's because everything is disorganized and impossible and haphazard in an endearing human way. It's certainly because there are three floors arranged against all logic but with plenty of quiet nooks, seats, and windows.
Baltimore is lucky to have at least three locally owned bookshops - The Ivy, Bird in Hand, and Red Emma’s (cooperatively owned!). Each is wonderful in its way. The Ivy is in an old house, beautifully curated, wide range from kids to travel to poetry to books on writing. Bird in Hand has a superb bakery and coffee and very tall ceilings with rolling ladders. Red Emma’s is crawling with anarchists - need I say more?! 🥰
My favourite bookshop is like a hidden world. It’s a really small, unassuming cornershop that has a cat in it. Yet, it has the best prices in the country for books in English, and a pair of very devoted owners who keep up with the various longlists/shortlists, one for the spec fic crowd, the other for people leaning more “literary”. In a word, it has everything!
My favorite bookshop exists only as an after thought, a phantom on the sideroad. In other words, in the past. My favorite bookshop exists in my and many other peoples' memories. It was called Beauty and the Books and was located smack dab in the middle place of the row of important shops on "The Ave" in Seattle's University District. It was one of the first establishments I began to frequent when I moved to the District to attend college the State University. It was one of those bookshops that was in a very old building, had a cat or two roaming about, a dirty old man purveyor, and a young beautiful girl who every hippie/alternative/emo boy had a crush on. This particular bookshop was true to its name. Richard, the owner, while he never managed to shake that dirty old man vibe, I found rather interesting in his role of resident beast. When one visited the store you would encounter him or any of a number of young women. He only hired young women, thus the moniker. However, the most beautiful of the young women was a girl of about 22. She had one of those faces that wasn't strikingly beautiful, but evidenced not a single flaw. Her big eyes and full lips, I'm sure, inspired many boys and men and young women inspired many daydreams of wedded bliss. What made her beautiful though was the gentlest of demeaners even in the face of crippling misfortune. For she had only one arm. In the place of an arm was a prosthetic arm. The kind that had a pincher where a hand should be. Despite this, what would be an intense blow to most anyone else, was to her an inconvinience, a sore shoulder muscle from the leather harness that fixed the arm to her petite torso. If anything, the absence of an arm that in the face of this most cruel joke was replaced by a contraption, only served to underscore her grace, her strength, and her angelic ability to meet this challenge God had tasked her with. The store itself was a treasure. One could find valuable magazines from the 1930's through the 1970's, such as "A Boy's Life" published in 1932. And of course old books were everywhere, along with occasional other kinds of items, which Richard intuited *someone, *somewhere may collect. The book I found there that I most valued was a collection of poems, stories, and essays from a Literary magazine called "Transitions." It was printed during the 1930's and undertook the role of being a bridge between the American literary artists and the ex-patriot literary artists that now lived in Spain and Paris. So yes. Beauty and the Books encompassed what many may describe as an eclectic array of characteristics that endeared it to many customers. One that I learned of late in the game was that Richard owned not just the bookstore but part of, if not the whole, building. So most of the twenty-something year old employees of the coffee shop, the bookshop, and the comic book shop lived above the shops in a collection of single bedroom apartments said to possess "charm." In other words run down, but cheap. Bookshops of this nature existed in every University neighborhood across America in the 1980's clear up into the early 1990's. But by 2000 it seemed they were all gone.
Yes good books are a given and then a nice coffee shop with places to sit and read or work that exudes a quiet energy. Subtle noises of the other patrons and workers and absolutely no people taking a phone call while on speaker phone. So good books, cup of coffee and community.
How to pick a favorite should be the question! Westsider Books and Strand (both in Manhattan) and Sundog Books (in Seaside, Florida) come immediately to mind. The greater the air of mystery and magic, the better. Pleasant, helpful staff. Comfortable places to sit and write or stare out the window.
Honestly, though, I treasure a trip to Barnes and Noble for the nostalgia and immediate sense of comfort it brings. Our local store was one of the only other places besides school, church, and outside where I felt safe and hopeful as a teen -- like there was a way out and forward, for me, in life.
I honestly have a favorite bookshop everywhere I go! But the first that comes to mind is the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn. It's an incredible, two-story place with an outdoor patio on the second floor. The first floor has a bookstore and a cafe, and the second floor has a quiet members-only space for writers. The writing rooms have huge windows with tons of sunlight, and it's such a peaceful and productive place for me to go and write. They also often have events and bring in authors. Oh AND they have a library where you can check out books and do research! It's incredible.
Green Apple Books in San Francisco has hosted some of my favorite authors, and they carry my zine 😛
The one that immediately came to mind doesn't exist anymore but it was a spot in Tucson where I grew up that we knew because my dad was a woodworker who built some of their shelving. What made it special was that there was this little staircase down to a tiny tunnel that ended in a cozy nook and it was designed to be a space for children to come read while their parents browsed. Adults could squeeze in there but it was really a children's special place and I have fond memories of taking my younger siblings down there.
My favorite book store is located in my home town of Wausau, Wisconsin and it is literally the oldest book store in our state. It has a little bit of everything and has been owned and operated by the same family since 1874. Besides books it carries a wide variety of puzzles, cards, and other unique gifts. The service is outstanding and I'm so glad it has so far survived the "Amazon" world we live in! https://www.jankebookstore.com/
My favorite bookshop now exists only in my mind. But what made it so special when it was open was that it was hidden under a bridge, a secret mostly English-language bookshop, except for a short wall of local authors whose foreign books printed in English, so monolinguists could read them, too. Perhaps sometime in the future, I'll open my own bookshop in emulation of this one that was closing just as I discovered it.
Used, dirty, beautiful, used books in a creepy basement. The only downside is the owners won't let me into the storage area where the rest of the books are. Same with the local library. I keep asking to see the room with the used books they haven't yet put out for sale but to no avail.
There’s a used book store called McKays that I love.
It is organized in a way that makes you think they changed their mind on the system about 5 times while setting up.
You can find the same book in 2-3 sections throughout the store.
And because it’s a used book store, the pricing is just as random.
To me, this is all positive, because it rewards the hunters.
If I find a book I want in one section for $8, I know if I keep looking I’ll find another copy in some obscure corner for $4.
What a rush, book buying and a treasure hunt all in one
I’m new to your publication but so loving it thus far.
My favourite book shops need vintage couches.
Actually, the best bookshop I’ve ever been in,
Was a HUGE metal shed painted black in the farm land of the south west of Western Australia.
Windows stretched up the front and as you walked in you could see a huge staircase to the mezzanine / large loft. Lined with gifted books and vintage chairs and rugs. Under the loft was more seating and a fireplace.
A cafe was included, cakes and coffees and teas. It was all very antique and English though in Australia. Felt like a mix of hogwarts... with brooms and cauldrons scattered around. The back doors lead out to stunning gardens and nooks to sit and read and sip tea.
Favourite place ever
A good bookstore is one with a good bathroom..just kidding!!!!! But am I? ;)
My local indy is Chaucer's in Santa Barbara Ca. The staff is so knowledgeable especially in the children's and YA. It's a small store, but the shelves are really high so it feels like you can hide from the word. There's also great parking and they open at 9am. I'm seriously considering applying for a part time position for the holidays. I'd probably spend my whole paycheck on books, but I think it would be such an interesting job.
Recently visited Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Newbury Street in Boston and, three hours later, left feeling inspired and like maybe the world wasn’t actually going to hell. Did I mention my 16 yr old daughter was with me? She happily lost herself among the stacks and stacks of anime and literature and bought some of both. It was a good day.
I don't think anyone has mentioned Powell's in Portland, Oregon yet so I'll be the first. It's simply wonderful.
My favourite bookshop was a second-hand nook that I visited when I was 13 in search of girls' comics. Perhaps such shops don't exist anymore; it was 50 years ago when British comics like "Pixie", "Mandy" and "Tammy" were still being sold in South Africa and I could still read in the normal manner. Nowadays, my visual impairment means I must rely on audio books, but I still fantasise about browsing in bookshops, scratching through piles of second-hand novels and biographies, and coming across a much-loved children's book or out-of-print gem. For me, bookshops symbolise my connection with childhood joys and longings because they turn my attention back to who I am when no-one else is looking and I can curl up in a corner with a peanut butter sandwich and escape into possibility. Wonderful!
So I've got three - sorry :) This is a great question for us bibliophiles! Thanks, Mikey!
1. The Concord Bookshop - Concord, Massachusetts -- not too far from home, so a shop I grew up with. It has history, having hosted many authors who float in to do talks and signings as well as the many authors who live in Concord, the birthplace of Transcendentalism and a generally rich literary history. https://www.concordbookshop.com/ The shop's floor creaks as you move around and there is a special shelf sourced of local books (endless Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott...). The kids' section in the back is also really well curated.
2. Daunt Books, London (Marlybone) -- also a rich history, but originally travel books, which still take up most of the shelf space around an oblong wooden balcony. The staff picks are great as are the tote bags, one of which I have made into my 'purse.'
3. L'Écume des Pages, Paris 6e -- such a fine shop with books you need to get on the ladder to seek. Also great sections on art, kids, and stationery. (French and Japanese paper! Although there are bigger stationery shops...this one has a refined selection.)
Also Books Are Magic in Brooklyn is 🔥 (my bff lives around the corner, so I make an annual pilgrimage) and Bertrand in Lisbon is just GORGEOUS but feels too surreal and touristic to be a homey shop for me (plus I am not frequently in Lisbon!).
I have to say that if anyone treated such wonderful old books like the ones in the painting, they should be struck off the bibliophile list forever!
192 Books is a few blocks from my house. I often go in while walking my dog, though she gets overexcited at the thought of the treats behind the counter. I love it because it’s mine—near enough to go almost every day, and because it’s tiny but deep. Generous stacks of books in translation, one of the best poetry sections in the city, lots of books on contemporary art. It’s a perennial source of inspiration.
Since I lived most of my life in Toronto, here are my favourite two:
(Obviously, they are both gone by now )
Nicholas Hoare looks back at bookstore's 40 years
Open Air Books and Maps - The Planisphere˚ (johnzada.com)
Let me tell you about my first visit to Open-air books and maps
It happened shortly after I discovered V. S. Naipaul. I went there for maps for our SE Asia trip, but once I was there, I asked about "Among the believers" which I could not find anywhere else. The guy there said sorry, but I am just helping out my father, he will be back soon. Just as he was finishing the sentence, his father stepped in, so I asked him.
Now look at the picture of the store in the article linked above. Every shelf in the store had two rows of books. He went to one of the shelves, with his left hand he grabbed a few books from the front row, reached behind and pulled out the book I was looking for. How can you not adore and cherish a place like that?
It closed two years later.
Nicholas Hoare, the smartest bookstore in Toronto lasted a year longer.
The late, great Bookman's Corner in Chicago. RIP John Chandler, proprietor.
I have two. Toppings in Edinburgh and Reids in Liverpool.
Toppings is filled from floor to ceiling over two floors with little rooms and nooks and cranies everywhere. Tea and coffee free as you browse. Esoteric and rare books that would be hard to find anywhere except Amazon and even then you could pay a premium.
Reids is a second-hand bookshop that stocks everything from old Star Trek novels to Loeb Classics Library to essay collections from the 1800s, old cookery books, textbooks, and tomes on Chinese medicine (in Chinese). Again floor to ceiling shelving. At Christmas the owner will have a selection of tipples for customers who are buying books. If you want something specific leave him with the title and he'll find a copy from somewhere eventually.
I love Smith & Son in Paris. There is a tea shop and a little British shop where you can buy all of your favorite British goodies. And of course, there are the books and books and books....
I’m an used book store only guy. I’ve got an almost fetish like appreciation of older used texts, especially how they smell.
I especially like finding books festooned with underlines and notes, which allows for some weird time traveling friendships, or enemies. How can you underline that, you fool!
Recently I found a copy of my book in an used book store in western Massachusetts, and so I opened it, and wrote in it “To Hugh: I hope you treasure this forever. Signed Chris Arnade”; then returned it to the shelf.
My favorite book store closed when the Basque owner died a few years ago. He had a vast collection, but specialized in Idaho first editions. Most readers no longer know the work of Vardis Fisher, an Idaho native who was fairly prolific, and the owner of my favorite bookstore bought from his widow all of he remaining boxes of Fisher’s new first editions. What could I do? I bought an entire collection of Fisher’ first editions instead of a set of car tires. Priorities.
He even had a fairly worn 1854 edition of Walden for just under a thousand dollars. I wish I bought it. Too late now, though, but I learned this week that a National Atlas of Malawi that I bought years ago is worth a thousand dollars. Opportunity but no money, or money and no opportunity. Life.
It's in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. It's on a quiet little offshoot of Main Street. Everything is in meticulous order. There is a wonderful mix of the classics and newer publications. And the owner is an ENCYCLOPEDIA of literature. She engages, asks what you're looking for, makes suggestions . . . and is always right. It's a gem of a store the likes of which one doesn't find in the U.S. too often anymore.
I love the character of a place. Some places have walls that speak silently about the writers who have roamed those locations, the people who have visited that place. Resilience is also an important trait. Running a bookstore these days is not an easy feat. I think bookstores are the perfect reflection of a city's soul. I wrote an article about my visit to Shakespeare and Co in Paris. You can just feel the history in that place. There are plenty of excellent bookstores in Belgrade, Serbia, which is the leading publishing center in the Balkans.
Here is the link to the article:
Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle is my favorite. It's a three-level shop in the heart of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Wonderful selection (including kids books), great staff (and staff recommendations), lovely cafe with delicious coffee and treats.
They host performances by authors passing through in the basement, which offers a cozy, intimate area in which to spend time with extremely talented folks (their bookings are really quite impressive).
There's a lot of room to roam in the store. It's very open. The ceilings are high. Yet it's a very inviting place, full of natural light and, I have to say, with a hardwood floor you can't help but fall in love with.
I don't have a favourite. Every bookshop I'm in is my favourite while I'm in it. In the days when I used travel frequently to London it was Daunt's in Marylebone. At home here it's a local three store chain called Winstone's. They're pleasant and helpful and have a great order service that is super-fast. When I lived in Oxford it was Blackwell's (of course). Exeter Waterstones is good. A good bookshop has to have chairs. It has to have tables with an enticing array of titles. It should have coffee and a place to sit while you're drinking it, and it might have a cat but it's not compulsory. Assistants who are widely read and enthusiastic are essential.