Bookstores are magical places, filled with stories that can transport you to other times. Some establishments, however, offer more than page-turners. Their long histories are inextricably entwined with the cultural lives of the cities in which they are located. Their patrons are the city’s most enthusiastic readers, and often its most celebrated writers. Their enthusiastic employees know how to make strangers feel at home in a foreign land. To walk into one of these stores is to discover their home city in a microcosm—and to walk out with the sense that you know a little more about your destination.
If the walls of the Selexyz could talk, they’d whisper stories of Dominican friars, French military coups, and broken bicycle chains. For hundreds of years, the 13th-century Gothic structure was a shrine run by an order of Christian monks, but was confiscated by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1794. Since then, it has been a town archive, a warehouse for impounded bikes, and finally, since 2006, a bookstore so breathtaking, it leaves visitors speechless. The Selexyz retains the severe character of the old church. Its soaring ceilings, arched windows, and domed passages are untouched. Instead, the ingenious architects added three-storey bookshelves and sleek, black staircases that give visitors a chance to closely examine the fading frescoes on the ceilings. Housed in the altar is a chic café with a crucifix-shaped communal table on which nougat is served.Dominicanerkerkstraat; Open Mon 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Tue-Wed and Fri-Sat 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Thur 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun noon-5 p.m.; www.boekhandeldominicanen.nl; +31-43-4100010.
Shakespeare and Company has grown from a clumsy bookstore into a Paris institution. Photo: Carlos S. Pereyra/Dinodia Photo
George Whitman’s bookstore has been the epicentre of Paris’s Anglophone bohemian literary culture since it opened in 1951. Once frequented by beatniks like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, the musty, cluttered shop is by the owner’s admission “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Because, in addition to rare first editions (most signed by the authors), and numerous second-hand books, Shakespeare and Company has 13 beds wedged between shelves, and offers free boarding for any aspiring writers. It is now run by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach, named after the woman who opened the original Shakespeare and Co. in 1919 in another location. A regular haunt of Ernest Hemingway, the first Beach’s store was forced to shut down during the Second World War. The Whitmans claim the beds’ occupants (over 40,000 they wager) include the likes of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. 37 Rue de la Bûcherie; Open Mon-Sun 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; www.shakespeareandcompany.com; +33-1-43254093.
Raging Potter fans will delight in the fact that the Livraria Lello (many claim) was the inspiration behind the Hogwarts school library. Its mystique also extends to those who have no interest in He Who Must Not Be Named. This prime Porto property is a study in art noveau architecture. Its plush, dark wood interiors, intricate stained-glass skylight, and Bordeaux-red staircase that many have deemed the “stairway to heaven”, have earned the century-old structure UNESCO World Heritage status. The bookshelves, embellished with pressed copper, are filled with antique books that owner Antero Braga has collected over the years. Rua das Carmelitas; Open Mon-Fri 10.00 a.m.-7.30 p.m., Sat 10.00 a.m.-7 p.m; +351-222-002037.
Cafebrería El Péndulo is a bookstore, library, café, and cultural venue all rolled in one. But that isn’t what keeps locals and travellers coming back. It’s the bookstore’s green gospel that draws the crowds. There are delicate green tendrils creeping about the children’s section, large leaves sprouting from behind the crime shelf, and on the ground level, tiers of potted plants that extend to the first floor, curling around the staircase and cosying up to the furniture. The greenery isn’t sculpted. The plants are free to grow in any direction they want, which means that the Cafebrería El Péndulo is always changing. Alejandro Dumas 81, Polanco; Open Mon-Wed 8 a.m.-11 p.m., Thu-Fri 8 a.m.- 12p.m., Sat 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.-10 p.m; www.pendulo.com; +52-55-52804111.
The opulent, one-time cinema, El Ateneo receives over a million visitors every year. Photo: Yadid Levy/Dinodia Photo
When the building that houses El Ateneo opened, on a sun-kissed day in May 1919, it was called the Teatro Gran Splendid. The stage enthralled Buenos Aires with fevered tango performances for over a decade, until it was converted into a cinema—the first in Argentina to show films with sound. The 1,500-seat theatre is now among the most devotedly restored spaces in the world. The frescoed ceiling, stucco work, auditorium lighting, even the velvet, crimson stage curtains remain. Visitors can stroll through corridors of novellas, skim through poetry in one of the stage boxes, and have lunch at the wooden tables set up on the stage. Never mind that El Ateneo’s collection of English books isn’t large. Avenida Callao; Open Mon-Thur 9 a.m.- 10 p.m., Fri-Sat 9 a.m.-midnight, Sun 12-10 p.m.; www.elateneocentenario.com; +54-11-48136052.
Appeared in the March 2013 issue as “Shelf Indulgence”.
loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.
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