Why I Travel for Books

Small, obscure or legendary, bookstores represent a microcosm of the place one has travelled to.  
Why I Travel for Books
Photo by Dennis K. Johnson/Lonely Planet Images/getty images.

In 2014, my friends and I visited Goa during the monsoons. Most of the eight-hour bus ride from Mumbai was spent with our faces pressed against the window, our eyes taking in the lush green terrain of the Western Ghats dripping fresh from the season’s first rains. Upon our reaching Goa, however, the rains seemed to have bolted leading to tourists crawling its thoroughfares and beaches like marching ants, transforming the supposedly slow-moving July into an Ecstasy-driven December.

After two days of pushing crowds and suffering traffic-borne misery, a friend suggested we unwind at a book café. She knew the idea would be feted. So we left the humid and chaotic beaches at Calangute for Literati in Gaura Vaddo. The book cafés stood alone and dignified amid dense overgrowth and near-complete silence in a nondescript lane. On venturing inside we were greeted by friendly faces and the cuddle-loving resident Labrador, Freida.

Literati’s musty interiors, its walls stacked with hundreds of books, the smell of fresh coffee, and the feel of an ancient library form some of my most enduring memories of the time spent in Goa. The few hours spent browsing (and buying) at Literati, a wondrous discovery, have since set the tone for my travel itineraries. I now often go about exploring cities and towns making it a point to pop into independent bookstores that dot the miles, thriving and forming a nucleus around which our ever-changing world is experienced and understood.

And if that city is Paris, such a bookshop could easily beat the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower to draw literature-loving wanderers to the shadows of the Notre Dame and its bustling Left Bank to Shakespeare & Company. A venerable Parisian institution since the 1950s, Shakespeare & Co. inspires awe as much as it stokes curiosity, like a UNESCO-stamped museum or a work of art. It holds together within its crumbling walls a beautiful mess of books, indulgent notes, people, music, cats and conversations. On my first visit, I found a reed-thin man playing the piano, and two men, ostensibly there to browse, bobbing their heads to the tune, seeming to have forgotten all about the books they held in their hands.

I picked up a much-thumbed copy of an Emily Dickinson collection and sank into a threadbare leather sofa. Although a constant din reigned the shop’s surroundings, it posed no threat to reading. I spotted cats roaming its premises, laying their claim on this historical edifice by perching on shelves and sometimes crouching under them. I watched the “tumbleweeds”—a moniker for cash-strapped writers, poets, students and travellers who volunteer at the shop for a place to sleep in at night—dash through the shop’s three floors attending to tasks. Shakespeare & Co.’s late founder, George Whitman, is known to have believed that “we’re all wanderers in a way.” Who is to question him when one is a traveller?

These curious little book establishments, which we find more commonly on endangered lists than on maps these days, represent all that’s familiar and have always helped me find my bearings when I’m far from home, battered with fresh knowledge at every street corner and new territory. Last month while strolling along Venice’s iconic Rialto area, I came across Libreria Acqua Alta, the self-proclaimed “most beautiful bookstore in the world”. Inside, clutter, cats (yes, books and cats seem to have a good marriage going), gondolas, bathtubs, and waterproof bins jostled for space, creaking under the weight of books. Since flooding is an annual affair in Venice, the shop owners devised the ingenious plan of stacking books on gondolas and bathtubs so that the books can be spared the seasonal damage. Among unfamiliar Italian names, coffee table books, erotica, and souvenirs, I found Dickens, Ian Rankin and the ubiquitous J.K. Rowling.

While one travels for all sorts of reasons, for me, travelling for books has been an abiding one. You could ask if bookstores qualify to form the core of vacations as opposed to historical monuments, civilisational cultures or astonishing natural landscapes, and I would say why not? For bookstores, obscure or legendary, represent a microcosm of the destination one has travelled to. They capture the idiosyncrasies, tastes and flavours of people shaped differently by a different place. And, like a visa stamp, they may open up an unexplored world, prompting the beginning of a whole new journey.

  • Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.

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