Around the World in 10 Extraordinary Book Shops

While some dream of the best online bingo, others dream of books (and possibly books about bingo). Indeed, escaping with a cup of tea into the pages of a book is a favourite pastime among many. Even better is getting lost in bookstores that offer all kinds of magic around every corner.

From architectural wonders in China to grand old theatres in Buenos Aires, to the Parisian hangout of Ernest Hemingway, we’re exploring the most incredible, intriguing, and quirky bookstores around the world.

1. Word on The Water – Somewhere on the London canals, UK

Floating somewhere along the Regent’s Canal is the London Bookbarge, a 100-year-old Dutch barge with a large variety of excellent books, interesting events, and even a few furry friends on board. The barge is home to store owner Paddy Screech, who has been floating and selling books since 2011. Every nook and cranny is filled with new and old books of all genres.

Words on The Water houses a cosy red armchair and a wood-burning stove and welcomes poets, musicians, and other performers onto its roof stage. One might say this book store is really “going places”...

2. Shakespeare and Company – Paris, France

Ask any true book lover of their dream book shop and Shakespeare and Company is bound to come up. This English book store, set on the left bank of the Seine opposite Notre Dame, has a long and rich history. Originally opened in 1919 by Slyvia Beach as “a gathering place for the great expat writers of the time – Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Pound – as well as for leading French writers”. Sylvia famously lent books to Ernest Hemingway when he couldn't afford them, but was forced to close the store during the second world war.

George Whitman reopened the doors, in honour of the original store, in 1951, saying, “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”

Today the shop is packed with books and bustling with readers. It holds regular workshops and readings, as well as an annual festival with some of the best contemporary writers.

3. Selexyz Dominicanen – Maastricht, Netherlands

If you worship books like we worship bingo games, this 13th-century church-turned-warehouse-turned-bookstore is sure to have you singing Hallelujah! Stroll the aisles of this fully restored 700-year-old building – the vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, decorative frescoes, and stained-glass windows are sure to create an incredible atmosphere to immerse yourself in. With three stories, complete with both staircases and elevators, a café, and of course, an impressive selection of books, this store is as extraordinary as they come!

4. Libreria Acqua Alta – Venice, Italy

Yet another floating bookstore has made our list, only this time, it's not the book store that's floating, it's the books themselves! Fully prepared for Venice’s famous periodic high waters, the books in Liberia Acqua Alta (The Library of High Waters) are kept in rowboats, bathtubs, plastic bins, and one full-size gondola, taking quirky to a whole new level. The shop overlooks one of Venice’s many canals, a short walk from St. Mark's Square. It's decorated with oars, gondola poles, and mannequins, and books cover every possible surface. Out-of-date encyclopedias have been turned into steps, and four lovely cats bless the aisles with their glorious presence. An extraordinary visit indeed.

5. Zhongshuge Bookstore – Chongqing, China

Step into a true architectural masterpiece, with bookshelf staircases, zigzags around mirrored ceilings, and more indescribably intricate and beautiful designs. It truly is every book lovers (and cats) dream. Designed by architectural firm X+living, Zhongshuge offers a unique and intriguing experience to customers, with a 1,300-square-foot space sure to keep you captivated for hours on end.

Nearly 200,000 people visited the bookshop within the first 15 days of opening, forcing the operators to limit the number of visitors each day, so be sure to go early! This kind of store is what book fanatics would plan their entire trip around. With plenty of reading nooks waiting to welcome you, you can enjoy a warm cup of tea or coffee, grab some interesting reads, and even spin the reels on an online slot on your mobile phone when you need a break!

6. Powell’s City of Books – Portland, USA

It had to come up at some point – the world's largest bookstore! Taking up an entire city block, Powell’s City of Books comes with a (much needed) map for customers and a massive selection of books – close to one million, to be exact. Not only that, but one million of the best books, as explained by CEO Miriam Sontz.

This family business opened its doors in 1971 and has been growing ever since. It has become a legend in its own right, and is certainly worth a visit (or five).

7. El Pendulo – Mexico City, Mexico

For a cultural expedition, El Pendulo has everything you need. With trees hanging over bookshelves, pot plants and hanging plants scattered around the bookstore and café, and winding staircases leading up to balconies filled with armchairs and books, this store offers a magical escape into a lush paradise of books.

Here, breakfast is served to live classical music, and you can catch more live music, poetry readings, and stand-up comedy at the bar on the weekends. A feast for any book lovers' senses!

8. Wild Rumpus – Minneapolis, USA

Nothing beats reading in the company of furry friends. This is why Wild Rumpus in Minnesota is filled with books and animals! Here you’ll find three beautiful feline friends. It doesn't stop there, however; you might also run into two chinchillas, two ferrets, two doves, three cockatiels, two chickens, a lizard, a tarantula named Thomas Jefferson, and two rats who live under the floorboards in a glass cage so that you can watch them running around!

And then of course there's the books. Make your way through the big purple front door for a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

9. El Ateneo Grand Splendid – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is known as the book capital of the world, hosting more bookstores per capita than any other city – around 25 bookstores for every 100,000 people. El Ateneo Grand Splendid is certainly the best among those, and may just be the most beautiful book store in the world. The building started life as a theatre in the early 1900s that hosted many tango legends, and the shop has retained its former grandeur, complete with all the original architecture – domed ceilings, ornate balconies, and even the theatre curtain for a truly stunning effect. The theatre boxes have been turned into reading rooms and the stage is now a café where readers can enjoy live piano music.

Over a million visitors each year come to El Ateneo to enjoy the 120,000+ books.

10. Livraria Lello – Porto, Portugal

Livraria Lello’s undulating staircase was said to have inspired frequent visitor J.K Rowling’s descriptions of Hogwarts. The epitome of old-world opulence, this 125-year-old art nouveau book store is now an incredible tourist destination featuring stained-glass ceilings, wooden walls, and glass-enclosed bookcases. The coffee store even sells cigars and is the self-proclaimed “most beautiful bookstore in the world” – a claim we’re not going to argue!

With wooden carved shelves and leather-bound books, this bookstore has earned its title on our most extraordinary list.

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/ 01 December 2021