To be perfectly honest, I visit my local bookstore simply because it’s in the neighbourhood. Each time, I drop by hoping that it will yield bountiful treasures. That hope is often belied, but I persist because the two bookstores in my city that I used to visit regularly don’t exist anymore. Giggles, which Nalini Chettur says she opened for a laugh, is a smallish nook in what was once the Connemara hotel. It carried the most exciting titles until one fine day it overflowed to such an extent you couldn’t step into it anymore, literally. You stood tippytoes at the entrance and yelled out what you were looking for and Nalini fished it out for you if she had it; she always knew right off. Other times she would look at you and say, oh yes, I have just the book for you. The other was Landmark, a massive space also overflowing full with books, books, books and regular book readings and events until another fine day it shut shop. And that was that.
Sadly, it appears my fellow city dwellers don’t have a ‘thing’ for bookstores. Innovations by way of bookstores have come and gone; the ones that remain have become variety stores selling novelty items, chocolates, bags, mugs, toys, artificial jewellery, some magazines and… a few books. Disheartening for someone whose favourite haunt and hunting ground is a bookstore — in any country, language no bar. There’s something about books, their look, smell and feel, that fills the heart and uplifts the soul.
Then, round about my last birthday, I received a gift: a solid, hardbound book about bookstores! Weighing at least 2 kilos! Delighted beyond words, I browsed the pages — then put it away. There it sat, among other special books… until a few days ago, felled by a week of dental action, I woke up at 3am, toothache gone!! Wide awake, I made for the little book space below the TV and pulled out Do You Read Me? It opened to over 60 stores featured in it: FiLBooks in Istanbul, Turkey. In a jiffy I was under the spell of a very special kind of magic.
‘The aroma of coffee mingles with the smell of freshly printed pages,’ the short description begins amid well-displayed photographs of the bookstore exterior and interior. ‘Milk and sugar stand alongside the owner’s own photography book, For Birds’ Sake, at Cemre Yesil Gönenli’s bookstore-café. “My bookshop is an elephant,” says the photographer, publisher and owner of FiLBooks. “Fil” literally translates as “elephant” in Turkish. Its name “had to do with our intention of creating a space that is living,” he says. “This is how we tried to give a strong soul to our space.”’
The best bookstores have soul, they throb with the lives and times of civilisations; they reflect actions, thoughts, words, ideas, dreams; they represent all forms of creation, animate and inanimate. Jessica Reitz, who runs Do You Read Me? in Berlin along with Mark Kiessling, recalls how people thought they were crazy to start a bookstore when the printed media was in a crisis: ‘…the great thing is that an analog medium like books or magazines helps us to see the world through different eyes. In that light, bookstores and libraries, like museums, are places that allow you to simply lose yourself.’
You can lose yourself even in the names of some of these bookshops, like, for instance, The Writer’s Block, Las Vegas; Books Over The Clouds, Shanghai; Under The Cover, Lisbon; Desperate Literature, Madrid; The Jazzhole, Lagos; Dyslexia Libros, Antigua; Bookoff, Warsaw; The Book Barge, Canal du Nivernais, France; Happy Valley, Melbourne… According to the editors at Gestalten which published this book, the most beautiful bookstore is in Buenos Aires, Argentina: ‘With its crimson theater curtains and shimmering gold boxes, El Ateneo Grand Splendid must be one of the most spectacular bookstores in the world. Visitors browse through the large selection of titles to the strains of soft piano music; a pianist plays live, in an echo of the magnificent hall’s previous life. The theater, which opened in 1903, initially put on classic stage shows, before being used as a cinema, radio studio, and tango hall, and finally reopening as a bookstore in 2000.’
In Antigua, Guatemala, John Rexer always dreamed of having a bookstore but he didn’t know how to put together his collection. One rainy night, he was at the veterinary clinic with his dog when he noticed shelves full of books for sale to raise funds for street animals. Upon closer examination he discovered that the collection was a treasure trove, each title priced at less than a dollar- and-a-half. He managed to buy all 300 books for about $400 And: ‘… it turned out that US writer Gore Vidal had lived in Antigua for a time in the 1940s. These very books had belonged to one of his lovers. Before Vidal died, he had donated the books, each of which contained his dated signature on the first page, to the veterinary clinic.’ If it’s Antigua, it must be Dyslexia Libros.
I was thrilled to discover that I had been to three of the bookstores mentioned in the book: Moe’s in Berkeley and City Lights in San Francisco, both in California, and Bahrisons in New Delhi. Manager Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights points out that, ‘Even though the experience of writing a book or reading a book can be a very personal and solitary project, a book is a record of our communal experience. So, a bookstore is like a storehouse for our souls.’ The soul of Libreria Acqua Alta lies in the chaotic delight of books lying unsorted in old gondolas, bathtubs and barrels. A staircase built of books — the idea of stepping on books is sacrilegious to some of us — leads to books. ‘Acqua alta’ means ‘high water,’ flooding in other words. So, in case of flooding — this is Venice — the books find refuge in gondolas.
There are open air bookstores, a town of bookstores, bookstores open to cats and dogs, bookstores on mountain tops and one in a boat where books sit alongside the shop-owner’s personal effects! The Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye has several bookstores, including an honesty bookstore where, ‘Those who find something to read at that store just throw the right amount of change into a box provided for that purpose.’ Sarah Henshaw’s floating bookstore, The Book Barge, reminds me of a bookstore not mentioned in this book: Gulshan Books in Srinagar, situated in the middle of Dal Lake, and accessible only by shikara! This bookshop-cum-café provides a magnificent view of Shankaracharya Hill and Hari Parbat, apart from the lake itself; there you will find practically every kind of book to do with Kashmir, from history to poetry to art and more.
It’s impossible to mention here the names of all the bookstores in the book, but here’s one last word — about the legendary Shakespeare and Company, Paris, which has possibly hosted the most number of literary figures, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T S Eliot, Anais Nin and James Baldwin. The resident cat, called Aggie after Agatha Christie, apparently receives her own fan mail!
On your travels, then, dear readers, take the opportunity to be enchanted.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist
Here’s a list of the bookstores you will find in the book – Do you read me. Discover the rest yourselves!
- Do You Read Me, Berlin
- FiLBooks, Istanbul
- Librairie Imbernon, Marseille
- Livrarira De Vila, Sao Paulo
- Cafebrería El Pendulo, Mexico City
- Kosmos Buchsalon, Zurich
- The Writer’s Block. Las Vegas
- Bookoff, Warsaw
- Cook & Book, Brussels
- Baldwin’s Book Barn, West Chester, Pennsylvania
- Bart’s Books, Ojai, California
- Scarthin Books, Cromford, U.K.
- The Book Barge, Canal du Nivernais, France
- Bókin, Reykjavik
- Back of Beyond Books, Moah, Utah
- Honesty Bookshop, Hay-On-Wye, U.K.
- Moe’s Books, Berkeley, California
- Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
- Strand Bookstore, NYC
- Dyslexia Libros, Antigua
- Books Are Magic, NYC
- Papercup, Beirut
- Brazenhead Books, NYC
- Golden Hare Books, Edinburgh
- Desperate Literature, Madrid
- Book Therapy, Prague
- VVG Something, Taipei
- Mundo Azul, Berlin
- Happy Valley, Melbourne
- Readings, Melbourne
- Shakespeare & Company, Paris
- Pro QM, Berlin
- It’s A Book, Lisbon
- Wild Rumpus, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Casa Bosques, Mexico City
- Wuguan Books, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
- The Ripped Bodice, Culver City, California
- Halper’s Books, Tel Aviv
- Under The Cover, Lisbon
- Cinnober, Copenhagen
- 10 Corso Como, Milan
- Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon
- Krumulus, Berlin
- Bilderbox, Vienna
- Morioka Shoten, Tokyo
- Printed Matter, NYC
- Bluestockings, NYC
- Proust Wörter + Töne, Essen, Germany
- Treadwell’s, London
- Analog, Berlin
- La Libreria Del Mare, Milan
- City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, San Francisco
- Carturesti Carusel, Bucharest
- Bahrisons, New Delhi
- Librairie Mollat, Bordeaux, France
- El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires
- John King Books, Detroit
- Atlantis Books, Oía, Santorini, Greece
- The Jazzhole, Lagos
- Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal
- Boekhandel Dominicanen, Maastricht
- Daikanyama Tsutaya Books, Tokyo
- Books Over The Clouds, Shanghai