The best bookstores in the world

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I posted about the world’s most beautiful libraries back in July, but there are just as many cool bookstores in the world. Books, being so full of art and history themselves, often find homes in buildings full of history and glamor.

Take the Livraria Lello, a bookstore in Porto, Portugal (the link brings you through to 360 degree views of the interior). Though it looks more suited to a grand ballroom in a gothic revivalist mansion, the Livraria–complete with wood paneling and stained glass skylight windows–was built in 1881 specifically for the purpose of selling books. It’s not hard to remember that books were once considered treasures in such a gorgeous setting:

Portugal's Livraria Lello

Or take Holland’s Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a bookstore housed in an 800 year-old church. After the Dominican congregation left the Maastrich church, a team of architects repurposed the space to sell books. After admiring 14th century paintings, take a break at the cafe–conveniently located where the alter once stood:

The Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastrich, Holland

The beautiful Ateneo bookstore in Buenos Aires is located in a former theater, red velvet curtain and balconies still intact:

El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Other bookstores survive not so much on physical grandeur but on historio-literary cachet, such as City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Shakespeare and Company, an English-language staple in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Co, founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, was popular with the Lost Generation expatriates, such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Beach was, in fact, the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. The store closed in 1941 during the German occupation of Paris, and never reopened. Ten years later, the second store bearing the name was opened in homage to the first and drew the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. The store itself is tiny and packed full with books–none of the wasted space of that lofty cathedral nonsense:

The volume-crowded interior of Paris's Shakespeare and Company

Several directors have also paid tribute to Shakespeare and Company by filming scenes at the iconic bookstore. Woody Allen featured it in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, and here it is in one of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise:

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Independents’ Day

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Common Good Books, where you can find "Good Poetry" and "Quality Trash"

Last Monday I imagined a business model in which Nobel Prize winning authors sell books. In fact, the idea of a famous author owning a bookstore is no fantasy–in my home cities alone there are two independent bookstores owned by best-selling writers. Louise Erdrich, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Guggenheim fellow, runs Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, which specializes in Native American literature (there’s a page on the Birchbark website devoted to the dogs of the store…swoon). In St. Paul, Garrison Keillor, host of the long-running Prairie Home Companion, is the proprietor of Common Good Books, aka my favorite bookstore.

We’re lucky in the Twin Cities. We have a multitude of wonderfully curated independent bookstores, and even a few dedicated to children’s literature. Some of them, like Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis, garner widespread praise for hosting upwards of 150 readings a year by both obscure and well-known talents. By this point you’ve probably heard of Tea Obreht, the incredibly gifted 26-year-old author of The Tiger’s Wife, who became the youngest woman ever to win the Orange Prize. You know where she started her reading tour? Yup, Magers and Quinn. Her book had barely been out a week when my boyfriend and I crammed into the reading area tight with bookshelves and overly-cologned middle-aged women.

Other cities are not so fortunate. One of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, brought the plight of Nashville to national attention this past November when she opened Parnassus Books. One local bookstore closed, and bankruptcy shuttered the Borders; as the New York Times put it, “A collective panic set in among Nashville’s reading faithful.” Patchett and Parnassus saved the literati.

I don’t know what I would do without a bookstore in my vicinity. This past Friday night when my boyfriend asked me what I wanted to do, I immediately replied “Let’s look at books!” He laughed–and then he realized I was serious. There was no reason to think I wasn’t, since we’ve spent a few Friday nights this way already pointing out books we’ve read, want to read, want to reread.

Actually, I do know what I would do if I moved somewhere without such a healthy literary community. I’d make like Louise and Garrison and Ann and open a shop myself. There’s just no way I could live without literature.

The joy of books

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The only problem of selling books by cart and not in a store is you wouldn’t be able to have this much fun:

Amazing stop-action animation!

How to be a bookseller

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What you’ll need: a love of ISBNs and ARCs, a lot of time to read

Songlist: Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits

Further Reading: The Yellow Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

Heaven

I have this business model in mind which is probably terrible in terms of financial prospects, but which would be totally cool.

Everyone loves food carts, right? Hot dogs on the streets of New York, mini donuts in Minneapolis, suspicious meats in a foreign country you probably don’t have the right bacteria to digest, and so on. So why not a book cart?

Can I offer you some Rushdie today, sir?

Here’s what I’m thinking: first I’m gonna become a super famous novelist (which is just one of the reasons this business plan might be a little tricky). That way, people will be much more interested in reading whatever I recommend. I’ll pick 3 books a week, one fiction, one non-fiction, and one miscellaneous–poetry, anthology, classic, young adult, etc–and sell them on the streets of Minneapolis. Businessmen and -women will start to trust my suggestions, and buy whatever I’m peddling. It can’t fail!

Oh sure, bookstores are closing right and left. But many of these are Barnes and Noble bookstores and, of course, Borders. The advantage of my bookcart (feel free to come up with potential names) is that inventory is always small and constantly being refreshed. Bookstores aren’t closing because people don’t read anymore–people just often don’t know what to read. Imagine their neighborhood Nobel Prize winning novelist (okay, I’m stretching here) stopping by every Monday with a fresh new recommendation.

Of course, I haven’t figured out any logistics of this, and it’s not a very franchiseable operation–I’d have to hire Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to fit in with the business model. I’m quite sure it wouldn’t make any money. But you don’t get into book selling if you want to make money. You do it because you love reading and talking about books–which I do. Like I said: can’t fail!