Independent bookstores make a comeback

Last Saturday’s Australia-wide Love Your Bookshop Day, an initiative of the Australian Booksellers’ Association to promote events at independent bookstores, is symptomatic of the phoenix-like rising of independent bookstores from the ashes of the likes of Borders and Angus & Robertson.

Bookstores aren’t dead. Amazon hasn’t killed them off, and in many countries they never went away. Wikipedia lists some 40-odd global “book towns” – there’s actually an international book towns “movement” and membership directory. Bookstores have continued to open around the globe since the early noughties.

Some of the best known, most visited and/or most successful feature a combination of unique design or architecture; reading and games areas; events such as author signings, exhibitions and performances; range size and breadth or alternatively specialisation; and, of course, cafes.

Book tourism is a thing

Numerous websites and articles are dedicated to the world’s most beautiful, interesting and must-see bookstores. You can look up the best-rated on Tripadvisor.

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Atlantis Books in Greece’s famed Santorini was founded in 2002, by two American student tourists who had been unable to find anywhere on the island that sold books. They built bookshelves themselves from salvaged wood, included beds where staff and customers can sleep, and now host festivals and sunset readings on the terrace featuring Santorini’s renowned sea views.

Similarly, the Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice backs onto a canal. The store, lauded for its extensive art and postcard collections, features “floating” books displayed in bathtubs, rowboats and gondolas so that when Venice’s periodic high waters (the titular acqua alta) occur, the books rise above them.

Wales’ Hay-on-Wye, probably the most famous of the book towns with some 40 bookshops in a town of 1400 residents, sports an annual literary festival. Among its many bookshops is the 1960s-founded The Honesty Bookshop, with books each priced at €1 and a box for payments (proceeds go to the Hay Castle Trust) as the bookshelves are unmanned.

Other book towns include Tokyo’s Jinbōchō, founded in the early 20th century. And much later, in 2013, came Portugal’s Óbidos, which now hosts Fólio, one of the largest book festivals in Europe.

San Francisco’s City Light Books was named an official historic landmark in 2001 for its role in publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, which resulted in an obscenity trial and notarised ‘Beatniks’ thereafter. 

 Refurbished grandeur

One of the most notable aspects of venerated and successful bookstores is their architecture and design, and this in itself generates tourism.

Buenos Aires may be the bookshop capital of the world, with 734 bookshops for a population of 2.8 million. The most famous is El Ateneo Grand Splendid, originally opened as a theatre in 1919. Now the original opera boxes contain books and the ceiling frescoes have been kept intact. The store draws a million visitors a year and was named the world’s most beautiful bookstore this year by National Geographic.

The Netherlands’ Selexyz Dominicanen was a 13th-century church. In 2005 it was turned into a bookstore, and garnered the Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize in 2007.

Porto, Portugal’s Livraria Lello is renowned for its old-world opulence and undulating red staircase à la Hogwarts. The building features a neo-gothic facade, heavily decorated walls, stained glass ceilings and skylights and ornamental pillars.

Other notable architecture and uniquely designed bookstores include The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, with spiralling colourful bookshelves, a mezzanine level with hanging books, and a space for literary, musical and theatrical events. And Bratislava, Slovakia, has its Plural Bookshop, which features a climbing wooden floor between bookshelves that serves as seating for browsers as well as an auditorium for spectators during talks and events, with a coffee shop at the pinnacle.

Brussels’ Librairie Ptyx, features a dictionary-style facade of images and bios of authors whose books are held within. London’s Daunt Books is in an Edwardian building with an academic university library ambience. And in Victoria, Canada, Munro Books is housed in a former Royal Bank of Canada building and described by journalists as the most magnificent bookstore in Canada, and possibly in North America. 

Hanging out is encouraged

Bart’s Books in Ojai, California, bills itself as the “largest outdoor bookstore in the world”, where customers can sip lemonade in the courtyard, play chess in the shade or read under the apple tree.

Squishy Minnie Bookstore in Kyneton, Victoria, specialises in children’s books and sports rugs and chairs for children and teenagers to sit on. Children and teens are encouraged to visit to talk (or just read and not talk), and play chess in a dedicated space at the rear of the store. 

Paris’s renowned Shakespeare & Company (the inspiration for Atlantis in Santorini), has over the years numbered some 30,000 literary “tumbleweeds” who have lived in the store, sleeping on cots and benches in exchange for a few hours of work a day.

Barter Books in the UK used to be a train station, and miniature trains still go around the shelves. Perhaps most famous for discovering an old World War II poster in 2001 bearing the slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”, Barter Books features open fires in the winter, a buffet with a menu comprising homemade and locally sourced food and specialty hot beverages, and a toy-filled children’s room.

The biggest or the best at something 

Unsurprisingly, the US does scale well. The Strand in New York City claims to have 18 miles of books and is famed for its large range of new, used and rare books, as well as its “books by the foot” sales.

Powell’s well-named City of Books in Portland, Oregon, bills itself as the world’s largest independent bookstore with more than a million books. The former car dealership occupies an entire city block across nine colour-coded rooms and 3500 sections, to which staff provide you a map upon entry.

Other bookstores focus on different specialities. Books Actually in Singapore specialises in fiction and retro items such as typewriters. In Lyon, France, Le Bal Des Ardents spruiks unknown authors, publishing houses or themes that are typically bypassed by traditional stores and publishers. Liberia Altair in Barcelona is considered the largest travel specialist in the world, in a bonus ornate environment.  Rome’s Bookabar has a large collection of non-printed formats, including DVDs, CDs and e-books.

In the US, the Mysterious Bookshop in New York’s Manhattan, founded by a mystery writer and editor, focuses entirely on mystery-themed publications and boasts the world’s largest Sherlock Holmes collection.

And Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, is renowned for its art titles. 

Outside the US, children’s books appear to be a growth area for local booksellers, with Readings in Melbourne’s Carlton opening a dedicated shopfront to children’s and young adult literature in 2016. Likewise, Kid’s Republic in Beijing, opened in 2005, was China’s first child-specialist bookstore.

Serving a community

Bookstores ultimately serve as a gathering place to frequent, linger, read, visit and – eventually – shop. Thriving independent bookstores are another example of physical retail not being dead, just changing direction.

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