I’m going to be honest: I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a bookstore that I haven’t loved. Dusty secondhand bookstores no bigger than a studio apartment, or a three-story Barnes and Noble, I love them all, simply because they have shelves and shelves of real, tangible books (bookstores>Amazon, hands down. Am I right?). That said, there are a number of bookstores out there that are genuine works of art. Here’s a list of just a few of the truly amazing bookstores that you can find both here in the United States and all around the world.
The Last Bookstore (Los Angeles, California)
I’m starting out with my personal favorite bookstore (and only one I’ve personally been to on this list), The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. The store as we know it opened in 2011, after first starting out in a loft in 2005 and then moving to a small location in the Old Bank District in 2009 after the store’s online business flourished under owner Josh Spencer’s (a successful Ebay salesman) watch. The store is now 16,100 sq. ft, with a 6,100 sq. ft section on the second floor mezzanine level dubbed the “Labyrinth Above the Last Bookstore,” where you can find over 100,000 books priced at $1 each. Yup, you read that right. 100,000+ at only $1. I’ve been there, I can assure you that this is 100% true, and it is *awesome* (also, more than a little bit overwhelming, but in a good way!).
On the 10,000 sq. ft ground level you can find additional book shelves, as well as a coffee shop and a record store. With the addition of the Labyrinth Above level, The Last Bookstore has, according to their website, now become California’s largest independent bookstore buying and selling used and new books and records.
Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen (Netherlands)
There are many astounding bookstores featured in this post, but this may be the most jaw-droppingly stunning. Located in the Netherlands city of Maastricht, this bookstore is, you guessed it, inside a late 13th century cathedral. The church was closed, purportedly by Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1794, and spent the last two centuries operating as a warehouse, an archive, and a (*very* fancy) bicycle shed before it got modified into a bookstore.
The design of the bookstore was done by architecture firm Merkx+Girod, which features a three-story bookshelf with walkways, staircases, and elevators. This was done in order to increase the ground floor from 750 sq. meters to 1,200 sq. meters, making it possible to include a cafe and cross-shaped reading table (pictured above) in the choir. The design juxtaposes modern black steel furnishings with the church’s renovated original design, and the firm won the Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize in 2007 for their work. The bookstore itself is part of the popular Dutch chain Selexyz, and welcomes about 700,000 visitors a year and has 25,000 books and 45,000 volumes.
The Logos Hope (The Ocean)
Now this one is just plain neat. The MV Logos Hope is, as you can tell from the picture, the location of the world’s largest floating book fair. The ship, which is operated by the German Christian charity Gute Bücher für Alle (that’s Good Books for All in English), is the fourth ship to be launched by the charity and it sails around carrying over 5,000 books to sell at ports for below retail price all around the world. The Logos Hope is operated by an all-volunteer staff representing over 45 countries around the world, and they typically join the organization to live on the ship for 1-2 years.
The Logos Hope can hold up to 800 visitors at a time, with room for an additional 700 in the Hope Theater and Logos Lounge. It carries adult books ranging in subjects from sports, hobbies, philosophy, medicine, science, cooking, the arts, dictionaries, and languages, to children’s books and academic texts. According to the charity, part of the ship’s mission is to bring books to places where they might be hard to find by not only selling them at cheaper prices but also by establishing libraries in local schools, children’s homes, and other community organizations. Along with ferrying around books, the Logos Hope also features fitness education programs and AIDS prevention programs, among other subjects. The Logos Hope typically spends 1-3 weeks in each port, and is currently docked at Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Strand Bookstore (New York City)
Strand Bookstore is a Manhattan staple. Opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue by Benjamin Bass on what was then called Book Row, which housed 48 different bookstores and spanned six city blocks, the Strand soon became a hotspot for Greenwich Village writers as well as smaller book publishers. The Strand is the only surviving shop from Book Row, and continues to be run to this day by the Bass family, with Benjamin’s son Fred and his daughter Nancy co-managing the establishment (now located 12th and Broadway).
The Strand currently carries over 2.5 million (yes, *million*) new, used, and rare books in a wide variety of subjects. The store advertises itself for being the home to “18 miles of books,” and with 2.5 million different titles, I’m inclined to believe it. In addition to books inside the shop itself, there are dollar carts set up outside the store as well as novelty items and literary gifts for sale inside.
Livraria Lello (Portugal)
This one was tied with Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen for me in terms of beauty. Opened in 1906 in the city of Porto, Livraria Lello is one of Portugal’s oldest bookstores. Designed by architect Xavier Esteves, the building is known for its Neo-Gothic facade and the absolutely gorgeous curvaceous red art nouveau staircase, which was inspired by the Parisian Galleries Lafayette. Additionally impressive features include its beautiful bookshelves and wooden ceilings, as well as a spectacular stained glass skylight with the store’s motto “vecus in labore” (I *think* this means live in work, but if anyone knows otherwise please let me know!) written in the glass. Looking at these pictures, is it any wonder that Lonely Planet named Livraria Lello the Third Best Bookshop in the World?
The store contains primarily Portuguese fiction and non-fiction (for obvious reasons), but it features a decent selection of English and French books as well. Also, fun fact: apparently J. K. Rowling lived in Porto for a few years teaching English before she wrote Harry Potter, and spent a lot of time in Livraria Lello. Who knew?
City Lights Books (San Francisco, California)
This is one that I’ve been kicking myself about since I first started researching for this piece, because I haven’t visited it (yet!). Located on the other side of the Bay Bridge from me in San Francisco, City Lights Bookstore was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin and is most widely known for being a Beatnik hotspot where writers like Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs hung out, as well as for publishing Ginsberg’s collection Howl and Other Poems and Ferlinghetti subsequently getting sued for obscenity. Ferlinghetti famously won the 1957 trial, with Judge Clayton W. Horn declaring that not only was Howl not obscene, but also that a book that has “the slightest redeeming social importance” is guaranteed First Amendment protection. The victory was a huge step forward in the fight against literary censorship, and led to the publication of previously-banned books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.
In addition to coming to stand for the Beatniks’ anti-authoritarian, free-speech politics, City Lights was also the country’s first all-paperback bookstore. Since opening 60 years ago, it has expanded to three stories and now carries a mix of paper and hard-back books in all sorts of subjects from both major and smaller independent publishers; it also contains books from City Lights’ own publishing house (naturally). Finally, City Lights was declared an official historic landmark back in 2001, making it one of alternative culture’s only “Literary Landmarks.”
The Montague Bookmill (Massachusetts)
Another cool bookstore find is The Montague Bookmill, also known simply as “The Bookmill.” Located on the Sawhill River near Amherst, Massachusetts, the bookstore is housed in an 1842 gristmill (i.e., a mill that grinds grain into flour) that was converted into the bookstore in 1987 after Jim Murphy and Allen Ross purchased the property following the previous owner’s death. Murphy and Ross along with Macul Associates of Amherst redesigned the interior of the mill to allow it to better house the new shelves, and also added a new deck overlooking the river. The Bookmill was then taken over by David Lovelace and John Pettrovato in 1992, who added a cafe and a concert series; the bookstore is now owned by Susan Shilliday.
With a store motto of “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” and claiming to have “40,000 books and one waterfall,” The Montague Bookmill sells books generally at half-price and have books in most genres, though their primary focus is academic books.
The Bookworm (Beijing, China)
Who knew that there was such a beautiful English-language bookstore in Beijing? Since opening in 2000, this combination bookstore and library has been a huge hit among Beijingers. Its fairyland-like decor makes it an ideal place to go and browse through its selection of over 16,000 English books and magazines, as well as pick up books that are actually *banned* in China!
In addition to its extensive book collection, The Bookworm is known for its cafe and European bistro, as well as its lecture series featuring both local and international authors and its musical evenings. It also has an annual literary festival, The Bookworm International Literary Festival, which takes place in Beijing as well as Suzhou and Chengdu (the locations of two other Bookworm stores) over the course of two weeks. Oh, and did I mention that it was a whiskey bar too? All in all, seems like a pretty neat spot for book lovers in Beijing to hang out at!
Powell’s City of Books (Oregon)
Another U.S.-favorite is Powell’s. While it is now a successful chain with five locations within the Portland metropolitan area, it is best known for its headquarters location on W Burnside Street, which has been dubbed Powell’s City of Books. Opened in 1971 by Walter Powell a year after his son Michael Powell opened a successful bookstore in Chicago, the bookstore occupies an entire city block with 68,000 sq. ft of retail floor space and over a million volumes on its shelves. Labeling itself as a “book lover’s paradise,” Powell’s City of Books claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world (note the word claims; keep in mind that Strands says it has 2.5 million volumes).
In addition to being both an enormous and an enormously successful bookstore, claiming to sell 3,000 used books every day, Powell’s is also known for its equally successful online store, which has been selling used books since 1994 (a bit ahead of the curve, I’d say). According to the store’s website, around 80,000 book lovers browse Powell’s City of Books’ shelves and the online inventory every day, and in 2002 was named one of America’s top 10 bookstores in USA Today.
Cafebrería El Péndulo (Mexico City, Mexico)
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out too much about this one (mostly because my Spanish, for lack of a better word, *sucks* and I don’t trust Google Translate) so if any of you out there can supplement this one please do because I’d love to learn more about it! Located in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, Cafebrería el Péndulo opened in 1993 as a combination coffee shop and bookstore, and it became known featuring cultural activities like live music concerts, book launches, and literary courses, as well its extensive collection of art films and records.
It has since expanded to six different locations spread out around Mexico City, and all of these locations are characterized by their open architecture, living rooms, live music, and coffee bar-style tables. Hopefully each location has a live tree in it too!
Cigarette Vending Machine Bookstores (Germany)
And last but not least, since around 2010 German publisher Hamburger Automatenverlag has been re-purposing old cigarette vending machines in and around the University of Hamburg’s campus that were originally destined for landfills and turning them into book dispensers. Students and other book lovers can now go up to a renovated vending machine and browse an assortment of condensed novels, graphic novels, photo books, travel guides, and even poetry collections written by local authors. All they have to do is put in a measly €4, and out pops a cigarette pack-sized book of their choosing. It really is a win-win situation: save the environment by cutting back on landfills, and spread the written word. It doesn’t hurt that the books look absolutely adorable too! Check out the video below to see just how cute they are (yes, the video is in German, but you don’t need to speak the language to watch tiny books come out of a vending machine!).
Obviously this is just a very small handful of all the amazing bookstores out there, and there were many, many more that I came across that didn’t make this piece. So if one of your favorites (or even more than one of your favorites) didn’t make this article, please write me and let me know so I can be sure to include it in the next one!