I love books.
But I really love bookshops.
Call me a Luddite, if you will. Feel free to scoff at me as I tote around a clunky, hardback edition of the latest Neil Gaiman novel. I did my time in the salt mines of the English literary canon when I was a university student and I must admit that my tastes in books these days sway towards pure and simple escapism. But no matter what book I read, I’d rather see it on paper than a screen, especially if it’s a graphic novel.
While my preferred method of reading remains firmly stuck in the 20th century, I understand why a lot of readers prefer to stuff Kindles into their bags rather than a paperback. Downloading novels is a lot easier than waiting for them to arrive in the mail from Amazon or going to a bookshop and hoping that they’ve actually got the titles you want in stock. If you’re still actually reading books, regardless of the format, instead of watching that Will Smith orc movie on Netflix or tirelessly exposing yourself to the endless waves of radioactive exchanges on social media then, hey, here’s to you.
But there’s no denying the fact that Amazon and eBooks have forever changed this corner of the publishing industry. These behemoths long ago won the war for the eyeballs of readers and countless bookstores, both large and small, have been crushed beneath their ever expanding treads, especially over in the United States. Rest in peace, B. Dalton Bookseller. We hardly knew ye, Borders. But long live their more steadfast British counterparts like Waterstones and W.H. Smith.
Thankfully, for those that prefer the kinds of books that accumulate dust and don’t reside in the U.K., smaller and more nimble bookshops are still chugging along between the bones of those nearly forgotten dinosaur chains. Unlike video rental stores, which have almost entirely gone the way of the dodo, these operations have somehow managed to at least delay their complete obsoletion. Book sales have plateaued in recent years in America but they actually managed to rise in the United Kingdom by 7% in 2016.
Some booksellers, like the beloved Shakespeare and Company in Paris and Powell’s Books in my hometown of Portland, OR., are still going strong by doing what they’ve always done best: hiring devoted and knowledgeable staff and stocking their shelves with great tomes, so much so that they’ve become outright tourist attractions. Other operations are fuelled by cheekiness and cleverness, drawing customers for both their unique surroundings as well as their selections.
The New York Times recently ran a profile about Word on the Water, a London bookshop housed inside an old canal boat. Its proprietors have managed to turn it into a success despite personal hardships, pedantic berthing laws, and even a mistake that once sent their floating shop to the bottom of the Thames.
Meanwhile, over in Italy, Venice may be sinking but Libreria Acqua Alta is still staying afloat despite the perpetual threat of rising waters, both literal and metaphorical. Visitors flock to it to climb its staircases built out of hardback tomes, search through the piles of books crammed inside old bathtubs and boats to keep them safe, or merely snap Instagram photos of owner Luigi Frizzo’s cat.
The ‘Venice of the North’ is home to the American Book Center, which has a tree trunk that stretches up through its three floors. The proprietors had hoped to construct an eco-friendly teahouse on the roof of its flagship in Amsterdam about a decade back but the threat of Amazon and Bol (the Dutch equivalent) took the wind out of their sails. The Netherlands is also home to Boekhandel Dominicanen, a gorgeous bookshop housed inside a 13th century church located in Maastricht.
While I’m at it, I’ll also mention my current pick for ‘Best Bookshop in the World’. If you’re willing to go all the way to the island of Santorini off the coast of Greece and journey up to the little town of Oia, you’ll discover Atlantis Books. It’s so whimsical and enchanting that it’s like something out of a Dave Eggers’ fever dream.
Rare first editions of classic novels have been hung in the main room with loving care and the walls are lined with handwritten messages and poems. An animation cell from Fantasia can be spotted near the register and customers can search for books arranged on descriptively named shelves that include “The Serenity Shelf” and ‘Sexy Books. Ooh! La! La!’ The story behind Atlantis Books is too long to do it any justice here but Vanity Fair sent a reporter down there in 2016 to write it up.
And have they got a bookshop cat? Of course they’ve got a bookshop cat, possibly even several, but I only saw one during my visit last year.
Maybe it’s all too good to last and this bookshop Renaissance will soon come to an end. Or, with any luck, they’ll all be able to survive or even thrive. As so many stories about waning department stores, ‘zombie malls’, and struggling retailers continue to fill financial publications all the world over, there remains the question of where people can kill a few hours on a rainy day besides their couch. Here’s hoping that enough of them will continue doing so wherever fine books are sold.