Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Originally opened in 1919 as a theatre, and in 1929 it was converted into a cinema. In 2007 it became the flagship store for Yenny Booksellers, who own over 40 stores. The Grand Splendid store sells an average of 700,000 books a year, and more than 1 million people walk through their doors. Not surprisingly, they have often been named as the #1 most beautiful bookstore in the world by various magazines and blogs. Frankly, I can’t say I disagree.
Polare, Maastricht, Holland
In 2008, the Guardian voted Polare the most beautiful bookstore in the world. The 700-year-old former gothic church, established in 1294, is now a unique location for a contemporary bookstore. At the end of the 18th century the building was closed when French troops invaded, and for the next 200 years the church was abandoned, but somehow it did not fall into disrepair. Before it was restored in 2006 as Polare, it served many purposes, including as a bicycle shed. A bookstore is a vast improvement over bicycle storage.
Atlantis Books, Oia, Santorini, Greece
Sixteen years ago, two American students visiting Santorini discovered there were no bookstores on the island and decided to build one themselves. But they didn’t just build a bookstore—they created a world-wide tourist attraction. Booksellers sleep in lofted beds above bookshelves, and hundreds of people email the owner asking if they can come for the “writer-in-residence program.” But like many other things about Santorini, this is simply a myth. The truth? Well, if you want a job selling books, and don’t mind moving to an island at the ends of the earth, you’re all set.
Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal
Situated 45-minutes outside of Madrid, this 100-year-old bookstore was opened by two men who were already selling books. Though Porto is only a city of 200,000,over 1 million people visit Lello every year, and they now charge 3 euros to enter the store, though that can be returned if you buy a book. Many say that J.K. Rowling, who lived in the city from 1991-1993, was inspired by the store’s spiraling staircase, and that it was the inspiration for Hogwarts moving staircases; she was a frequent visitor. Lello sells books in a variety of languages, including English.
Shakespeare & Co., Paris
This literary landmark, going back to 1911, was originally owned by Sylvia Beach, who was the first publisher of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysess. That store closed in 1941 due to the Nazis, and another Shakespeare & Co. didn’t reopen until 1951, this time by George Whitman. The current owner, Whitman’s daughter Sylvia, estimates that 30,000 aspiring writers have slept at Shakespeare & Co. over the years. Among others: T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Paul Auster, Philip Pullman, William Styron, Anais Nin, Carol Ann Duffy, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Sinatra.
Munro Books of Victoria, Victoria, BC
Originally founded by Alice and Jim Munro (yes, that Alice Munro), this store is a refurbished bank, artfully remastered to show off its neoclassical style. The original store sold mostly paperbacks, but Munro’s has long since moved on since 1984, its vast collection spanning 56 categories, plus antiquarian and rare books. In 2014 Jim Munro retired, giving the store to four of his longtime employees. He died in 2016.
Cook & Book, Brussels This is no ordinary bookstore
Set on the outskirts of Brussels, eight buildings house eight separate sections. In the literature section 800 pounds of literature hang suspended from the ceiling; an Airstream caravan sits inside the travel section; a refurbished Fiat sits in La Cucina, the cooking section. There are also children’s sections, nature (The Greenhouse), fine arts, and a section on Great Britain. There is a restaurant for each of its eight sections, in addition to two separate kitchens, just in case you get bored. As if.
Librairie Avant-Garde, Nanjing, China
In 2004, a 41,000 foot converted subterranean parking lot bookstore beneath the Wutaishan Stadium opened. Undertaken by Qian Xiaohua, a devout Christian, reminders of the parking lot and it’s restorer are evidenced by the concrete floors and the yellow traffic divider run through the middle of the store, leading towards the large cross on the far back wall. The store specializes in religion and social sciences, but readers will happily discover books on a range of culture-based genres, with a particularly diverse selection of classic Western literature.
Powell’s City of Books, Portland
Family-owned, and weirdly passed up from son to father, who worked in his son’s store in Chicago for a summer, and loved the business so much he then decided to go home to Portland open his own store. 40 years and two extra stores later, Powell’s is widely touted as the largest independent bookstore in the world, with over 1 million books on their shelves, and over 200 employees. Their nine color-coded rooms with 3,500 sections categorizing everything from erotica, home construction, dance, law and everything in between makes it unlikely that you would find these books in few other places on the planet.
Strand’s Bookstore, New York City
Strand’s began in 1927 when Ben Bass saved up $300 of his own personal money and borrowed another $300 from a friend. He named his bookstore after a London street where Thackeray, Dickens, and Mills once congregated and interesting book publishers thrived. It was part of “Book Row”—48 bookstores covering six city blocks, all shuttered after the Great Depression. The Strand is all that is left of Book Row, a literary legend, then and now. Presently the Strand encompasses 2.5 million books, DVD recordings, vinyl records, and other gifts, or 18 miles of books.