Design & Living / In Pictures

The World's Most Beautiful Bookshops

Bibliophiles rejoice! From a haunted house in New Orleans to a spectacular Argentinian theatre, we celebrate seven of the world’s most irresistible bookstores

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El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires
El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires

You can’t argue with the convenience of buying a book online. One click and you can have it tomorrow; get an e-reader and you can have it right now. Talk about instant gratification. And yet there remains an indisputable joy in doing things the old fashioned way. Whether it’s an affectionately battered paperback or a grand, glossy tome, there’s a certain sensual pleasure to be found in actually holding a book; and there’s a serendipitous thrill in visiting a bookstore and discovering a title or author you’ve never heard of before, simply because the cover happened to catch your eye. We’ve chosen seven of the world’s most beautiful bookshops that are stories in their own right – and will have you sworn off the anonymous chains and internet behemoths, at least for a little while.

Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Luigi Frizzo, owner of the self-described “most beautiful bookshop in the world”, Liberia Acqua Alta (translation: “High Water Library”) has come up with an ingenious solution for dealing with Venice’s constant flooding. Books are piled high into buckets, bathtubs and, in one room, a gondola, so that when the water does creep into the store, which is located on one of Venice’s most famous canals, the pages are protected. Eccentrically overstuffed, Liberia Acqua Alta is delightfully ramshackle; topsy-turvy towers of books cover every inch of the charmingly chaotic store, with unsellable books even playing their part, transformed into rug-strewn stairs or walls.

The Faulkner House, New Orleans
Found on Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Faulkner House bookshop’s literary heritage extends beyond its poetic surroundings. For six months in 1925, an upstairs apartment was home to a then-unknown, young writer; you guessed it, William Faulkner. Here he worked on the manuscript for his first novel and caused general mischief with his friend and roommate, artist Sherwood Williams, drinking Pernod and gin and shooting BBs out the window. Fast forward to today and current owners Joe DeSalvo and Rosemary James have lovingly restored Faulkner House. Described as a “sanctuary for fine literature”, books line the shelves floor to ceiling. Expect to find a hefty dose of works from the American South, rare publications and first editions of classics – including titles from Faulkner’s oeuvre. And in a twist worthy of a Southern Gothic novel, the late writer’s ghost is said to haunt the property, exhibiting a fondness for pretty young members of staff.

Bart’s Books, Ojai
Bart’s Books is exactly the sort of place you’d hope to find in the boho bolthole of Ojai, a valley town and self-styled “Shangri La” around 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Los Padres National Forest. Something of an institution, today it’s one of the largest outdoor bookshops in the world; shelves line the shaded courtyard and wrap around the front of the building. And yet Bart’s maintains an independent spirit that echoes those irresistibly chilled out Californian vibes, as well as the shop’s accidental origins. When in 1964 Richard Bartinsdale’s personal book collection had become too large to accommodate indoors, he put a couple of bookshelves outside his house for passers-by to peruse, and left coffee tins for them to leave money. Although today Bart’s offering extends into the million – including rare, out of print titles and those valued in the thousands of dollars – the 35 cent specials that line the front of Bart’s can still be purchased via the honour system. Only in Ojai.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires
Once upon a time the opulent El Ateneo Grand Splendid in downtown Buenos Aires served as a theatre and, later, a cinema. Facing possible demolition in 2000 due to a poor economy, the Grand Splendid has today grown into its third incarnation as the city’s most spectacular bookstore (no mean feat, the Argentinian capital boasts more bookstores per person than any other city in the world). The transformation into a bookstore has done nothing to diminish the Grand Splendid’s opulence or impressive stature. The whopping 21,000 square foot showroom is framed by the century old fresco ceilings and gilded carvings. The former private boxes now serve as intimate reading rooms, and the plush crimson curtains still frame the stage which has now been reimagined as a café, meaning you can now enjoy a coffee in the space where the stars of Argentinian Tango once performed.

Selexyz Dominicanen Bookstore, Maastricht
If you’re the kind of reader who likes to see books treated with a respect verging onto the reverential, the Selexyz Dominicanen bookstore in Maastricht will make you very happy. Housed in a former church, it was consecrated in 1294 but had not served a religious function since the turn of the 19th century, the space was being used as an anonymous bicycle storage facility when in 2005 it was taken over by Boekhandels Groep Nederland. Dutch architects Merkx + Girod, were entrusted with renovating the space, and set about creating a triumphant synergy between the old and new (for which they won the Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize 2007). A sleek, bordering on austere, two-storey black steel structure – essentially a giant bookshelf – holds the majority of the publications. The restrained, minimal lines of the modern additions breathes new life into the Gothic architecture, echoing the impressive proportions of the vaulted ceilings and sweeping archways, rather than distracting from it.

Atlantis Books, Santorini
In the basement of one of Santorini’s postcard-perfect white houses, in the village of Oia, perched atop the volcanic Greek island, you’ll find one of the world’s most idyllic bookstores, Atlantis Books. Founded in 2002 by Americans Craig Walzer and Oliver Wise when they couldn’t find any holiday reading material on the island, today Atlantis is run today by a revolving staff comprised from an international collective of artists and writers. Hot-skinned tourists can and do lose hours among the cool white walls of the store, and Atlantis also draws a crowd with its festivals, book readings and signings; this month’s Caldera Arts and Literature Festival, featured readings from David Sedaris and Billy Collins for instance. And with spectacular views across the pristine cerulean Aegean Sea, a trip to Atlantis sure beats buying your holiday reading in a mad rush at the Gatwick South Terminal.

Daunt Books, Marylebone, London
It’s testament to Daunt Books' reputation that carrying one of the shop’s canvas totes serves as a knowing wink to others in the club in the same way that, say, a Céline bag does. Championing one of their fabric shoppers is shorthand for saying ‘I’m considered, intelligent, and unassumingly but undeniably stylish’. Founded in 1990 by William Daunt, there are now branches of the shop across London, in the kind of well-to-do leafy locales as Hampstead and Holland Park. It’s the original Marylebone High Street location, however, that holds a special place in our hearts. The Edwardian building, originally designed for antiquarian booksellers in 1910 (purportedly the first custom-built bookshop in the world), has a kind of bygone elegance that encourages languid perusal; think oak mezzanine gallery, arched stain glass windows and parquet floors. Hosting regular author talks and book signings, there’s something ironically modern in Daunt’s traditional approach, which reminds us of the joy to be found in the savouring books and appreciating the whole ritual around buying and loving them. We know others agree, we’ve seen them everywhere with those totes.

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