After visiting El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, I took it upon myself to visit The World's 10 Best Bookshops according to The Guardian, or as many as I can at any rate. I'm not sure I'll manage Kyoto, and the jury is out on Los Angeles, but I'm pretty sure I can manage the others on the list that I still haven't seen. Why, we're heading to Porto in September, that's number 3 in The Guardian's list.
El Ateneo Grand Spendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina
This was the first monumentally incredible bookstore I visited, rated #2 by The Guardian. El Ateneo Grand Spendid is just that, an unbelievable bookstore where one is uncertain whether the books are the protagonists or the spectators of a perfectly staged show.
This magnificent building is located at Santa Fe 1860, in La Recoleta district, and it used to be a grand theater a la Scala de Milano, or Barcelona's Liceo. The building as a theater opened in 1919, and was reconverted into a bookstore, preserving all original paintings, boxes, everything, even the stage, in 2000.
Being the bookworm that I am, and in spite of my recent year's tendency to give in to the comforts of online shopping, I've been to a significant number of bookstores all over the world. I've visited quaint little businesses seconded in either corners of big cities or small towns that have a very personal touch and treat customers as old friends; I've visited mega bookstores that aren't particularly appealing to my eyes but that I frequent anyway because they pride themselves in carrying anything ever published, and they aren't lying; I've visited specialized bookstores that carry, or can get for you, absolutely everything ever published on a specific subject matter....
I, however, had never before been as fascinated, actually as dumbstruck, for lack of a better word, in any other bookstore I even visited. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but really, I don't think so. Seeing and experiencing first hand are two different things in some instances, and this is one of them. To be sure, I'm not even certain what this bookstore carries, from what I saw they have a bit of everything, including CDs, postcards, and other memorabilia, but I couldn't really focus much on what was actually IN there, I just couldn't get over the THERE itself, and kept looking around like a totally unsophisticated tourist, camera in hand and all.
The boxes have been turned into reading spaces, and some armchairs and coffee tables are arranged close to the stage for the same purpose. One can just grab a book and sit there –I realize this isn't unique, I just never had the pleasure of having a reading space it in a more delightful atmosphere. The stage itself is a coffee and restaurant, you can also take your books to browse them there, or you can simply sit down to have a bite and see the show. You'll be on a real stage, curtains and all, but you'll never feel watched, because the real show happens off stage, in the orchestra and mezzanine.
If you're ever in Buenos Aires be sure not to miss this bookstore. Buying a book there is a plus, it will be a great reminder of a fabulous space, not that it'll be easy to forget it even if you walk out bookless.
Posada, Brussels, Belgium
Posada is nothing like the grand show presented by Buenos Aires' pride and joy of a bookstore. This is, however, the best bookshop in the world when it comes to art books, and the reason it made it to #7 on The Guardian's list.
This absolutely adorable bookstore features art books of any variety, size, shape, language, specialty, branch, publishing house and year, you name it, if it's art, they have it or get it for you.
Typical Brussels Housing
Posada is housed in a typical Brussels abode, in Magdalenasteenweg 29, sitting on three completely book-packed floors that smell of old paper, second-hand (or who-knows-how-many-hands) editions, and old habits. It reminded me a bit of Shakespeare & Company, the famous Paris bookstore.
The nicest thing about Posada for this visitor was its bookstore around the corner feel to it. We struck a conversation with a young and enthusiastic employee, half in French, half in English, and he was that typical helpful guy in your neighborhood bookstore, downplaying the fact that his bookstore featured in the list of The World's Ten Best Bookshops, but displaying enormous pride in the fact that if it's art, they will have it or find it, no matter what or where it is.
This charismatic bookstore was a charming place to visit, very handy too, since it was 5 doors from our hotel in Brussels!
Selexyz Dominicanen, Maastrich, Netherlands
According to The Guardian, this is number 1, the best bookshop in the world. Evidently, I was prepared to be bowed by such a wonder, and that's maybe the reason why I wasn't as mesmerized as I should have been, but don't get me wrong and make no mistake, this is a most amazing bookstore, and I took plenty of photos to prove it!
This Dominican Church completed in 1294 is now a temple of a different sort, books are now the gods to be adored and, let me tell you, I found it quite ironic that an institution like the church, who single handedly burnt not only many books but also many writers back in its heyday, houses now such a magnificent collection of literature, including a very nifty stand for Angels and Demons by the (in)famous Dan Brown. Like I said, ironic.
Curiously, this fabulous piece of architecture sitting smack in the middle of Maastrich's old district was "abandoned" for a few years and served as a parking lot for bikes, the popular transportation method in the Netherlands.
Back to the feelings I experienced when entering this breathtaking space, I would say it didn't bow me as El Ateneo Grand Splendid because of its setup. This is a converted church, but the books aren't an integral part of the architecture, they are set aside from the scenery. I believe this was done on purpose, and was very well achieved at that, the modern metal modular structure in the nave poses a striking contrast to the massive walls, the gothic arches and the ever present stained glass windows. It's like the interior designers wanted the visitors to make no mistakes between the house and its inhabitants.
I found that a major difference with El Ateneo, where the books --as I explained above, are completely integrated with the whole structure, they may be considered the spectators or the actors, but either way they are very much part of their home, and the visitor feels in the middle of a perfectly staged show. In fact, in El Ateneo, it wouldn't be the same without the books, it's the whole package that makes this an incredible bookstore.
In Selexyz Dominicanen one is in a church where books are on display and sold, but one doesn't feel like a mass will be conducted at any minute. As said, I believe this was done on purpose, and correctly so. Still, I'm of a mind to write to The Guardian and kindly tell them my slightly biased opinion on their mistaken ranking for bookstores #1 & #2. After thanking them for their wonderful list, of course!
In any event, as you can see below in the many photos I took, this is an amazing space, featuring books of any kind –they don't specialize in anything and carry a bit of everything as El Ateneo. This bookworm is elated to have visited the two best bookstores in the world in the span of six months. Amen.
The World's Best Bookstore in Photos
As I said above... AMEN!
Shakespeare & Company, Paris, France
This isn't in The Guardian's list, but I'm sending a postcard from it just the same, because I simply adore this place, where the smell of old paper is probably the most powerful of any bookstore I ever visited.
This is a bookstore, all right, but so much more, too, it's really an institution in Paris. It used to house writers and students –some of the cots can still be seen in the upper floors, it also hosts book and literary clubs, weekly poetry readings and discussions, and all sorts of activities that keep the place young after its 58 years of life.
Shakespeare & Company sits on the Seine's Left Bank just in front of Notre Dame, and its website here linked offers plenty of further information if you are interested. You may also want to browse the Tripadvisor reviews. Note the fact that it's rated so very high in the mist of all of Paris attractions. It's not a coincidence, it's on account of its magic.
Take a look at these joys
I hope you enjoyed the virtual tour of some of the best bookstores in the world. I certainly enjoyed the real tour of them!
© 2009 Elena.