Jorge Carrión picks five bookshops that globetrotting bibliophiles should put on their bucket list
Last year, the oldest bookshop in Australia — Launceston’s Birchalls — shut its doors after 170 years of operation.
Bookstore chains, including mega chain Borders, have also folded in recent years.
US online bookselling giant Amazon has recently set up warehouses in Australia, and the e-reader has long encroached on the paperback’s territory.
But through that tumult, the independent bricks-and-mortar bookshop lives on.
This is lucky for Spanish writer, academic and literary critic Jorge Carrión, for whom the bookshop is “the perfect place to understand the world”.
“When you enter a bookshop you discover a kind of country — a little world — and you can find different aspects of the history of the world, and also of the present time.”
Jorge Carrión at Ler Devagar in Lisbon — one of the bookstores featured in his book Livrarias (or Bookshops). (Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images)
For pleasure and for research, Carrión has travelled the world visiting bookshops and getting stamps in his bibliophile passport. The result is Bookshops — an extended love letter to his favourite book stores, and a meditative essay on the cultural, intellectual and historical importance of bookshops.
“I know the library is more democratic than the bookshop, but the bookshop is part of the city,” Carrión argues.
“It is a private space with a public service dimension to the community that is very important.”
Carrión has (at least) 50 bookshops that he holds dear, but for ABC Arts he has whittled this down to five for intrepid bibliophiles to put on their bucket list.
No Australians made it into this final cut, but Carrión says Melbourne’s Embiggen Books would make his top ten — which would also include John Sandoe Books (London, UK), Librairie Ulysse (Paris, France), Librería Rafael Alberti (Madrid, Spain), and Robinson Crusoe 389 (Istanbul, Turkey).
Eterna Cadencia (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Carrión describes this bookstore in the barrio of Palermo Hollywood as “sober, elegant and classical”. (Supplied: Facebook/Eterna Cadencia)
While tourists flock to El Ateneo Grand Splendid across town (which is housed in a converted 19th-century-style theatre), Carrión says the Eterna Cadencia “is a better bookshop, and probably more beautiful”.
“[There’s] wooden floors, stately armchairs and tables, excellent stock set out on shelving that covers the walls, a delightful cafe on a refurbished patio where all manner of literary events are held,” Carrión writes in Bookshops.
Ler Devagar (Lisbon, Portugal)
Ler Devagar has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and an antique printing press. (Supplied: Facebook/Ler Devagar)
“There’s two kinds of bookshops,” says Carrión: “The bookshops that have sofas and seats and invite you to read in the bookshop for free, and the bookshops where the reading is forbidden. But in both of them you can enter for free and you can feel safe and warm.”
Lisbon’s Ler Devagar, which translates to “reading slowly”, is that first kind of bookshop. It’s a three-storey open space with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves around the perimeter and an antique printing press at the centre — a nod to the building’s origins.
With a cafe and regular list of events and readings, it feels more like a community arts space than a purely commercial endeavour.
City Lights (San Francisco, USA)
City Lights Books is one of the most famous bookshops in the USA. (Supplied: Flickr/Curtin Cronn)
City Lights is the most famous bookshop in the US, and it’s among a group of bookstores (including the Lello Bookstore in Porto, and Shakespeare and Company in Paris) that “have been transformed into museums of themselves and the fragment of cultural history that they represent,” Carrión writes.
So naturally, on his first trip to San Francisco, he went on a “devout pilgrimage” to this icon.
Happily, bookseller and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has managed to maintain City Lights as a place “for tourists, real readers and for local customers” alike.
The Book Lounge (Cape Town, South Africa)
Though many bookstores have become famous because of the writers that frequented their shelves and sofas, Carrión reminds us that “the reader is the main character of the bookshop”.
And the reader is invited to make themselves at home in this relatively new bookstore, which opened in Cape Town in 2007.
“The Book Lounge is a charming bookshop with large wooden tables and sofas and a basement with rugs that makes you want to stay on and live there,” Carrión writes.
It has the soothingly familiar aesthetic of a traditional bookshop — except for one thing: the bookshelves are punctuated by glaring gaps. The explanation? Works by JM Coetzee, Paulo Coelho and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were regularly being stolen, so they’ve been taken off the shelf and are now kept behind the counter.
Librairie des Colonnes (Tangier, Morocco)
Situated on Tangier’s main boulevard, the Librairie des Colonnes is Morocco’s oldest bookstore, and the city’s “most important cultural centre over the last 60 years,” writes Carrión.
It was founded in 1949, by which time a swathe of American and French writers had begun settling in Tangier — beginning with American writer and composer Paul Bowles.
Visitors to the bookstore (which underwent restoration in 2010) will walk in aisles once haunted by writers, artists and intellectuals including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William S Burroughs, Jean Genet, Amin Maalouf, Juan Goytisolo, Marguerite Yourcenar, Bernardo Bertolucci and the Rolling Stones.
“It sells fixed-price books in French, English and Spanish, without the option of haggling that is amusing initially but soon becomes trying and wearisome,” Carrión writes.
Bookshops is out through Hachette.