If you’re a bookworm, you know the magical rush that comes from entering a good bookstore. The rainbow rows of books, the rustle of pages and the musty smell of paper and ink mingle together into an atmosphere of literary bliss.
Usually, independent bookstores have this feeling better than chains because they put extra effort into creating an alluring atmosphere for visitors with quirky decorations or a fantastic setting.
Around the world, several indie bookstores have gone above and beyond to create undeniable locations of book-heaven. From repurposed cathedrals to floating displays, these 10 incredible bookstores should be on every bookworm’s destination bucket list.
1. Livraria Lello (Porto, Portugal)
Established in 1906, the Livraria Lello is considered by many to be the most beautiful bookstore in the world. The building was engineered and designed by Xavier Esteves, who created a breathtaking neo-Gothic setting from the imposing exterior to the intricate art within.
The store’s trademark is an incredible crimson staircase that winds up to the second story in a serpentine pattern. The stair’s ornate wooden railings, though beautifully designed, are nothing compared to the dazzling display of craftsmanship on the underside of the steps. Scrolling motifs decorate each step, framed in honey-gold wood and adding to the palace-like appearance of the staircase.
More fascinating neo-Gothic elements exist throughout the store, including colorful stained-glass windows, detailed columns and art deco notes on the walls. The building recently underwent a massive renovation in 2016, in which the owners restored much of the interior to its former glory and opened several new rooms to the public.
The store offers a variety of Portuguese, French and English books, as well as an occasional music or book event. With its unique blend of art and literature, Livraria Lello will make you feel as if you’re in a fairytale, not a bookstore.
2. Cafebrería el Péndulo (Mexico City, Mexico)
The Cafebrería el Péndulo puts a unique twist on cafe-bookstores. Offering a large selection of both food and books to its patrons, the nature-inspired bookstore is a perfect place to read a new book over dinner.
Instead of pictures and decorations, El Péndulo features a variety of trees and vines accenting the shelves. Winding green banisters emphasize the curved staircase and railings of the spacious second floor, which is filled with comfortable reading nooks. The wooden floors and natural lighting add to the jungle-like atmosphere that has made this bookstore so famous.
Guests can often enjoy live music while they shop for their next favorite read. The bookstore offers a large selection of books but specializes in those on literature, art and humanities. It carries only new books, including reprints of some older titles. All in all, it’s a little piece of paradise for the adventurous bookworm.
3. El Ateneo Grand Splendid (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
The gorgeous Grand Splendid has housed several artistic endeavors over the past 99 years. Originally created as a performance center for ballets, operas and even tangos, the building still contains elaborately carved theater boxes and balconies, a magnificent ceiling with restored murals and a giant stage complete with crimson curtains.
The theater was converted into a cinema in 1929, and in 2000 it underwent its current transformation into one of the most glorious bookstores in the world.
The theater seats were replaced with row upon row of brightly lit bookshelves, and the theater boxes provide cozy nooks where guests can pass the time reading or gazing down at the splendor below. The stage now serves as a cafe complete with live piano music.
The four stories of book-heaven contain a variety of books, music and DVDs. Although many of the books are in Spanish, the Grand Splendid does have a selection of English books as well — mainly romance and mystery novels.
The rest of the bookstore offers a variety of topics from art and Argentine culture to medical texts or opera music. Whether it’s a new book or just the view, there’s something for everyone within the gilded walls of the Grand Splendid.
4. Le Pont Traverse (Paris, France)
Often overlooked by the crowds that storm Shakespeare & Co., Le Pont Traverse is a quaint bookshop located by the Luxembourg Gardens. The name loosely translates to “Across the Bridge,” but locals know it as “The Old Butcher’s Bookshop.”
Located on the bottom floor of a white, six-story building, Le Pont Traverse stands out with its vibrant royal-blue paint and colorful windows. The original butcher’s shop was converted into a bookstore by the poet and writer Marcel Béalu, who chose to keep many of the shop’s original elements intact.
Golden bull heads grace the upper perimeter of the shop’s blue exterior, and white-painted meat hooks still hang from the ceiling within, hinting at the true nature of the store’s past. In an unconventional decorating choice, a small chandelier graces the ceiling while tribal masks hang on the loaded bookshelves.
The store’s one-room interior is brimming with books from floor to ceiling — literally. The current owner specializes in stocking first editions and out of print works of art, literature and poetry. To cater to the whims of the clientele, the store is open from after lunch until midnight, making it a great place to visit for your next bedtime binge-book.
5. Barter Books (Alnwick, England)
Barter Books, one of the largest second-hand bookstores in the United Kingdom, gets its charm from the lovely Victorian train station in which it resides.
Bookshelves line the areas where tracks once lay and patrons waited for their connections. The original fireplaces hold warm fires in the winter, 40-foot murals decorate the white-stone walls and a model train winds around the ceiling in tribute to the building’s past.
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The store is particularly famous for finding the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” sign in a pile of books bought at auction. The owners displayed the sign, and the current slogan craze began. A nice selection of memorabilia featuring the slogan is available within the store as well.
Barter Books houses an impressive collection of books from second-hand classics to rare volumes of literature. The website currently offers valuable books and sets like “The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” (1896) and an illustrated collection of “Japanese Fairy Tales” (1889).
Within the shelves and glass display cases, patrons can browse for every topic imaginable and find something for any taste and budget. Bonus: The store recently opened up a buffet filled entirely with homemade comfort food. Yum!
6. Libreria Alta Acqua (Venice, Italy)
The “Bookstore of High Water” brings a unique outlook to book storage. Located along the canals of Venice, the store often deals with flooding issues. To protect the inventory, books are kept not only on tables and shelves but in gondolas, bathtubs and barrels. This innovative storage choice allows the books to rise with the tides of the canal and return to normal when the water subsides.
The store revolves around a water theme, accenting the walls and tables with life rings and ship’s wheels. The owner’s sense of humor shows from the “fire exit” — a door opening directly to the canal. Four friendly cats add to the overall coziness of the book-crammed interior.
One of the most whimsical features is a staircase made entirely from books in the courtyard; the steps lead to an outdoor terrace with a nice view of the adjacent canal.
Libreria Alta Acqua offers a variety of new and used books, including comics, trending titles, cookbooks and a full section on Venice. From the well-stocked gondolas to the towering shelves, this quirky store is truly a once-in-a-lifetime shopping experience.
7. Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen (Maastricht, Netherlands)
Bookstores might be your personal heaven, but the gorgeous Selexyz Dominicanen brings the standard to another level. The refurbished Catholic Church, originally built in 1294, possesses a truly awe-inspiring presence.
Many of the building’s Gothic elements were restored in a 2007 renovation. The ceiling displays a gorgeous fresco, elaborate windows allow a flood of natural sunlight to illuminate the walkways and ornate arches and pillars exhibit the incredible carving craftsmanship of the original architects.
The church now contains an extravagant three-story bookshelf that can be accessed by a system of walkways, elevators and staircases. The black steel shelving accents the original architecture, and warm lighting is reminiscent of candles. The old choir loft serves as a coffee shop, complete with a cross-shaped center table.
The Selexyz Dominicanen is truly one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world with its impressive architecture. But perhaps what makes it so beautiful is that it serves a greater purpose than aesthetic appeal: It preserves an important piece of history with both its literature and the building itself.
8. Word on Water (London, England)
Word on Water docks at Granary Square on the Regent’s Canal in London. The repurposed barge serves as a popular bookstore and event hotspot for tourists and locals alike.
The book barge was opened by Paddy Screech and Jonathan Privett, who were inspired by the book “Children of ‘Ol Man River.” Originally, the barge was forced to move every two weeks to accommodate building developments along the canal.
After an unfortunate incident involving an open valve in the ship’s toilet, the original Word on Water sank along with its precious supply of books. However, with the help of loyal patrons and fans, Word on Water reopened and secured permanent mooring status at Granary Square.
Visitors shop for books among a variety of plants, antique decorations and the occasional armchair on deck. Below, the interior is packed with hundreds of volumes more. The owners offer a large variety of books to tempt any bookworm, including a good selection of titles by Noam Chomsky and Jack London for more radical readers.
As a bonus, the deck doubles as an open mic area for poetry slams, live music and book readings, creating a wonderful atmosphere for shopping or chilling.
9. The Last Bookstore (Los Angeles, California)
Currently the largest new and secondhand of bookstores in California, the Last Bookstore occupies a vacated bank in the Spring Arts Tower in Los Angeles. Small tokens throughout the store indicate its past, such as the vault where horror and sci-fi books are kept.
The store has far more to offer than a tribute to the banking industry, though. The Last Bookstore’s second floor is known as the “Labyrinth,” an area almost Wonderlandish in its design. Here, you’ll find a maze-like area comprised of over 100 thousand used books and whimsical features around every corner.
Visitors walk through a lit tunnel created entirely from a curving arch of books and pass bright red doors that lead to nowhere. Among the twists of the labyrinth, stacks of books form windows, certain shelves are arranged in rainbows rather than title, and one particular area has books “flying” off the shelves.
In addition to its entertaining interior, the Last Bookstore offers the benefit of reasonably priced books and the option to sell or trade to the store. So you can bring in the books you’ve finished and barter them for your next favorite novel!
10. Yangzhou Zhongshuge (Jiangsu, China)
The Yangzhou Zhongshuge presents possibly the most innovative and inspiring of bookstores with elements of water implemented into every aspect of its design.
Almost futuristic in its appearance, the building features arched entryways and light effects that reflect the feeling of passing under bridges. Book displays flow seamlessly up the arches in bright splashes of color against the primarily white interior.
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In contrast to the main room, the children’s section is an explosion of color and creativity with starlights glittering on the ceiling and shelves resembling clouds and hot air balloons below. Some shelves even come apart or spin to reveal more books inside little houses and boxes.
But the true wonder of Yangzhou Zhongshuge is its breathtaking book tunnel. Continuing with the water theme, the tunnel’s black mirror flooring simulates a flowing river. The warmly lit shelves arch gracefully above the floor and reflect in the mirror as an almost continuous unit.
Rather than meet at the top, the shelves are divided by a lightning bolt-shaped break in the ceiling. The mirrored effect is one of walking on water with an abyss beneath and an infinite tunnel of books beyond. It’s sure to inspire an inward reflection in response.