World's Coolest Bookstores

1 Selexyz Dominicanen

Maastricht, Netherlands

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It’s tough running an independent bookstore. To make such a business successful it helps having God on your side.


Perhaps that’s what the proprietors of the Selexyz Dominicanen Bookstore were thinking when they decided to house their establishment in a 13th century Dominican cathedral in the center of Maastricht, Holland. Though, in truth, the cathedral hasn’t been a center for worship since Napoleon put the kibosh on services after he invaded Maastricht in 1794. Since then the cathedral has been alternately abandoned, used as a warehouse and turned into what was probably the world’s most sanctified indoor bicycle parking lot.
Despite the fact that the cathedral hadn’t been a working cathedral for more than 200 years, turning the space into a bookstore was an enormous challenge for Selexyz Dominicanen’s architects. A city ordinance required that the cathedral be completely preserved, meaning that no permanent modifications to the building of any sort were allowed!


So how do you create a three-story bookstore in a cathedral when you can’t drill any holes into the building or attach anything load-bearing to its walls? Selexyz Dominicanen made ingenious use of free-standing black steel scaffolding. This scaffolding completely supports all the bookshelves and the catwalks to them. The shelves and scaffolding are close to the cathedral’s walls but scaffolding never actually touch them.
Add to that a tasteful use of religious iconography (check out the cross-shaped reading table in the pic, above), a nice cafe located where the church choir once sang, and a slew of inviting nooks and comfy reading areas and the result is a bookstore that’s absolutely divine.
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2 Poplar Kid’s Republic

Beijing

What a cool design concept: Start with an all white bookstore interior—white floors, white ceiling, white walls, white stairs, white bookshelves, white everything—and to that liberally add rainbow splashes of bright color. Stock your shelves with a huge multi-language selection of kid’s books, add reading cubbyholes and padded activity areas, and you have Beijing’s Poplar Kid’s Republic, our favorite children’s bookstore in the world. (Sadly, our previous favorite children’s bookstore, the Cheshire Cat outside of Washington, DC, closed down several years ago—we hope endowing our current favored status upon the Kid’s Republic won’t condemn it to the same fate). Our few photos below don’t really do this huge store justice so check it out yourself next you are in Beijing. Kid’s Republic also has a branch, nearly as cool, in Shanghai.
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3 Livraria Lello

Porto, Portugal

Think a profitable store can’t be lush, rich and somehow homely? The velvety Livraria Lello in downtown Porto will change your mind. Not so much the art nouveau exterior as the gold-accented interior with its red carpets, stained glass, wood paneling and flowing central stair case. Walking into this bookstore, we had an insatiable urge to light a cigar (and we don’t smoke) because, well, this is the sort of place it seems like one should do that. And, indeed, this is the sort of place where one can do that. Cigars are sold in the Livraria Lello’s upstairs four-table coffee shop along with port, coffee (obviously) and baked goods.
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4 El Ateneo

Buenos Aires

Quiz question: Where and when was the first ever movie with sound shown to a public audience?
The answer: The El Ateneo bookstore, 1929.
Of course, this gorgeous building in central Buenos Aires wasn’t always a bookstore. It started its life in 1919 as the Teatro Grand Splendid; more than 1,000 patrons would fill the theater to watch operas and tango performances. In 1928 this space was converted into a cinema. It has been a bookstore since 2000. Happily, the El Ateneo architects included many homages to the building’s theater days including curtains and stage lighting. There’s also a wonderful cafe up on the “stage.” Add to that plush seating areas and a huge selection of literature and you have what is by far the best bookstore in South America, arguably the most luxurious in the world, and #4 on coolest-looking bookstore list.

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5 Shakespeare & Co. Antiquarian Books

Paris

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If you’ve seen the movie Before Sunset you’ve seen the inside of the Shakespeare & Co. Antiquarian bookstore—this is where Julie Delpy’s character reunited with Ethan Hawke’s during a book signing.


If you’ve read Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. (and if you haven’t you should) then you are intimately familiar with this bookstore. Time Was Soft There is the lusciously-written memoir of a homeless man who was allowed to sleep overnight in Shakespeare & Co by the store’s communist-leaning owner and then refused to vacate when times turned more capitalist. His bed is still there (see pic, below).
But even if you’ve never seen the Shakespeare & Co. Antiquarian bookstore in the movies, or read about it in books, you’ll step through the store’s doorway and sense that this is the sort of quaint, quirky place that should be in cinema and literature. The isles are piled with books. The writer’s room has a working piano for patrons to play. Poets regularly read their work in one of the back rooms.
And if you can’t get to Paris personally then at least visit the store’s supremely well done website—poking around it is almost as much fun as poking around the store itself.
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6 El Péndulo

Mexico City

Originally this post was envisioned as a list of five bookstores. We had to expand it to six in order to squeeze in Polanco branch of El Péndulo. This bookstore isn’t as amazingly stunning or history-filled as the above five selections are. But it is bright, spacious, huge and gloriously plant-filled. Plus the store (and attached cafe) isn’t shy about using air conditioning, which makes El Péndulo a wonderful literary escape on a hot Mexican day.

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