Photo by Michael Cavén
When traveling Europe by train, one is subjected to many hours of butt-numbingly cramped quarters with only miles upon miles of countryside sameness to stimulate the mind. There’s not much to do besides watch the wooded hills and rolling farmlands melt by through dingy glass. Thusly, the literary traveler must be properly equipped. Armed with an absorbing novel or a rollicking history, the literary traveler can vanish an eight-hour leg into nothing.
For experienced readers, eight hours can translate into hundreds of pages. By the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ve finished the book, read the about the author and closely studied the copyright information. But never fear! Go find your lodgings, relieve yourself of your bags, refuel with the local fare, check a few items off your sightseeing list and then it’s time to reload. Europe’s major cities are home to some of the world’s finest bookshops. But unless you speak the native language, they’re not all going to work for you. However, the following list of shops definitely will. So, fellow book hunters and European travelers, I bequeath to you five of the choicest English language bookshops.
1. London Review Bookshop 14 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, London
In a neighborhood full of wonderful hole-in-wall bookshops, LRB is surely Bloomsbury’s finest for both popular and academic books. Just a block from the British Museum, this well stocked shop is one to get lost in. Take a seat in one of the plush armchairs and choose your next destination as you flip through their impressive travel section. If you’re lucky, you’ll stop by during one of the frequent literary discussions or lectures put on by the shop’s friendly, passionate and somewhat cheeky staff. When I remarked on the fine condition of the shop’s older volumes, the cashier winked conspiratorially and murmured that he had a first edition of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in the back room.
Purchases: Just one: a woodblock sized volume of Edward Gibbon’s seminal work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. After all, I didn’t want to get bogged down with paper so early in the trip.
2. Shakespeare & Company 37 Rue Bûcherie, Paris
o Okay, so this isn’t exactly an insider’s pick, but the location and ambience of this world famous bookseller cannot be topped. Located on Paris’ Left Bank, a short walk from Île de la Cité and Notre-Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Co. is the literary traveler’s ideal break from a leisurely stroll along the Seine. Founded in 1951 by American George Whitman, who lived upstairs until his death in December 2011, the shop became a bustling epicenter of local literary and artistic activity. Whitman was an eccentric, free-spirited fellow who described the name of his shop as a “novel in three words.” Shakespeare & Co.’s bohemian atmosphere attracted the likes of famous Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who likely slept in one of the 13 beds kept onsite for travelling writers, artists and literary enthusiasts.
Purchases: With the long haul to Berlin looming large, I picked up two novels: Paul Auster’s novel, Man in the Dark and James Ellroy’s crime fiction, The Big Nowhere.
3. St. George’s Bookshop 27 Wörtherstrasse, Berlin
As I talked up fellow travelers at hostels and pubs looking for the inside track on the next city’s best English bookshops, St. George’s in Berlin was consistently and emphatically promised as one of the best I would ever set foot in. Located in the heart of the fashionable Prenzlauer Berg district, St. George’s is primarily a used bookstore but you will find its staff more than happy to make a special order if you are seeking something new or rare. Due to its trendy location, St. George’s staff and clientele is decidedly hipster, yet determinatively friendly. So even if you’re a self-professed square like I, and you amble in wearing a fanny pack with your sandals and socks, and possess nary a tattoo or piercing, rest assure you’ll still be welcomed as the second coming of Lou Reed.
Also notable, the easy-going staff allowed me free reign of the rolling ladder used to reach the floor-to-ceiling stacks: a virtue in today’s liability-worried world. Thanks to St. George’s lax safety policy, I ended up with a few gems from the top row.
Purchases: Kurt Vonnegut’s, Galapagos, David Mitchell’s, Cloud Atlas, and Steven E. Ozment’s, A Mighty Fortress.
4. The Globe Bookstore and Café Pštrossova 6, Prague
Though only founded in 1993, The Globe’s interior reeks of history. The building that houses this charming bookshop is over 120 years old and possesses vaulted ceilings that dwarf the jammed shelves below. The cashier’s counter is a giant slab of oak riddled with the swirls and knobs of old age. It is easy to imagine the counter flipped on its side, doubling as the door to a medieval monastery. The Globe is a great place to meet Prague’s American expatriate community who frequently drop by for the bookshop’s well-liked book readings and film screenings. Behind the shop’s dense, labyrinthine main floor is a lovely café, which is the perfect place to retire with your purchases. The menu is a delicious and fun mix of Eastern European-American fusion with a selection of Czech beers so rich and tasty it’s worth dusting off the old “nectar of the gods” cliché.
Purchases: In what was perhaps the most physically debilitating purchase of the trip, I picked up A Dance with Dragons, the gargantuan 5th novel in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular fantasy series. I think I saw someone reading one of them in every country I visited that summer.
5. Paperback Exchange 4R Via delle Oche, Florence
I stumbled upon this quaint and quiet shop by accident. After climbing Il Duomo in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, I was desperate for a place to cool down. The Paperback Exchange appeared before me like mirage, its signage promising both air conditioning and half-priced paperbacks. Done and done. With a vast collection of art theory and art history books, this shop is a must for Florence’s many visiting Brunelleschi, Caravaggio and Michelangelo aficionados. The Exchange in the shop’s name comes from the staff’s willingness to accept your old, well-loved books in exchange for store credit.
Purchases: Ross King’s, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.
Well, fellow book hunters, we have come to the end of this list. I hope you all get to peruse the shelves of one (or all!) of the aforementioned bookstores someday soon. As for me, I am still battling back pain from lugging my badly misshapen pack which, due to my inability to pass up a good find, had begun to spring rectangles in the oddest places. Until next time, happy travels!