There are a lot of reasons to travel. I seek places brimming with history and culture, varied beliefs and customs, beautiful vistas, distinctive architecture and wonderful foods. But before I set off on any journey, I always do an internet search for the location’s bookstores.
Unique stores. Ones with character. I want stacks to the ceiling, dust in the corners, volumes heaped on the counter and on tables. I hunt for cozy nooks with an armchair where customers can sit and browse selections before making a final decision. I prefer an owner who has a slight hunch in his or her shoulders from all the time spent perusing thousands of tomes over the years. Dim lighting, a secret room in the back and, to top it all off, a house dog or cat to greet me.
These places are disappearing rapidly in the United States and this makes their discovery even more precious. They carry books not on the bestseller list – or any list at all. They carry the out-of-print editions and are more likely to highlight unknown authors. Entering a place like this is an awe-inspiring experience for me. I’m like a kid in a candy store – the only alarming factor is that I’m an adult with a credit card. It’s difficult to hold back.
I have a strange criteria for putting a bookstore on my list of favorites. It has to make me a little uncomfortable and instill a bit of alarm. If I walk inside and immediately check my watch, the place is a contender. There won’t be enough time to do the place justice. This won’t be a place to casually scan the rows of books. This will be a place of study, to select numerous volumes to page through one by one, before moving on and on and on. Especially when on vacation, my time is limited and there are other competing attractions. I don’t take travel for granted. In the back of my mind, I realize I may never return and so need to make every moment count. Some of my favorite bookstores are in places I may never have opportunity to visit again.
By far, the best bookstore I’ve ever found is in Venice. It’s everything I described above, and more. The place crackles with old world charm. You can even climb a staircase of books for a view of the canal. Only pictures do it justice, but I’m afraid I was so busy looking at books that I forgot to take many photos. If I’m ever so fortunate to return, I’m making a beeline for this place (if I can ever find it again in Venice’s labyrinth of alleys).
Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore. is a longtime favorite. After more than a dozen visits over the years, and many, many hours spent inside this multi-story structure, I’ve yet to see the entire place. Powell’s has several locations in Portland, but the main building is the one to visit. It’s a jaw-dropping, book-lover’s dream. If you don’t walk away with an armload of new discoveries, you’re just not trying.
City Lights and Green Apple in San Francisco make my list because of their determination to highlight little-known but amazing writers. I spent an afternoon perusing their shelves and returned home with two shopping bags of books. Oh, the joy.
My most recent find was in New York City. The Mysterious Bookstore consists of a modest space on a side street in lower Manhattan, and contains only mysteries, suspense and thrillers. The place tilts slightly toward the commercial, but makes my list because of its fierce dedication to a niche genre, unusual in this time of vanishing bookstores. They also store rare editions behind a door marked off with police tape. Gotta love the humor.
Manhattan also is home to The Strand bookstore, which boasts “18 Miles of Books.” I didn’t pace it off, but my heart definitely started racing the moment I stepped inside.
One favorite in my hometown, Trip Taylor’s Bookstore, recently closed. Longtime customers streamed through the going-out-of-business sale as though they were paying respects to a much-loved friend. I was there too, hauling an armload of books out the door and feeling like a vulture. I will miss this store!
I have more travels before me and I know my list will grow. There are avid readers around the world who support their local booksellers. I’m an e-book reader also, but there is still something mighty special about holding a book in one’s hands, turning the pages one by one. Viva la bookstores!