The stories behind some of the world’s most-visited and most talked-about independent bookstores are often as interesting as the ones on their shelves. Despite a growing number of digital distractions and alternatives (yes, reading on your Kindle or mobile device makes things easier, especially if you’re traveling), nothing quite compares to getting lost among the shelves of a small bookstore. There’s just something about the smell of freshly printed paper and the touch of an embossed hardcover that no amount of digital convenience can replicate. Bookshops are places to escape, to discover, to dream and to relax. Read on to find out what makes these independent and small bookstores worth traveling for.
Cook & Book, Brussels, Belgium
Combining two of our favorite things—reading and eating—Cook & Book is a cute bookstore and restaurant in one, just across from the Roodebeek metro station in Brussels. Split across two buildings, it has nine different themed areas to satisfy your every taste, from comic strips to cookbooks, travel and YA literature.
Beneath the 800 books that hang from the ceiling you’ll find the design as impressive as the food and reason alone to visit. Highlights include the music section where you can enjoy a glass of wine while listening to vinyl, an English section that resembles an English manor library and a dedicated travel space complete with a converted chrome Airstream trailer where you can enjoy a coffee while leafing through the latest city guides. There’s also a spacious terrace where you can sample the food or read one of your new purchases in the sunshine.
Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal
Despite J.K. Rowling recently confirming that Livraria Lello in Porto wasn’t the inspiration for Hogwarts library as widely believed, you can see where the speculation came from. Opened in 1906 by brothers José and António Lello and designed by Xavier Esteves, this self-proclaimed “most beautiful bookshop in the world” has a neo-Gothic interior boasting carved wood paneling, a 26-foot stained-glass skylight and a winding crimson staircase often described as the “stairway to literature heaven.”
Still a popular destination for Harry Potter fans and tourists alike, at its busiest, the bookstore can welcome around 4,000 visitors a day. With many not making a purchase, a €5 entry fee was introduced a few years back, which is redeemable against any book purchase. To accommodate the largely tourist crowd, there’s a wide variety of international authors and English, Spanish, Italian and Russian books on sale alongside local Portuguese favorites.
Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France
Paris’s world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop has been a meeting place for writers and readers for almost 70 years. It was given its name by American expat Sylvia Beach, who called the shop the “spiritual successor” to her own bookstore, which was a popular hangout in the city for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce in the first half of the 20th century.
George Whitman opened the modern version in 1951 opposite Notre Dame Cathedral on the banks of the River Seine. It is still a haven for writers today, who are welcome to sleep for free among the shelves in exchange for helping out for a few hours, reading a book a day and writing a single-page autobiography for the archives—so far more than 30,000 “tumbleweeds” have spent a night here. As well as a café and budding publishing arm, pre-pandemic the shop also hosted free weekly events, welcoming writers such as Zadie Smith, Carol Ann Duffy, Leïla Slimani and George Saunders.
The Strand, New York, New York
Opened in 1927 by Ben Bass, The Strand bookstore in New York’s Greenwich Village is now the sole survivor of the city’s former “Book Row,” which once covered six city blocks and was home to 48 bookstores. Still in the same family’s hands almost a century later—Bass’s granddaughter Nancy Bass Wyden is the current owner and began helping in the store at age six—the expansive bibliophile’s mecca is home to “18 miles of books” (that’s equivalent to more than 2.5 million used and new titles).
Within its four floors, you’ll find every book imaginable including some rare out-of-print second-hand finds and a program of in-store events that has previously welcomed the likes of Lin Manuel Miranda and Patti Smith. For anything you can’t find, the passionate team here will point you in the right direction.
Word on the Water, London, England
You’ll discover London’s most unusual bookshop, or rather bookbarge, floating on Regent’s Canal in King’s Cross after it secured a permanent mooring a few years ago. Housed in a 100-year-old Dutch barge, with every inch serving a purpose, Word on the Water is loved by everyone who stumbles across it. It’s not often you can read Dickens on a 1920s barge.
Customers are welcome to browse the books displayed outside or explore its rows of new and second-hand titles inside by the cozy wood-burning stove—there’s a particularly good children’s section to treat the little ones. On the roof stage, there’s also a regular program of open mic sessions, jazz nights, poetry slams and talks on art, technology, feminism and politics. On a summer’s evening, enjoy your latest purchase or watch the performance atop of the barge on the embankment above with a picnic and a drink or two.