Venice, Paris, Porto: the charm of 3 historic bookshops that don’t fear Amazon. Between printed paper perfume and breathtaking views.
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Campiello del Tintor, 30122 Venice, Italy. +39 041 296 0841. Opening times: 9am–8pm
People who love reading can’t give up on the charm of the good old paper book. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot off the press or used, crumpled, lived, and why not, maybe slightly ruined by the salt, as it happens whoever reads a book by the sea. Or as it happens in Venice, at the Libreria Acqua Alta. Here, those who love paper books and the wonderful caos they bring, may feel finally understood. Actually, they may feel at home.
The house actually belongs to Luigi Frizzo, septuagenarian native of Vicenza and adopted by Venice after having literally been around the world. In fact, Luigi has lived in Tahiti, New Zealand, Canada, Australia. Then, because of what someone may call fate, he ended up as the owner of the most peculiar bookstore in Venice. He fluently speaks five languages, and this come in handy with the tourists, who are literally enchanted by this magical place and by its bookseller. The books here are accumulated in real gondolas and bath tubs, ready to be rescued from the very acqua alta (high water). You never know in Venice.
A wonderful caos
The catalog simply doesn’t exist, neither paper nor digital. Luigi and his helper guide the visitors through books about the history of Venice, classics, comics, prints, postcards and old newspapers.
The titles available are really a lot, and Luigi haunts his house like all of us, finding in total disorder exactly what you are looking for. Most volumes are rarities, but there are also bestsellers and books in the Venetian dialect, the same one of the bookseller. The special flavour of the library comes from the personality of its owner – as if the location wasn’t enough – who is always well prepared to meet the curiosity of those who venture into his shop. His pride are surely the books’s staircase, the emergency exit and the gondola packed with books in the middle of one room.
The books’ staircase is made up of old and damaged volumes destined to pulping. Luigi has seen fit to use them to allow tourists to enjoy the view over the canal and the building where Hugo Pratt set one of the stories of Corto Maltese. The other jewel of the library, the emergency exit, has a magnificent outlook too. Canals and gondolas can be seen while comfortably seated on an old sofa. With a book in hand, ça va sans dire.
Shakespeare & Company, Paris
37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, France. +33 1 43 25 40 93. Opening times: 10am–11pm
We leave the lagoon behind and here we are in Paris. Here, a few steps away from Notre Dame de Paris, hides a bookshop that has become a cult. For book lovers, heaven on earth exists and it’s called Shakespeare & Company. A maze of rooms overflowing with volumes, a window looking over Notre Dame, a typewriter placed in a small niche literally papered by the visitors’ messages, a grand piano made available to the public, complete with sheet music. Is this only a bookshop? No, this is a dream that came true. But to understand it, we must go back to its history.
The Shakespeare & Company was founded in 1951 by George Whitman, who calls it “a socialist utopia disguised as a bookshop“. As it always happens, the soul of a place is made by the soul of who creates and lives in that very place. Whitman was a visionary, generous and curious, and believed in a kind of communitarian life. He lived in the bookshop, and left the doors open for anyone to enter.
Whitman took a degree in journalism in Boston in 1935; during the Great Depression he wandered between the US, Mexico and Central America. Whitman was also in Asia and in Greenland before arriving in Paris in 1945, to study at the Sorbonne. He had accumulated so many books that he decided to found a bookshop and call it Le Mistral. In 1964 he converted the name in Shakespeare & Company to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth.
The choice of the name, however, was above all a tribute to Sylvia Beach, who in 1919 opened the original store on the Rue de l’Odéon, then closed during the German occupation. Beach was a milestone for the so-called lost generation, from Hemingway to Stein, from Fitzgerald to Eliot (Beach published the first version of James Joyce‘s Ulysses when no one else wanted it, Ed.). Around Whitman, affiliated to the Communist Party, gravitated the Beat Generation: Henry Miller, Ray Bradbury, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg and many others.
Recently, the Shakespeare & Company hosted Jonathan Safran Foer, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and Paul Auster.
A utopian shelter
The bookshop still organises events, with an average of one per week. The successful intent is to keep a loyal community alive. Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, is now the owner and organiser of the events. She’s the one who carries on the dream started by his father.
She also kept alive the tradition of hosting “real readers” or poets and writers who request a shelter. It is estimated that, since 1951, more than 20 thousand young people have found shelter at Shakespeare & Co., sleeping in corners of the library or in the rooms on the fourth floor.
The 50s were the years of those who fled from McCarthyism and racism; the 60s were those of the feminists and rioting students; in the 70s people travelled to India and Katmandu, while the 80s and 90s were the years of the backpackers. Today Shakespeare & Co. is a refuge for young graduates who don’t know how to direct their talents. Children of our times.
There’s no booking service here, you come to the library and you apply for some space. Sylvia herself does the interviews and decides. In return, she asks to work a few hours a day in the store, to read a book (a book a day at the time of her father) and write a short autobiography that is preserved in the historical archives.
For the other simple patrons, Shakespeare & Co will still become a house, symbolic, where want to go back at every visit in Paris.
Lello & Irmão, Porto
R. das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, Portugal. +351 22 200 2037. Opening times: 10am–7:30pm
Leaving Whitman’s socialist utopia, we’ll dive into a magical dimension. Literally. The Livraria Lello & Irmão, in Porto, has been defined as one of the finest bookshops not only in Europe, but even in the world.
It is one of the oldest bookshops in Portugal, built in 1869 by engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves, himself a great lover of literature. Born as Livraria Internationale de Ernesto Chardron, when the owner died it became the seat of the publishing house Lugan & Genelioux Sucessores. It was only in 1894 that it was sold to José Pinto de Sousa Lello who, together with his brother Antonio, renamed the bookshop Livraria Lello & Irmão. And today this place is a real pilgrimage site for book lovers.
Between architecture and literature
The building, located in the historic center near the Torre dos Clérigos, is a blend of neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau styles. The facade, which has earned the bookshop the title of the “book cathedral“, has a large arch with a front door and two windows; on the three windows that surmount it, you can admire the paintings by José Bielman representing Art and Science.
Upon entering, the first thing that strikes the visitor is the space’s magnificence. The walls and labyrinthine red staircase are original, as is the ceiling window that sports the sentence “Decus in labore” (dignity at work). The richly decorated ceiling, inlaid wooden walls and a skylight of stained glass give the place an almost sacred atmosphere. As it should be, given the treasure of books that they guard. The columns are decorated with bronze bas-reliefs representing the greats of Portuguese literature.
The bookshop is spread over several level, with huge dark wooden shelves overflowing with books reaching up to the ceiling. Pure pleasure for the lovers of printed paper.
The shelves proudly display the complete works of José Saramago, together with international authors translated in various languages, as visitors come here from all over the world.
This resounding success – so much that the entrance costs 3€, which will be deducted from any purchase – is also due to the rumours that have spread on the hypothetical relationship between the bookshop and the Harry Potter saga. Some claim that J.K. Rowling has been inspired by Lello & Irmão for the setting of the hit franchise. Moreover, stories say that the very writer lived in Porto and assiduously frequented the store while writing the first volume. Whether true or not, the results are amazing: in summer the bookshop sees peaks of 3,000 visitors per day, and sales are about 5,000 a week. During times of publishing crisis, perhaps this could actually be magic.
So, here’s unveiled the secret of bookshops that don’t fear Amazon. If the passion for books merges with the flavour of the past, within the beauty of a place, of an idea, of a utopia, then the “convenience” of online shopping isn’t that palatable. The readers will not only touch, browse and smell the books that they are buying; they will live a unique experience, aware of being part of something sublime, utopian and magic called Literature.