A Tale of Three Bookstores

Shakespeare and Company

Nestled on the shore of the Seine across from the Notre Dame is possibly the most famous bookstore in the world. Established in 1951, Shakespeare and Company was a creative nook for writers of the Beat Generation, and continues to attract artists from all over the world to its hallowed shelves. During the day, tourists pour in and out, eager to sit where Burroughs sat and breathe the air that Wright breathed. These artists did more than sit and breathe and write in the building across from the Notre-Dame- they were also invited to sleep in the single cots squeezed between book shelves upstairs in exchange for helping around the shop! George Whitman, the owner, described his business as a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore.” It is estimated that 30,000 people have graced these cots since the store’s opening.

The bottom floor of Shakespeare and Co. is a meticulously-stuffed bookstore, where even the tiniest of us must watch to avoid bumping into shelves. At the back of the store, though, is a creaky, narrow set of stairs leading to where the real magic happens. Upstairs there are an infinite number of books too old and too precious to buy, but ready to be read. There’s a typewriter that sits overlooking the Seine and the Cathédrale beyond. There’s an old, slightly out-of-tune piano with a note on it that kindly entreats the player to play softly after 8pm. And there are letters climbing up the walls from visitors worldwide who have felt the urge to leave their mark on this historic place.

At night, Shakespeare and Company is a haven of warmth with the glow of yellowing pages. Open until 10pm, the tourists and their noise are shuffled out by nightfall. Only the stable energy of the books remains, and you can feel why this was the centre of bohemia for the entirety of the 20th century.

Atlantis Books

You know how every Greek travel advertisement is the same shot of white rooftops overlooking a deep blue ocean? This is Oia!- a town built into the rocky face of Santorini island. Most of Oia is resorts, fine dining, and souvenir shops. But there is one commercial enterprise that doesn’t feel like an enterprise at all. Atlantis Books is built into a white cave below street level on the edge of town. To enter the shop, you must manoeuvre your way down a very narrow set of stairs and through a small garden in order to enter a cramped cranny of bookshelves.

Many visitors get caught up with what is at eye-level however, when they should actually be looking up. The roof of Atlantis Books is scrawled with words and a timeline illustrating the life of the store. This timeline begins in 2004, when the doors of the shop opened with the goal of “bringing great art, literature, and conversation to one of the most beautiful environments in the world.” They got the beautiful part right. The roof of Atlantis Books offers a view on the Aegean Sea with the centre of Santorini island springing up in the forefront. I would recommend the roof of Atlantis Books as a prime reading spot, but it is impossible to focus on reading a book with that horizon in the background.

Livraria Lello

To anyone else whose childhood was entirely defined by Harry Potter, have you ever wondered if J.K. Rowling dreamt up Hogwarts entirely from her imagination, or whether she was inspired by real life along the way? The answer is the latter. Rowling lived in Porto, Portugal, for two years, and visited Livraria Lello, a beautiful bookstore in the centre of town. Established in 1906, Livraria Lello is the brainchild of the Lello brothers, and a long-time pillar of Porto literary and social circles. The facade of Lello is reminiscent of the Neo-Gothic, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau styles, but as though this mashup isn’t artistically sufficient, Lello also boasts intricate woodwork and massive stained-glass windows.

The second you step in the door, it is clear what is so ‘Harry Potter-esque’ about the place: the staircase. It twists and winds and bends over on itself. Unlike the Hogwarts staircases, however, it is bright red. The bookstore has reached an iconic status thanks to Rowling, a status that the owners have capitalized on: you must pay in order to get inside. Lello also has its own souvenir store, complete with Harry Potter propaganda in both Portuguese and English.

It is worth the hype though? Absolutely. This is by far the most beautiful bookstore I have ever seen, and it is absolutely worth pushing through the throng of tourists in order to pluck one the hundred identical Harry Potter books off the shelf.

Cover photo by Bonnie Elliott.