Five months ago I flew one-way across an ocean and haven’t been back in my hometown in the Netherlands since. I’ve been from the world’s biggest cities to laid back surfer towns, but everywhere I go, I visit at least one bookshop. And I recommend you to do the same. Why?
1. It feels like home
Weary of all the new impressions travel gives, I could step into a bookshop and feel like coming home. The combination of quietness, sweet solitude and the buzzing presence of stories and ideas is unique to bookshops and never fails to calm and invigorate me. In Miami, I was feeling a bit alienated from the youthful hedonism all around me. I went to Books & Books and stepped into another world – a world where impeccably dressed men read newspapers with their black coffee in the adjacent cafe, where soft, wordless music played as to not disturb the browsers at the poetry shelves, a world where I belonged. Bookshops are a safe haven I can always return to when nothing else in the world is the same as home.
2. They reflect the culture of the place
The selection of bookshops in foreign lands can tell you surprising things about the place you visit. It’s fun to see what kind of books seem to be popular in that particular place. When I was wandering the book markets of Cairo, the recurring title at every stand was Orwell’s 1984 and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude. Why would that be? In some bookshops there is an overwhelming amount of poetry on the shelves, whereas in others gear more towards non-fiction. What does that tell us about the readers frequenting the bookshop? I always wonder.
3. You discover books you’d never come across back home
In Kenya, I bought an anthology of African mythology at the airport bookshop. In Bali, I discovered brilliant Indonesian authors that write about Dutch colonialism in ways so different from the Dutch authors on my school’s required reading list. These stories would not have been available at home, but opened up very different perspectives that deepened my understanding of the places I was traveling and the world as a whole.
4. You will find unique, magical places
Bookshops are so much more than a place to buy books. If that were the only reason of their existence, we would all buy books from the much more convenient online giants. Instead, bookshops are unique places that have their own distinct air. I support all brick-and-mortar bookshops, but some really have a special place in my heart. There is the picturesque Shakespeare & Company in Paris, with their long history of live-in Beat generation poets and the piano upstairs that visitors can play. There is Venice’s Aqua Alta, where you can browse books stacked into a gondola and step unto a staircase made of books to look over the canals. There is the Libraire Avant-Garde in the Chinese city of Nanjing, located in a parking lot and featuring a giant black cross hanging above the rows and rows of books. It reminds one of a post-modernist church. Here it occurred to me that I visit bookshops like a Christian going to churches, with reverence, in search of wisdom and beauty.