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Eight of the world’s best historic bookshops, from Portland to Paris

The world’s bookshops have their own stories to tell, often just as fascinating as those on their shelves. Repositories of knowledge and bastions of avant-garde thought, these eight independent booksellers are historic monuments in their own right.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 4 Mar 2021, 08:09 GMT, Updated 30 Jul 2021, 11:17 BST
Our editors have sought out historic bookshops on their travels around the globe, including the literary ...

Our editors have sought out historic bookshops on their travels around the globe, including the literary pilgrimage destination of City Lights. San Francisco's storied paperback shop lost its legendary proprietor, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in February. 

Photograph by Alamy

There’s a quiet magic to bookshops, stacked as they are with the sum total of human knowledge and experience. Historic establishments — be they antiquarian, specialist or generalist — often have their own stories to tell, too.

Many have had to weather political unrest. The first owner of Parisian English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach, chose to shut her doors rather than serve Nazi officers — or so the story goes. Bookselling, it seems, often goes hand in hand with progressive, and sometimes revolutionary, thought. San Francisco recently lost the legendary proprietor of City Lights, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who in his heyday made an enemy of the law by publishing the works of the controversial Beat poets.

Storied as such premises are, it’s no wonder our editors have sought out historic bookshops on their travels around the globe.

Shakespeare and Company — the historic hangout of luminaries including William Burroughs and Anaïs Nin — today faces a crisis: sales have slumped by 80% since the start of the pandemic; in response, the shop has launched a membership programme to raise vital funds.

Photograph by Alamy

1. Paris, France: Shakespeare and Company

If this rickety, ramshackle bookshop could talk, it would likely name drop celebrities in an insufferable fashion. Any famous writer worth his or her salt will have passed through the doors of this store — which first opened on Rue de la Bûcherie, near Notre-Dame cathedral, in 1951. Think 20th-century heavyweights like James Baldwin and Henry Miller all the way through to modern-day luminaries like Zadie Smith and Jeanette Winterson. The shop had a former life, too — an earlier incarnation stood on Rue de l’Odéon between 1919 and 1941, often graced by wordsmiths like Ernest Hemingway and T S Eliot. Today, this Parisian bastion of anglophone literature faces a crisis: sales have slumped by 80% since the start of the pandemic; in response, the company has launched a membership programme to raise vital funds.
Amelia Duggan, deputy editor

2. San Francisco, USA: City Lights

A bastion of Beat poetry and alt-lit history, City Lights was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country and a must-visit for literary pilgrims. It was co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who died, aged 101, on 22 February this year) in the Chinatown/North Beach area of San Francisco in 1953. It went on to become a national icon after Ferlinghetti was arrested for obscenity after publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956The building itself is gorgeous, sporting clerestory windows and a cosy mezzanine balcony for reading in the afternoon sun. Best of all, it’s open until midnight seven days a week.
Zane Henry, project editor

Read more: Guides to San Francisco by the locals who know it best

Founded in 1971, father-son duo Walter and Michael Powell's eponymous bookstore is slightly unorthodox: whether brand new or pre-loved, paperback or hardback, all the books all sit side by side on the shelves — and the shop is open 365 days a year.

Photograph by Alamy

3. Portland, USA: Powell’s City of Books

Taking up an entire city block in Downtown Portland, Powell’s has more than a million books on its shelves, with new and secondhand volumes stocked side by side. A maze of narrow aisles lined with vertiginous bookcases, it's a place where time passes at a mysterious pace. Browsing the out-of-print paperbacks, latest bestsellers and offbeat local history books can cause hours to go by unnoticed.
Nicola Trup, associate editor

4. London, England: Daunt Books

Set amid the luxury boutiques and haute cuisine hotspots of Marylebone High Street, this wood-panelled establishment harks back to the London of yesteryear. Today, it’s Daunt Books’ flagship property, but back in 1912, it opened as Francis Edwards, an antiquarian bookstore and allegedly the world’s first custom-built bookshop. It’s a travel-lit specialist, and customers who are equal parts bibliophile and hodophile (a lover of travel) will revel in its shelves, which are organised by country and filled with practical guides, fiction, maps and more. Admire the store’s trademark arts and crafts decor, which includes a balconied mezzanine, flooded with natural light filtering through a humongous stained-glass window at the back.
Nora Wallaya, assistant online editor

5. Porto, Portugal: Livraria Lello

Dating back to 1881, Livraria Lello owes its existence to brothers José and António Lello, who started the company in a separate location, before moving to a custom-built store on Rua das Carmelitas in 1906. A bibliophile’s dream, it’s as though the shop itself has been plucked from the pages of a fantasy novel: sinuous wooden staircases, balustrades and stained glass are contained beneath an intricate, carved-wood ceiling. Given its whimsical interiors, it’s (erroneously) believed to have been a source of inspiration for Hogwarts (the Harry Potter author, J K Rowling, lived in Porto in the 1990s). The truth is that while Rowling never visited the bookshop, she did, however, write in the Majestic Café, a resplendent art nouveau coffeehouse a short walk away.
Connor McGovern, commissioning editor 

Read more: Celebrating 20 of Europe’s greatest cafes

Harry Potter fans form queues along Porto's high street to glimpse inside Livraria Lello, which is erroneously believed to be a source of inspiration for author J K Rowling, who lived in the city in the 1990s.

Photograph by Alamy

6. Hay-on-Wye, Wales: Richard Booth’s Bookshop

The self-declared King of Hay-on-Wye sadly passed away in 2019, but his legendary, eponymous bookshop lives on. The Welsh town, home to over 20 bookshops and just under 2,000 people, spawned the Hay Festival after gaining a global literary reputation, due in no small part to Richard; having opened his first secondhand bookshop in the early 1960s, another five would eventually follow. The landmark, three-storey shop on Lion Street — also home to a cinema, cafe and event space — remains a place where you can lose hours hunting for obscure gems and bargains.
Pat Riddell, editor

7. Copenhagen, Denmark: Politikens Boghal

This two-storey, Danish- and English-language bookshop, with its monochromatic storefront, has been a go-to for Copenhagen’s book-lovers since 1915. It’s right at the heart of the city, on Radhuspladsen, but also at the heart of one of Denmark’s biggest newspapers, Politiken, who’s building it shares. I loved its extensive travel section but also its atmosphere of being somewhere where interesting people come and go. Browsing the shelves and chatting with the approachable and knowledgeable staff made me feel like one of the city’s cool kids.
Jo Fletcher-Cross, contributing editor

Read more: How the Danish capital is setting a green standard for cities worldwide

8. New York, USA: The Strand

During my first visits to New York in the early ’90s, the canyon-like shelves of this Broadway indie landmark offered me shelter from what felt like a ferociously frenetic city. When I moved to Manhattan 10 years later, it became a glorious bolthole, in stark contrast to my teeny apartment. The last store standing after the demise of ‘Book Row’ — six blocks of Fourth Avenue lined with 48 bookstores — today, its self-declared ‘18 miles of books’ span an eclectic range of subjects. There’s no cafe, but a real hang-out atmosphere prevails. And it’s cavernous enough to get lost in for hours (or days) on end. 
Sarah Barrell, associate editor

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