5 bookstores that don’t look like bookstores

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From stores set within old theaters and churches to one shop that floats, these five bookstores are as unusual as they come.

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Independent bookstores are great for a number of reasons: Often they feature bigger and more interesting selections, fun one-off events and personalities of their own. That’s certainly true for the venues below, which are so quirky you’d be forgiven for not even recognizing them as bookshops. From stores set within old theaters and churches to one shop that floats, these five venues are as unusual as they come.

The Book Barge, UK

The Book Barge is the self-proclaimed “bookshop that floated away.” It has ports of call across England’s network of canals, and when it does turn up, shoppers are invited on board to browse its slightly petite but well-curated shelves. The brainchild of Sarah Henshaw, the shop focuses primarily on fiction and children’s lit, though you can expect to dig up all kinds of treasures while afloat. 

Book Barge © Annabel Vita
Book Barge © Annabel Vita

Polare Maastricht, The Netherlands

After seeing these shots, we’re convinced that all bookstores should be relocated to 700-year-old Gothic churches. Based in Maastricht in The Netherlands, Polare’s colorful shelves are set against the backdrop of the church’s soaring nave and elegant arches. Don’t worry about your religious affiliation: this shop is non-denominational.

Polare Maastricht © Bert Kaufmann
Polare Maastricht © Bert Kaufmann

Villa del Libro, Spain

The Villa del Libro in Ureña, Spain, is only for the serious bibliophile. Evidence? Not just one shop but a whole village, the Villa del Libro consists of 12 bookstores, and book-related activities including a permanent exhibition on the history of the book. Wander the charming cobble stoned streets of this medieval town, and discover everything from bookbinding workshops and calligraphy lessons to niche bookstores devoted to a whole range of subjects (like, ahem, wine writing).

Villa del Libro © Txefar
Villa del Libro © Txefar

Livraria Lello, Portugal

Walk inside Livraria Lello in Porto and you’ll be greeted by a jaw droppingly opulent Neo-Gothic interior. All winding staircases, elaborate woodcarvings, lamps, carved ceilings – even a stained glass skylight – the bookstore is as beautiful as they get. It also has plenty of history behind it, with origins going back to the 19th century. Rumor has it the library in Hogwarts is modeled after this very shop, as J.K. Rowling spent some time in Porto prior to writing the books. There’s no way around it: This is one unmissable stop for book lovers.

Livraria Lello © Guillén Pérez
Livraria Lello © Guillén Pérez

El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Argentina

Picture a classic, historic theater building: You’re probably imagining a stage with red velvet curtains, balconies, elegant carved wood, even gold details and a fresco ceiling. Yes? Now imagine that setting, but filled with packed bookshelves. Enter El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a real-life bookstore in Buenos Aires that began life as a performing arts space back in 1919. The setting is suitably dramatic and, when you tire of perusing the stacks, you can relax with a coffee right on the stage.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid © Ingrid Truemper
El Ateneo Grand Splendid © Ingrid Truemper

(Main image:  © Annabel Vita)

Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to… whose guides cover all the best hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, sights, shops and spas.

5 bookstores that don’t look like bookstores was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Claire Bullen
Author: Claire Bullen (88 posts)

Globetrotter, chowhound, travel writer for Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to... and contributor to Cheapflights Travel Blogs.