Whenever I travel, I try to find a local bookstore to pick up a good read, often a novel set in the locale I’m visiting. It’s a great way both to gain a better understanding of the place that you won’t glean from a travel conspectus and to acquire a terrific souvenir to savor once you return home. Frank Delaney’s enchanting Ireland; John Kennedy Toole’s hilarious A Confederacy of Dunces (set in New Orleans), and John Berendt’s can’t-put-it-down Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Savannah, Georgia) are just three of the works set in places I visited that made their way into my luggage and still occupy a cherished section of my library, and in my heart and mind. Of course, there are some bookstores that are destinations in and of themselves, like those concentrated on Charing Cross Road in London and the five-story Barnes & Noble in New York’s Union Square, even if you have no intention of making a purchase. These are my favorites.
#1 Powell’s City of Books (Portland, Oregon)
In downtown Portland’s Pearl District, I came across Powell’s City of Books. It’s hard to miss, and its name suggests a literal reality. Powell’s, the world’s largest independent new and used bookstore, occupies an entire city block. Stepping inside, I was no longer in Portland, or Oregon, for that matter; I had entered a tremendous world of fact and fiction, a singular universe that could have transported me to absolutely anywhere I wanted to go. An employee quickly handed me a map of the place — one can easily get lost within its 68,000 square feet of retail space. With nine color-coded rooms and a stunning 3,500 different sections, Powell’s houses more than one million books, ensuring that you’ll find everything you want, and a lot of what you suddenly never realized you couldn’t do without. Since opening in 1971, Powell’s has abided by its simple mission: “to be the world’s best destination for readers, a place that fosters a culture of reading and connects people with the books they’ll love.” With massive selections in fiction, architecture, history, sports, and so much more, including out-of-print and hard-to-find titles, Powell’s has you covered, with publications on everything from ab workouts to Zoolexicon. A steady program of events and author readings keeps drawing customers back to this store that had grown so large it had to move from its original location into a former car dealership, continuing to expand until it reached its current cavernous size. Be prepared to spend lots of your travel budget here, and for you to finally exit at a completely different time of day from when you entered.
#2 El Ateneo Grand Splendid (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Although Powell’s is my favorite for the book lover in me, El Ateneo Grand Splendid surpasses it, and all others, in aesthetics. Back when Buenos Aires was the “it” city of South America to see and in which to be seen, in the very early 1900s, it earned the nickname the “Paris of South America,” not only for its sophisticated and glamorous residents and visitors, but also for the fantastic European-style architecture beautified this city. One of those structures is the remarkable building that houses El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Under a glass and iron marquee held in place by sturdy chains, a double-columned Greek-style canopy marks the main entrance to this nine-story edifice, completed in 1919. On either side, above two sets of doors separated by a columned trumeau, lintels carved with affronted Egyptian-style creatures, half bosomy woman and half winged lion, strike an exotic note. Muscular atlantids support the lowest balconies. Above, a central curved bay of four French doors per floor rises almost to the top of the building, where a stone head under a pediment looks down at the street below. The grandeur continues inside, and I immediately understood why The Guardian ranked it the no. 2 bookstore in the world in 2008, only to be outdone in 2019, when National Geographic bumped it up to the top spot. This bookstore, which stocks about 120,000 books in its 22,000 square feet, began its life as the Teatro Gran Splendid, a theater with a seating capacity of 1,050. This beacon of porteño culture was designed to remind people of the Paris Opera House when they came to see ballets and operas, and, a little while later, the first talking pictures in Argentina.
Today, bookshelves have replaced the rows of theater seats, but, other than that, you’ll feel like little has changed in the past century, thanks to a $3 million renovation that restored its Old World splendor. Like the city in its heyday, El Ateneo seduces you to it and now woos inside more than one million people annually since it opened in 2000. English-language books here are fairly scarce, but you simply won’t care if you can’t find a takeaway purchase. A lower level leads to a children’s book section, but it’s the ground floor and the levels above it that make you feel, unless you’re wearing a tuxedo, underdressed. I headed to the center of the open floor plan and looked directly up at the ceiling dome that features the original Italian frescoes celebrating the end of World War I. On either side of me, three levels of curved balconies with elaborate carvings, exposed light bulbs, and fluted Corinthian columns wrapped around the walls; the lower two are stocked with cases of books, paintings and sculptures, and comfortable seating, while the top is reserved for special exhibitions and displays. The ornate luxury theater boxes above the former orchestra pit, once the realm of wealthy patrons who wanted the best seats in the house, now accommodate quiet reading rooms with spectacular views. I stepped onto the broad stage, past the original plush crimson curtains, and imagined the actors, opera singers, and tango artists who once performed here, trying to listen for echoes of sopranos and sonorous baritones and passionate dance steps of the sexiest dance ever created. More contemporary noises make it challenging: The stage now serves as the seating area for a café, and the clinking of coffee cups and teaspoons return you to the present, but I doubt you’ll find a more exhilarating place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a good read simultaneously.
#3 Tattered Cover LoDo (Denver, Colorado)
With three locations in Denver, this independent bookseller provided an unexpected treat when I popped in after checking out the city’s historic Union Station, just a block away, where this bookseller has a second location. Tattered Cover began its life in 1971 and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Its location in LoDo, in lower downtown near one end of the pedestrian 16th Street Mall, opened in 1994. Housed in the handsome old Morey Mercantile Company building from 1896, with horizontal banding on the first story, recessed upper-story windows, and a bracketed metal cornice, Tattered Cover has since expanded to more than 20,000 square feet of retail space, with enough room to seat 300 people at its more than 600 special events annually. Inside, I entered a world of exposed brick walls and plenty of wood — well-trod wood floors, wood bookcases and counters, wood magazine racks, and wood pillars supporting the beamed wood ceiling. Plenty of wood tables and chairs are available for you to take a break from hours of browsing and enjoy your snacks from the in-store coffee shop. Despite its tremendous size, this bookshop still feels cozy, and, staffed by a helpful and knowledgeable group of bibliophiles, helps mitigate your insatiate book lust.
#4 Boulder Book Store (Boulder, Colorado)
I fell hard for Boulder, one of the most livable places I’ve ever been. With its perfect mountain setting, incredibly beautiful university campus, terrific Tajik teahouse, and perfect bike trail, I was finding everything I would want in a small city if and when I ever relocate from New York. All it needed was a great independent bookstore, and I found it along the lovely brick-paved Pearl Street Mall. Boulder’s largest independent bookstore, founded in 1973, moved in 1991 to its current location — a terrific building from 1899. Through its brass doors, I entered what felt more like a well-stocked library / living room than a purveyor of tomes, courtesy of a well-considered remodel. Utilizing a feng shui concept, the design creates a natural and welcoming flow to its 20,000 square feet of space spread out over three floors. With restored stained-glass windows and liberal use of plants and area rugs, Boulder Book Store invites you to browse its 100,000 titles in stock in a cordial setting. The historic second-story ballroom also received some sprucing up from its original purpose as a ballroom and meeting space that the Lumbermen of the World and other groups used until the late 1960s, followed by a photography studio for about a decade and a meeting place for the Karma Dzong Buddhist Church, until it became vacant in 1976 and remained so until the bookstore moved in. Today, the ballroom hosts more than 150 annual events. I’m not the only person to love this bookstore: Publishers Weekly named it “Bookstore of the Year” in 2018.
#5 Barnes & Noble (Rochester, Minnesota)
Yes, it’s a massive national chain, unlike all my other favorite bookstores, but I happen to like Barnes & Noble. Once you’ve been in one, however, you’ve pretty much had the experience. This branch in Rochester, however, gets the nod simply for where it’s located — in the old Chateau Theatre. Opened in 1927 as a Vaudeville house, it morphed into a movie house and also presented plays, operas, and concerts before it closed in 1983, three years after it earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Eleven years later, Barnes & Noble moved in. Tucked into a little grassy square, the theater presents an understated façade, with a subtle diamond pattern in the bricks, a trio of arched windows and medallions, and a mansard roof. The Art Deco marquee, however, explodes in color with a red and yellow sunburst on three sides. All Jazz Age thoughts immediately disappeared when I stepped inside, into the courtyard of a medieval French village. Although stacks of books have replaced the 1,487 red velvet seats, the theater’s original décor remains, including a castle with balconies and turrets and steeply pitched roofs. The dark blue ceiling still twinkles with stars, just as it did a century ago. Even if you bear antipathy toward behemoth national chains that are dishing out coups de grâce to small shops, you’ll want to pop in to this location, where you can’t judge the Norman book by the Art Deco cover.
- Seattle Mystery (Seattle, Washington)
- Powell’s Travel Bookstore (Portland, Oregon)
- The Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle, Washington)
- Bardstown Booksellers (Bardstown, Kentucky)
- Mitzi’s Books (Rapid City, South Dakota)
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