Recently in Porto, I paid 4€ to get in to the Livraria Lello & Irmão, ranked as the third most beautiful bookstore in the world and supposedly an old favorite of J.K. Rowling. It was a beautiful bookstore. The 4€ wasn’t a waste, as it was also a voucher towards the purchase of any book (I got a book called Blindness by Portuguese author Jose Saramago; it’s some heavy shit).
But… I hated that bookstore. It’s not conducive to actually finding a book. It’s quite small, and there are so many people inside that browsing the books is not relaxing. Instead, you are avoiding elbows and waiting for five minutes just to go up the staircase because someone is taking a picture.
I see Instagram posts about charming libraries and bookstores and I wonder… do those people actually like to read? Or do they just like to appear well-read? Do they think looking cute in a bookstore will make them seem smarter? Because when I think about my favorite bookstores, they are never the ones I see on Instagram. (Okay, not usually the ones I see on Instagram.) In fact, I often skip libraries and bookstores that seem to be more aesthetics than book browsing. Because yeah, it looks cool, but what’s the point of that fancy library in Prague if all the books are in Czech?
The best bookstore (my favorite bookstore) is the one near me, where I can find the books I’m looking for, where I can spending hours browsing without feeling rushed, where they don’t mind if they find me curled up, pawing through a book.
A favorite of mine during my uni years in Berkeley. They have 3 locations in Berkeley and Oakland but are, of course, independently owned. They have a great section of new and used, but my favorite thing was that they always had a sale table where new books, sometimes even hardcover, would go for 3-10$. The sale table at Pegasus is where I first picked up my copy of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, one of the books and authors that changed my life. Plus, Pegasus has a live-in cat, so you can cuddle while you browse.
2349 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA
5560 College Avenue, Oakland, CA
1855 Solano Avenue, Berkeley, CA
City Lights Books
A San Francisco shop famous for its reputation as a stomping ground for beat poets back in the day, City Lights boasts a great selection (they even have a whole room dedicated to poetry) and a great location, right on the corner between Chinatown and North Beach. Caffe Trieste is right up the street, great Chinese and Italian restaurants are all within spitting distance, plus great bars and nightlife. Also, there are tons on strip clubs right down the street, if you’re into that sort of thing I guess.
261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA
The Last Bookstore
Everyone loves this bookstore in L.A., where you can walk through their labrynith of books and take a picture in the Instagram worthy halo. There are always a few people around taking photos, but for the most part people are actually in this store to look for books! (gasp! I hope they won’t start charging 5 bucks for entry!) My favorite part of the store is actually through the book tunnel, where they have a whole section of hardcover sorted by color. These are supposed to be “decorative” books (that’s L.A., always concerned with the aesthetic), but they are actually just normal books about normal things, so if you’re willing to browse you can find good-condition hardcovers for 2$ a pop that will also look pretty on your shelf.
453 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles Central Public Library
This is actually a really beautiful library, inside and out. The outside has a great art deco facade, and there are beautiful reading rooms and art installations inside. (Unfortunately, many sections just look like a normal, modern library.) If you want to get any books you need a library card, but you can spend as long as you like reading, with no one to bother you about how you’re not buying anything. You can also get married there, if you’re a real nerd.
630 W 5th St, Los Angeles, CA
An absolutely huge book store in Lower Manhattan. I actually have a canvas bag I bought here that I use every day. Also when I was there, I saw the cutest Pomeranian puppy, which was so small that its owner put it on the counter while she was paying for her books. Eeeek!
828 Broadway, New York, NY
Tajne Komplety (Secret Sets)
My favorite bookstore in Wrocław, not just because they are one of the few with a substantial selection of English books. They are super cosy, they have a cafe, and they have lots of cool post cards you can buy as well.
Przejście Garncarskie 2 (in the smaller alleyway inside Rynek), Wrocław, Poland
Księgarnia Hiszpańska Elite (Spanish Bookstore)
My other favorite bookstore, which has tons of books in Spanish (obviously), but also Spanish-language authors in English and Polish. They also have a cafe/bar and they host parties and meetings!
Karola Szajnochy 5, Wrocław, Poland
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. These are the places I’ve found and cherished, not necessarily because they were beautiful (although some of them are*) but because they are everything you want in a bookstore, not in a tourist attraction.