1 April 2024 Susannah

Bookshops with Atmosphere

Ampersand Cafe & Bookstore, Paddington

What do you look for in a bookshop (apart from the particular book you are seeking, or a fabulous range of other books from which to choose)? Do you also seek a certain atmosphere?

Bookshops are truly unique places. You enter them with no certainty that you will actually like what you are buying (unlike shopping for a picture, or an item of furniture, or new clothes) because a book requires you to read it first. That means that when you enter a bookshop, you are faced with a world of possibilities, new fictional worlds waiting to be discovered, new facts to learn, new biographies to inspire. There will be surprises, possibly some disappointments, but nothing can dampen that marvellous sense of anticipation when you cross the threshold into a shop that sells books, knowing that undiscovered treasure is lying there waiting.

I love old-fashioned bookshops, where dark wooden shelves and squashy armchairs are the order of the day. I like to be left in peace to browse slowly, without any pressure to buy, I like to wander past tempting display tables with a particular theme for the display, set out so that I can easily see covers and titles, and I especially love bookshops with separate rooms, so that you feel you are entering yet another Aladdin’s cave as you progress through the shop. I also love shops that smell of books, that heady mixture of dust, leather and paper that you can sniff appreciatively, especially present in second-hand bookshops. I am also fond of a small café within a bookshop, so that the scent of coffee mingles with the book scent, and you can appreciatively eye books as you refresh yourself. It’s also essential to have well-informed staff – I’ve never recovered from the day I went looking for a copy of Peter Pan (my sons were going through a pirate phase) and was guided to Peter Rabbit instead. There needs to be a comprehensive stock of books, but it should not be so crammed that making your way around a fellow browser becomes impossible.

For me, entering a bookstore is an almost spiritual experience. If the ambience is right, I immediately feel calmer and happier than I was before I walked in.

However, some bookshops get it wrong and this is distressing. Too many novelty gift items, wrapping paper and board games simply take up space that could be devoted to books. Loud music playing sends me rushing for the entrance, though I’m fine with soft classical music in the background. And rude staff who can’t be bothered helping you is another no-no.

I also love books set in bookshops – 84 Charing Cross Road, The Thirteenth Tale, The Shadow of the Wind, The Mayfair Bookshop, The Little Paris Bookshop, Diary of a Bookseller, The Bookseller at the End of the World and Riceyman Steps are just some examples.

I hope you share my love of bookshops and also visit them often. They need our support! Do you have a favourite bookshop? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Comments (10)

  1. Margaret Debenham

    PS – I love books about bookshops. May I add a few to your list? – all of them enjoyable. Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop by Alba Donati, Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef, The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher, and A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi. And of course Shane Bythell’s follow-up, Remainders of the Day.

  2. Margaret Debenham

    I used to love the Edison bookshop on Piazza della Repubblica in Florence – a great range of books about Florence (and Italy generally), a goodish selection of English-language books, a good cafe, and open till midnight. Tragically, 10 years or so ago it closed and was replaced by an Apple store!! Shakespeare & Co in Paris has a good range of non-mainstream books, but far too many people make moving around the store very dificult, so sadly it’s not a place to linger.

  3. Margi Abraham

    The largest, most surprising bookshop I have ever wandered through is the appropriately named El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires in Argentina. It is in a converted theatre with a cafe on the stage!
    In remote Western Australia, there is a small oasis of literature – The Kimberley Bookshop. I was entranced by its broad range of books for every taste. So unexpected but greatly appreciated. Apparently it had its beginnings in a small library run by mission nuns. I love finding the book shop in any town I visit!

  4. John

    Heffer’s in Cambridge is always well worth a look, especially for factual books. I was also particularly fond of Topping’s in Bath, which seems to have changed location since 2019. The South Bridge outlet of Blackwell’s in Edinburgh was always a joy too: it seems to have retained its character despite changes in ownership. In Australia, I normally find online booksellers more helpful for my interests.

  5. Chris Browne

    Hi Susannah

    Where to start with one’s favourite atmospheric bookshops! London alone offers several amazing shops, Hatchard, Shapiro, Peter Harington, Jarndyce and Peter Ellis, one of the few left in the once fabulous Cecil Court. A little further afield is Jonkers in Henley upon Thames, the most atmospheric UK bookshop for children’s books, albeit at very grown-up prices!.

    In Paris, there is the legendary Shakespeare and Co, Librairie Chretien, almost opposite the British Embassy in Rue du Faubourg St Honore and the bookshops of the two sisters Amelie Sourget and Camille Sourget, both in the 6th arrondissement within 200 metres of each other. And possibly my favourite in Paris, Librairie Le Feu Follet (will of the Wisp) in Rue Henri Barbusse in the 5th, close to the Jardin de Luxembourg.

    In Venice, there is the rather touristy but charming Libraria Aqua Alta and the excellent and ever fascinating Libraria Antiquaria Segni Nel Tempo (Sign of the times) a hidden treasure trove in Dorsoduro in the Calle Lunga San Barnaba, which runs from the south west corner of the Campo San Barnaba, just behind the Ca’ Rezzonico, famous as the palace where Robert Browning died.

    In Australia, the clear standout is in Melbourne. It is Kay Craddock’s bookshop in Collins street, which was once named in a survey as one of the ten most beautiful bookshops in the world. An honourable mention would go to Louella Kerr’s former bookshop with Louise (I can’t recall her family name) in Glebe, sadly long gone. In Brisbane, Archives Rare Books would also gain an honourable mention, for their highly atmospheric shop in a nice ancient barn of a building in Charlotte street.

    Despite the loss of so many great bookshops in the last 20 years, there are still many gems left.

    Chris Browne

    • Chris Browne

      A minor correction… Lorraine Reed was the name of Louella Kerr’s former bookshop partner in Glebe.. sometimes the memory is a little slower and less agile these days.
      Best wishes

  6. Penelope Morris

    There used to be a wonderful second hand bookshop in Nelson Bay where we would holiday every year. Sadly it closed down as many independent bookshops have done (shades of the movie “You’ve Got Mail”). However one thing that has sprung up in my area (North Sydney) is a large number of community libraries that I can access as I walk the dog. The content can be hit and miss but occasionally you find a gem and I like to think that my contributions will be appreciated by others. I feel a little guilty for using such libraries when I could give the books to lifeline to sell but hopefully it encourages people to experience the pleasure of reading a physical book which in my opinion is far superior to reading on a tablet (except when I’m travelling of course). There is also a wonderful bookshop in Porto, Portugal “Livraria Lello” which is more of a tourist attraction these days but is certainly worth a visit for its staircases and decorations.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have my own Little Free Library outside my house and it is very well used. I love seeing what gets left there and what is quickly taken away by some eager reader.
      I’ve seen photos of that bookshop in Portugal and it looks stunning – hopefully one day I will get to see it.
      Yes, it’s so sad when independent bookshops close down.

      • Phyllis Dadley-Moore

        So many, but Hatchards of Piccadilly in London is definitely one, they have been there since 1797 and have atmosphere plus, dark wood, dimmed lighting and and no loud music, has a definite feeling of warmth and calmness, a happy place. Now owned by modern chain Waterstones, let’s hope they don’t change it. Probably not as —
        their own flagship store in Trafalgar Square is in a magnificent old colonnaded building and another place I would love to be lost at night after they close. It makes me smile every time I descend to the basement via the heavily carved dark wooden circular staircase. It’s like descending into a magic cave. It has all the elements required to while away many hours browsing in quiet comfort even though it is so close to much of London’s noisy traffic. The bookshelves are arranged so that you feel you are the only one in there browsing. definitely a happy place.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I am in total agreement! Those are two of my favourite London bookshops. I adore the old wood and sense of history in Hatchards. Did you know that Oscar Wilde popped in to buy books on one of his first days out of gaol? And that Waterstones on Trafalgar Square always such a wonderful selection of books.

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