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“Like a Secular Church”: Exploring 50 of the World’s Best Indie Bookstores

By Aislyn Greene

Apr 26, 2021

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There are more than 240 “bouquinistes,” or secondhand booksellers, along the Seine in Paris.

Photo by Horst A. Friedrichs

There are more than 240 “bouquinistes,” or secondhand booksellers, along the Seine in Paris.

In a new book, journalist Stuart Husband and photographer Horst A. Friedrichs profile the agonies and ecstasies of 50 bookstores around the world.

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There’s a special magic to a good bookstore. The best serve as temples of knowledge, places of comfort, even sources of companionship (hello, bookstore cat). As author Nora Krug writes in the introduction to Bookstores (Prestel, April 2021), a celebration of 50 of the world’s best indie bookstores: “Entering an independent bookstore feels like setting foot in a strange town. . . . When you leave the store (hopefully with a purchased book in your bag), you find that you are richer: in images and words, in thoughts and feelings.”

Authored by Stuart Husband and photographed by Horst A. Friedrichs, Bookstores takes readers behind the scenes of famous bookstores, including the Strand in New York and Paris’s Shakespeare & Company, as well as smaller indie bookstores you may never have heard of, such as Baldwin’s Book Barn in Pennsylvania. Over the course of hundreds of pages, we absorb the histories of each bookshop and meet the passionate characters who run them, despite the stress, the lack of financial security, the troublesome landlords. Owning a bookstore, Husband quipped wryly, “is not a way to get rich—so it has to be about the passion.”

Releasing the book during the pandemic—a time when small businesses need support more than ever, with places like the Strand facing uncertain futures—wasn’t intentional, but arguably, there couldn’t be a better time to champion what many of us know: Independent bookstores are vital, fascinating pillars of our communities.

Portugal’s Livraria Lello—the bookstore many believe was the inspiration for Hogwarts in Harry Potter—is considered one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores.

Once upon a time

It all began three years ago—“in the PPE, or prepandemic era,” Husband says. The pair—both book lovers based in London—had collaborated before on a book for the 120th anniversary of the luggage company Samsonite, and when the opportunity arose to feature independent bookstores, the two of them leapt at the chance. From an initial list of 250 bookstores, they winnowed their picks to about 50 of the most notable in Europe and the United States and set out on a three-month journey to research, report on, and photograph the lot. (Japan and China were on the initial list but were, lamentably, cut for budget reasons.)

Friedrichs and Husband lobbied their publisher to travel together: Husband to interview the owner—resulting in a profile on each—and Friedrichs to photograph the shop, taking the story and the history of each place into account. As they traveled from London to the USA and back to Europe, the duo witnessed the universality of bookstores, as well as the uniqueness of each.

Buy now: Bookstores: A Celebration of Independent Booksellers $42, bookshop.org

The bookstores of England, they say, tend to have a more individualistic sensibility. “You’ll find things in them you never thought you’d find,” Husband says—such as Persephone Books, which highlights overlooked or forgotten books by women. Why? Spaces in England are often quite small, almost forcing booksellers to hone in on a focus. Bookstores in Portugal, such as the Instagram-famous Lello, are frequently grand and opulent with dark, ancient woods and a sense of mystery. But they both found that they had a soft spot for the sprawling, all-encompassing American bookstores.

“To me, American bookstores are the best,” Husband says. “I just think they’re massive repositories of thoughts and ideas. A place like the Strand is like—I don’t want to say it’s like the Walmart of books, because it’s not—but it’s probably got everything in there and tons of other things you never imagined would ever be anywhere.”

The Strand bookstore in New York City opened in 1920 and is now home to 18 miles of books.

Most of Husband’s go-to authors are American—Jane Bowles is a particular favorite—and he found his zen in City Lights, the bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood once home to some of the best writers of the Beat generation. Friedrichs, too, was captivated by the shop, where Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac once walked. “The American authors I had been reading, they became alive in this place,” he says. “It was very spiritual, actually.”

Once a book lover, always a book lover

They were both bitten by the book bug at an early age, though their journeys were different. Husband spent hours in the library as a young boy, so much so that by the time he entered his first year of school, he was leaps and bounds beyond other kids in reading. There was a brief time in middle school when he didn’t read at all. “But then I came back to it voraciously,” he says. “In fact, part of the reason I bought the house I’m in was because the guy who lived here before me used to run a secondhand bookstore, so it already came with eight meters of bookshelves.”

At Pro qm in Berlin, the focus is on urbanism—books and events cover everything from housing issues to climate change.

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Friedrichs, who was born in Frankfurt—now known as a center of literature with its annual festival—also grew up in the library, though he spent much of his time as a kid reading comic books. It wasn’t until he became a travel photographer that he began to read in earnest, falling for the works of V.S. Naipaul and Gabriel García Márquez. In fact, as he began to travel for work, he found that books were one of the quickest ways to connect with a place. “The first thing [I’d do], whenever I arrived in, say, Pakistan or Morocco, was always to go into a bookstore,” he says.

Spaces to dream

Given their early introductions to the power of books, it only seems fitting that, decades later, they’re championing the ever-vulnerable bookstore. Despite near-constant predictions of the demise of the indie bookstore, if anything, they say, Bookstores proves the enduring value of the entity. There are the hard facts: The number of independent bookstores has grown over the past few years, especially in Britain and the United States. Beyond that, bookstores continue to offer something online retailers cannot: independent, nonjudgmental spaces where anyone can freely wander the aisles, read magazines, linger over a coffee and a book without buying a single thing (though we strongly support making a purchase!). Time and time again, the owners that Husband and Friedrichs met with stressed that yes, there may be a transaction at the end of someone entering the store, but that’s not what it’s about.

Baldwin’s Book Barn in West Chester, Pennsylvania, occupies a 19th-century dairy barn.

 “[A bookstore] is a space to dream, it’s a space to be enchanted, to discover things, to turn your outdoor brain off and turn on your bookstore brain,” Husband says. “I think that’s going to be so important to people after the pandemic, if it wasn’t already important to them before that.”  

One London bookstore left a particular impression on the pair. Word on the Water, which occupies a barge along the London canals, has suffered many setbacks: Owners Paddy Screech and Jonathan Privett sacrificed their grocery budget to buy new books, battled with the trust that maintains the canals—at one particularly low point, the barge even sank. But Screech and Privett remained committed to their dream, in part due to the change people undergo when they walk through the doors. 

Their shoulders lower—sometimes people even cry, Screech says. It’s led him to view the bookstore as something like a secular church. There’s something about bringing people together in a place where, for whatever reason, people just quietly agree they’re going to be nice to each other, he told the duo. It’s “a world built on mutual regard and trust and the power of words and ideas. That’s why it’s kind of a sacred space.” 

Buy now: Bookstores: A Celebration of Independent Booksellers $42, bookshop.org

>>Next: Around the World in 80 Books

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