The world's most inspiring bookstores

From Gothic cathedrals to revamped factories, these spaces will make you rethink your Kindle

  • Reading your way around the world at Daunt Books in London

    One of London’s most beautiful shops of any kind, Daunt Books would be worth a visit just to soak up the streaming natural light emanating from the skylights and the illuminated Edwardian elegance. Beyond the beauty of the place, Daunt — with its unusual organization — is the ultimate bookstore for travelers and literary explorers. The books are arranged on long oak shelves, not by genre or author, but instead by country. You’ll find travel guides, phrase books, maps and memoirs, but also novels, poetry, history, field guides, cooking books, biographies and much more organized according to geography. It’s the kind of quiet place of contemplation where you could spend a whole afternoon plotting your next move. Burned-out parents: The top-notch selection of children’s books will ensure that even your rambunctious offspring will adopt a hushed tone here.
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  • Falling into a book lover’s rabbit hole in Detroit

    Standing defiantly amid one of Detroit’s many surreal, post-apocalyptic ruin-scapes is a place that has to be experienced to be believed: John King Books. Converted from an abandoned 1940s glove factory, John King is a five-story wooden maze stuffed stairwells-to-ceilings with used and rare books — one of the largest and strangest collections in North America. The staff lives for your oddball, out-of-print request, but the true pleasure of this mad repository is getting lost. Cardboard signs, musty paperback aromas, and a hand-scrawled map out of a Wes Anderson panic attack are your only tour guides as you lose track of time and the person you came with. Outside, it’s urban decay. Inside, it’s a creaking, pulsing monument to how much Kindles suck. Map it.

  • Elevating the reading experience in Maastricht, Netherlands

    Expect to find some creative (and bizarre) repurposing of ecclesiastical architecture in a country that has been steadily secularizing for over a century. Once home to a community of Dominican friars who were driven out by Napoleon’s invading army in the late 18th century, Selexy Dominicanen’s soaring Gothic structure fell upon hard times — so hard that it was until recently used for storage of the town’s impounded bicycles. In 2006, the church was restored and, without encroaching upon the historic structure, fitted with an innovative three-story structure of towering bookshelves and catwalks that vertically fills the nave where parishioners once prayed. Book browsers can climb to the uppermost stacks for a dizzying view of the network of ceiling frescoes, columns and row upon row of books. Reading here feels like a sacred activity and the architects Merkx + Girod weren’t afraid to make this explicit by placing a communal reading table shaped like a cross in the former altar area (where you can order a glass of wine if you want it to make the experience even more sacramental). Map it.

  • Bookworming in a 19th-century theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina

    Gazing beyond the racks of Borges and Cort

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    Getting lost in time in the Montague Bookmill in Massachusetts

    With its slogan “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find,” the Montague Bookmill has secured its standing among the most delightful places in which to get lost. Grab one of the cafe’s sandwiches (like the brie with apricot jam and marinated apple), take a seat by a sunny window, and get carried away by the rushing Sawmill River. Traverse the creaky wooden floors and browse a selection of titles that marries classic and idiosyncratic (Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf meets Marxist mistrals and old paddling guides). Even before you check out the bathroom, with its quirkily papered walls (news of Norman Mailer’s stabbing his wife in 1960, a poster of Frank Zappa for President, a Hungarian transportation map), you’ve fallen in love with this repurposed New England gristmill clinging to the riverbank. While there’s no better place to read, the bookmill also hosts folk and bluegrass shows, film screenings and other events. Map it.

  • Climbing the stairway to (literary) heaven in Porto, Portugal

    Every book lover will feel at home upon setting foot inside the century-old, art nouveau Lello Bookshop, in Porto. After stepping through the ornate neo-Gothic facade and gazing around at the carved wooden interior and the stained-glass ceiling, you’ll be forced to agree with the Guardian for placing it in the top three most beautiful bookshops in the world. But it’s not until you climb the twisted stairway to the second floor that the true beauty of the bookshop can be appreciated. In a postmodern world where bookstores are barely hanging on and books themselves are losing their physical presence, it’s hard to grasp that literature once inspired such architectural reverence. Map it.

  • Exploring a neighborhood of books in Jimobocho, Tokyo, Japan

    One of the densest concentrations of books (and readers) in the world, Jimbocho Book Town is home to major publishing houses, over 150 mom-and-pop bookstores, a handful of superstores like Sanseido and Shosen, and a swarm of students from nearby universities. Far from the neon canyons, this part of Tokyo feels homey and low-rise. The bookstores line both sides of Yasukuni-dori for several blocks, spilling over into alleys and side streets, and tend to specialize by genre. Visitors with limited Japanese flock to Kitazawa, which has an interesting selection of foreign language books, or to the many stores that specialize in manga, graphic novels, pop culture ephemera, and memorabilia like Yaguchi Shoten or Nakano. Even if you are daunted by kanji or terrified to touch first editions that cost thousands of dollars, it’s hard to resist the movie posters, anime cels, plastic robots, figurines, plushies, monster masks and other toys that line the shelves. Tucked in between stores, in alleys, and even behind the stacks are dinerlike restaurants dishing up Japanese comfort food like curry, tempura, tonkatsu and soba. Map it.

  • Reading with angels in disguise in Paris, France

    The small, narrow hallways inspire wonder, curiosity, perhaps even fear in its customers; who (or what) might be lurking behind that copy of “Crime and Punishment”? Upstairs, there’s a black cat and a well-made bed — but who will sleep in it tonight? The bookstore’s motto — “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” — means Allen Ginsberg and Henry Miller, among others, have found solace in the dusty corners and the well-read books waiting (perhaps waiting even for you) in the hallways of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore.
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  • Flipping through signed first editions in Manhattan, New York City

    The used volumes lining the shelves outside of Argosy Books draw you in; their casual presentation, so trusting of passersby. You inspect a few then step curiously indoors. The gallery is quiet — not so much because it’s a rule, but rather out of respect for the work that goes on there. Since 1925, Argosy has dealt in antiquarian books, maps and autographs, and the quirky and high-quality collection now fills six museum-like floors. Under the warming glow of a desk lamp, a clerk inspects the spine of a recently purchased first edition. Inquire about the masterpiece of your favorite author and you’ll find yourself ferried to the sixth floor in an ancient elevator. The thin volume is already lying out, waiting for you to inhale the slightly dusty scent and run your fingers along the yellowing parchment. When questions about this book’s history turn toward price, the answer makes you gasp. Retreating back downstairs, a more affordable edition by the same author, one that doesn’t require a lock and key — will do quite nicely for now.
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  • Losing yourself among bookshelves at Eslite in Taipei, Taiwan

    Eslite, the largest bookstore chain in Taiwan, has a flagship store in Taipei’s Xinyi District. If you’re fond of literature, you’ve probably seen your share of humongous bookstores. But if you’re a foreigner inside Eslite — which boasts six stories aboveground, a few underground and 1 million books — the book-browsing experience is different. More than just a place to buy books, Eslite aims to be a “cultural window to the world.” Architect Chen Rui-xian created a series of art-filled, futuristic spaces lined with inviting places to sit and read — the ultimate 24-hour hangout for bookworms and perhaps something more, a cultural world unto itself.
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  • Attaining bibliophilic bliss at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore.

    Heaven for literature lovers, Powell’s Books claims to be the world’s largest independent new and used bookstore. You may faint from ecstasy after you walk into Powell’s for the first time: It occupies an entire city block in the Pearl District of downtown Portland and boasts more than 68,000 square feet of space. (There’s an entire floor for books on hold!) The humongous rooms, each the size of an ordinary bookstore, are color-coded and elaborately mapped — when you realize you’ve remained in the purple room for a few hours, you panic, knowing that a month isn’t enough time to leisurely sift through the collection. The rare book room is worth the trek upstairs, while the selection of fiction, nonfiction and children’s books is vast enough to keep you busy rifling through the titles for a lifetime. Out-of-towners flock to Portland specifically to make this pilgrimage.
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  • Rummaging around nooks and crannies in Azbakia Book Market, Cairo

    Take the Metro to Ataba — a sprawling neighborhood of chaotic markets, where you can even buy the proverbial kitchen sink — and you first emerge into Sour El Azbakia Book Market. Rows of whitewashed wooden shacks with battered mashrabia paneling, the market is an Aladdin’s Cave for culture vultures. Books of all shapes and sizes tumble from groaning shelves. Leather and gilt-bound Qurans jostle for space with “HTML 4 Dummies,” and “Magic’s First Gymkhana” does battle with “The Bourne Identity.” Burrow a little deeper, and you’ll turn up 70-year-old National Geographics, satirical Egyptian comics, and faded vintage film posters. Seek out the most wizened old man with the most wizard-like beard, and if he doesn’t have an ancient alchemical tome, he’ll at least have a genuine, framed photo of King Farouk. The air here is thick with the dust of time, and the hope that tired old print will once more see the light of day.
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  • Veering into a bookish medieval fantasy in Uruena, Spain

    Just a short detour off the A-6, the walled villa of Urue

  • Browsing San Francisco’s beatnik past at City Lights Bookstore

    A creaky triangle, refusing to yield to the boxy skyscrapers and shops of North Beach, City Lights is a literary monument to San Francisco’s beatnik past. Work your way through the densely packed labyrinth of shelves to find obscure, left-leaning works of fiction, history, politics, spirituality and more, but the soul of the store is revealed in the upstairs poetry room. City Lights contains every American poet imaginable, an extraordinary selection of international works from far-flung countries, and an unparalleled collection of the beat poets that the historic store harbored, nurtured and even published when no one else would. Map it.