Forget cathedrals, bars or beaches, when Amy Dawson arrives in a city, there’s only one place she’s headed…
As I set my alarm for 8am, the numbers fuzzing slightly after half a bottle of red, I consider that only a total freak would get up early on holiday to beat the crowds and visit a bookshop.
It turns out that the world is full of freaks like me. By the time I arrive at Porto’s Livraria Lello the next morning, a queue of people coils out the door. They’re all waiting to buy a €5 ticket – yes, a ticket – for the gorgeous art deco bookshop said to have inspired JK Rowling while she was living in the Portuguese city.
Fortified by black coffee, a custard tart and the knowledge that my entry fee is redeemable against a book purchase, I stick it out – and it’s worth the wait. With spiral staircases, ornate wooden carvings and stained glass the shop – rammed as it is – reflects the magnificence of the city.
Independent bookshops, long beleaguered by the march of chain stores and online deals, are starting to bounce back. In the UK alone, the number of indie bookshops actually rose – albeit by just the one – for the first time since 1995, according to the Booksellers Association. That’s great news for travel-hungry bibliophiles like me, who always make a bookshop their first port of call, it being one of the best ways to get to know a place.
These hassle-free enclaves are full of like-minded locals happy to point you towards their favourite beach or bar. As Grayson Perry says: ‘Book people are nice people.’ Some of the world’s most iconic bookshops have become tourist destinations. As such, fantastic as they are, making a pilgrimage there can be more of a hassle. Take the ramshackle Shakespeare And Company on the Left Bank, which is as charming and bohemian as Paris itself. It’s also full of posing bloggers, despite signs imploring visitors not to take pictures.
I’ve found some of my favourites by accident. During a trip to Lisbon’s LX Factory, a cluster of cool and creative businesses in a former industrial area, I happened upon Ler Devagar bookshop. This converted print factory felt like a book cathedral. And second-hand bookshops can cough up the most exciting treasures. I’ve scooped a vintage copy of Under Milk Wood at kooky Bookworms on the Norfolk coast and a ‘mystery bag’ of unknown books on offer for €5 outside Madrid’s Desperate Literature.
I long to see the El Ateneo Grand Splendid in a converted Buenos Aires theatre and dream of staying in Airbnb’s The Open Book, a flat above a bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland – here you can rent the flat and work in the shop, supported by volunteers. The price to play out your bookshopowning fantasies? £36 per night. Books, after all, are passports to other worlds – so bookshops might just be one of the keys to exploring this one.