Temples for the Literary Pilgrim


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PORTO, PORTUGAL

Livraria Lello

For devourers of that delicacy made from text and pulped wood — better known as the book — the Clérigos neighborhood in Porto satisfies every appetite. Book-lined wine bars (Café Candelabro), restaurants (Restaurante Book) and cafes (Livraria da Baixa) fill the district, which is also home to Livraria Lello, a stunning Old World bookshop stocked to the rafters with new and antiquarian tomes.

The 110-year-old structure could easily be mistaken for a church. Topped with spires, the finely wrought Gothic-style facade opens onto a soaring space with columns, ornate medieval motifs and a dazzling stained-glass ceiling that hovers over the marquee attraction: a sinewy blood-red double staircase that coils like a strand of DNA.

“The intention was to make an extraordinary building — a cathedral for the arts and letters,” said an owner, José Lello, whose great-grandfather was among the founders.

And like a cathedral, the bookshop attracts fervent worshipers — up to 3,500 a day — who pay a three-euro fee (about $3.20). Harrison Ford and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, who owns the Manchester City soccer team, were among last summer’s visitors, Mr. Lello said.

Some pilgrims are bibliophiles keen to immerse themselves in one of Europe’s most ornate bookshops. Many are disciples of the boy who has become Livraria Lello’s patron saint: Harry Potter.

According to bookshop lore, J. K. Rowling drew inspiration for her young-adult novels from the shop’s creaky interiors while teaching English in Porto in the early 1990s. At least two employees from those days recalled Ms. Rowling as a customer, Mr. Lello said.

Matilde Lindberg, the shop’s “tourism coordinator,” said there were “many similarities between our staircase and the one depicted in the Hogwarts school,” she noted, referring to the academy attended by Harry and his magician friends.

On a July afternoon, scores of travelers from Europe, Asia and beyond crowded the shop, while perhaps a hundred more waited outside. Standing near the tiny upstairs cafe — a three-table affair between books on Portugal tourism and Portuguese cuisine — two honeymooners from Boston, Kelsey Boyd and Nicholas Mucci, trained their cameras on the shop’s chiseled wood and plaster details. The pair had spent 45 minutes in line in the drizzle, they said, but were happy to wait. “It’s like a museum in here,” said Ms. Boyd, a longtime Potter fan, comparing the shop to the castles and other monuments they had visited. “It has that magical feel about it.”

— SETH SHERWOOD


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Zhongshuge Bookstore in China has a mirrored ceiling and optical illusions.
CreditZhongshuge Bookstore

HANGZHOU, CHINA

Zhongshuge Bookstore

In internet-addicted China, now the world’s largest e-commerce market, bookstores have had to reinvent themselves swiftly to survive. For the Chinese bookseller Zhongshuge’s new outlet on Binsheng Road in Hangzhou (86-0571-8800-3279), a booming tech hub about an hour southwest of Shanghai by train, this meant turning the concept of a bookstore on its head: Rather than making books the sole focal point, the owners created a high-design space filled with optical illusions to attract experience-seeking millennials and even younger readers.

When you walk into the shop, the books appear to reach impossible heights and stretch clear into the distance, an effect created by the perfect symmetry of the dark wooden shelves and the clever use of mirrors on the ceilings and walls. In an amphitheater-like room for readings and lectures, the impression is amplified by the reflection of the curved wall in the mirrored ceiling; it feels as if you are completely surrounded by a rainbow of book spines. In yet another room, the books are arranged on thin columns placed randomly around the room like trees in a forest, with benches interspersed for reading. Again, a mirrored ceiling makes the shelves appear as if they are not just trees, but towering redwoods.

Li Xiang, the designer of the store, said the idea was to get young people in the doors and encourage them to linger for hours over a book or a piece of tiramisù and an espresso in the bookstore’s cafe. On a recent afternoon, that was precisely what customers were doing; the shop was filled with 20-somethings flipping through novels, not a cellphone in sight.

“I didn’t want it to be a traditional bookstore; I would rather it be like an art gallery,” Ms. Li said.

Hangzhou is revered in China for its misty mountains, tea plantations and the famous West Lake. Ms. Li sought to bring nature into the design, hence the treelike book columns and waterlike reflections.

Ms. Li designed a playful kids’ room with animal-shaped chairs and bookshelves shaped like a pirate ship and a twisting roller coaster. School groups come frequently for lectures on Hangzhou’s history and there’s the occasional experimental theater performance and sleepover, when families pitch tents in the store.

Ms. Li said she hoped the space inspired children more than the drab bookstores of her youth. “They were ugly, just full of shelves,” she said. “I’d prefer to bring functionality and beauty together so people can enjoy their time in the bookstore.”

— JUSTIN BERGMAN


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Shakespeare and Company in Paris has a team for web orders and has added a cafe.
CreditAlex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times

PARIS

Shakespeare and Company

From its antique typewriters to the age-cracked tomes on groaning shelves, Shakespeare and Company, the legendary Paris bookstore, offers visitors a chance to step into a time capsule. The stuff of myth whispers from musty corners: Allen Ginsberg once stripped naked there for a poetry reading. Anaïs Nin left her will under the bed of the bookstore’s eccentric founder, George Whitman, who hosted legions of writers before he died in 2011. Henry Miller hailed the place simply as “a wonderland of books.”

That it has been ever since Mr. Whitman set up shop in 1951 at 37, rue de la Bûcherie, on the site of a medieval monastery facing the brooding towers of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. With its bohemian alcoves and sagging benches that double as beds for wayward writers known as Tumbleweeds, the bookstore has drawn millions of curious souls seeking to imbibe the spirit of a bygone time.

These days, though, Shakespeare and Company is trying to get a little more 21st century. Since Mr. Whitman’s death, his daughter, Sylvia, has worked to strike a balance between preserving the store’s legendary past and fostering a vibrant scene for modern works. A recent renovation of the ground floor gives prominence to contemporary writers, while another space houses a web team for online orders. A ramped-up events schedule features established authors, most recently Don DeLillo and Marlon James, the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

“That’s what a bookshop should be,” said Adam Biles, the store’s events manager. “Not a museum piece, but a place where people can go to discover new things and new ideas.”

And then there is the Shakespeare and Company Cafe, which opened next door in October 2015. Beneath shelves of vintage books, visitors can sit with a cappuccino or a slice of gluten-free pie and read undisturbed. Should some need a quieter haven, they can wind their way up the creaky stairs of the main bookshop to the old reading room. Over the doorway, a sign posted by Mr. Whitman has not faded over the years: “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”

— LIZ ALDERMAN


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Atlantis Books in Santorini, Greece, holds a film festival and tzatziki competitions.
CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

SANTORINI, GREECE

Atlantis Books

Amid the glitz and din of tourist shops on the vacation paradise of Santorini, a whitewashed staircase sinks into the earth. At the bottom, a stone doorway opens onto a Hobbit-like den. Inside lies a hidden treasure: thousands of titles of literature, poetry and short stories, plus children’s books and pre-loved books, sprawled over shelves fashioned from driftwood and discarded pallets culled from junkyards.

This literary cocoon is Atlantis Books, a quirky bookstore opened in 2004 on the island that legend claims to be the site of the lost city of Atlantis. Perched on a limestone cliff above the Aegean Sea, the shop has grown into something of a cult destination for travelers looking to relax under the Greek sun with a good read in English, French, Italian or other languages. Beneath the steady gaze of Naxie, the store’s calico cat, visitors will find rare and antiquarian books, new and used paperbacks, modern classics and troves of Greek literature.

“The only thing we care about is that the books are good,” said Craig Walzer, a founder and an American expat. At age 23 he had started the store originally as something of a half joke. Having fallen in love with the island, he filled a van in Cambridge, England, with books and friends and sojourned to the town of Oia, where they procured an empty building facing the russet sunset, installed shelves and books and began operating.

Today, the store holds literary festivals with readings by authors. There are musical performances, a film festival and even tzatziki competitions on the terrace, which has a stunning view of the volcanic caldera where Atlantis was believed to have sunk into the sea.

Lest vacationers fret about stuffing books into already-crammed suitcases, Atlantis has a solution. Mr. Walzer recently opened a little printing operation in New York making slim handmade titles, from Edgar Allan Poe to Plato, that travelers can have shipped home or to a friend. Copies can also be ordered online for people wishing to send a little slice of Greece or Atlantis to themselves.

— LIZ ALDERMAN


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Munro’s Books in British Columbia features large wall hangings.
CreditWayne Templeton

VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Munro’s Books

Walking into Munro’s Books, nestled in the quaint Old Town of Victoria, feels a lot like walking into a temple — an ancient one, perhaps Roman or Greek. That’s partly because of the neo-Classical design of the building, which originally opened in 1909 as a Royal Bank of Canada branch. Much of that décor is still evident, from the impressive columns on its facade to its soaring 24-foot coffered ceiling.

But any religious impressions may also be thanks to the couple who have been associated with the space for over 30 years: Jim and Alice Munro — yes, that Alice Munro, the Nobel Prize-winning author (though the Munros divorced in 1972 and Ms. Munro was never an owner of the store). The store originally opened on nearby Yates Street in 1963, but in 1984 moved into the old bank space and has been a gravitational spot in downtown Victoria ever since.

Mr. Munro, who turned the store over to a group of employees in 2014, died last month. But the name surely attracts visitors, as it did me during a visit this past summer. Walking into the grand space, I was struck by the gorgeous wall hangings that rise above the bookshelves like giant imaginative windows. The pieces, by Carole Sabiston, a Canadian textile artist (and Mr. Munro’s second wife), depict the four seasons and classic works of literature.

Among the books, Canadiana is unsurprisingly well represented (including an impressive array of First Nations literature and art books), as well as French-language books (“Nouveau!” reads a sign on one shelf). After wandering the aisles, though, I soon found myself in a children’s book alcove with my 4-year-old daughter. We sat and played and read and could have stayed for hours.

— DAN SALTZSTEIN


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El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a former theater in Buenos Aires, attracts readers to its balcony seats.
CreditHoracio Paone for The New York Times

BUENOS AIRES

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

El Ateneo Grand Splendid is one of this city’s most remarkable landmarks, a sprawling space whose history mirrors the cultural development of Argentina. The grandeur of the former theater belies the rather prosaic merchandise provided by the bookshop chain that owns the current incarnation: The open interior is surrounded by tiers of balconies that, especially when lit in the evenings, make it easy to imagine the ballet and opera and tango performances of a century ago. Later it became the first cinema in Buenos Aires to show “talkies,” and some films were accompanied by live tango orchestration. It even had its own radio station, LR4 Radio Splendid, which began broadcasting in 1923.

The building had been falling into disrepair when it was converted into a bookstore by the El Ateneo chain in 2000; the work was carried out by the studio of the Buenos Aires architect Fernando Manzone, which was careful to leave the majority of architectural flourishes intact. The second and third floors, once balconies and boxes that held an audience, are still supported by ornate pillars and are now lined with books and dotted with comfy chairs for reading. The domed ceiling, frescoed by Nazareno Orlandi, remains. On the ground floor at the very back of the store is the stage, still bedecked with red curtains, and now supporting tables and chairs: This has become a cafe and a good place for foot-weary tourists to down an espresso. The books include works carried by chain bookstores (there’s a small English language section) but the music selection is excellent, a small reminder of the heritage of the Grand Splendid.

— NELL McSHANE WULFHART


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El Péndulo in Mexico City serves as a cultural hub.
CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

MEXICO CITY

El Péndulo

With its tall ficus trees and pots of trailing devil’s ivy, El Péndulo (52-55-5280-4111) in the upscale district of Polanco is an airy refuge from the incessant urban thrum outside. Bookshelves stretch up the walls of the double-height atrium, and a curving staircase leads to the second-floor gallery, making the place feel more like a library than a store and creating the feeling that you are there to read as much as to shop.

The décor is simple and calming: wooden floors, teal paintwork and a corrugated PVC roof that fills the shop with natural light. Should you need more encouragement, there are sofas where you can order coffee and thumb through a book or newspaper. There are other, more contrived invitations to ruminate, such as the pendulum that hangs from the ceiling and trickles sand into a shallow box.

As well as having collections of Hispanic literature and literary criticism, there are sections dedicated to books in English, graphic novels and vinyl records. As one fan observed, its careful selections are a sign that “the people behind the bookstore are readers reaching readers.”

And reach readers they must. Mexico placed second-to-last in a Unesco survey of more than 100 countries’ reading habits a few years ago; there is just one bookstore in Mexico for every 200,000 inhabitants, compared with, say, one per 8,000 in Spain. Cristóbal Pera, the director of the Wylie Agency España in New York and a former Mexico City resident, said that fact has given rise to a “singular tradition” of bookstores, including El Péndulo, that in an effort to lure readers incorporate cafes and lounge areas and serve as cultural hubs.

The six Péndulo bookstores, all in Mexico City, which go by the moniker “cafebrería” (a fusion of “cafe” and “librería”), serve breakfast, snack food and coffee. The food is passable but not memorable. You’d be better advised to work up an appetite with an hour’s reading and then head out to hunt down some real Mexico City fare.

— VICTORIA BURNETT


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Quagga Rare Books and Art in South Africa also has whale ribs and giraffe skulls.
CreditSamantha Reinders for The New York Times

KALK BAY, SOUTH AFRICA

Kalk Bay Books; Quagga Rare Books and Art

The seaside village of Kalk Bay, about half an hour down the coast from Cape Town, is a quaint hamlet with funky boutiques, fish-and-chips shops and a couple of beloved bookstores.

Kalk Bay Books is the quintessential indie bookstore, with floor-to-ceiling shelves brimming with best sellers, a cozy seating area and engaging staff more than willing to share their opinions on local writers — maybe skip Sally Andrew’s “Recipes for Love and Murder” and opt for Nadia Davids’s “An Imperfect Blessing” instead. A spiral staircase leads to a loft overlooking the space, where you can browse secondhand books along with boxes of vintage records —- everything from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Paul Simon. Kalk Bay Books is also a literary hub, attracting authors like Barbara Kingsolver and John Maytham for readings and even the occasional musical event. Locals know to follow its Facebook page for the latest schedule.

Down the street, Quagga Rare Books and Art is the kind of place where you’ll while away hours and come back with obscure works you never knew you needed but suddenly can’t fathom living without. The rambling store is a collector’s delight, doubling as a museum of quirk: Every surface not heaving with books is cluttered with whale ribs, giraffe skulls, old playing cards, warthog tusks and more. Quagga specializes in Africana and South African art, and you’ll want to explore the warren of rooms, picking up crumbling volumes with names like “Home Life on an Ostrich Farm” and “Medical, Poisonous, and Edible plants in Namibia.” Also on offer are vintage framed maps of South Africa, 19th-century nautical canvases and nail sculptures by a Kalk Bay artist, Eduard Ladan. Quagga’s hand-painted exterior is a work of art in itself, and makes the 25-year-old stalwart hard to miss.

— SARAH KHAN



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