So, right. I have to preface this by saying that I haven’t been to very many places, and that – naturally enough – this means a post such as this one may be very Ireland-focused. However, judging by my readership stats (hello, everyone!) most of you aren’t actually from Ireland, so perhaps you’ll find it interesting nonetheless. I also have to say that I’ve visited thousands of bookshops in my life so far, with the hope I’ll be visiting many more, and so chances are I’ve forgotten a few gems – I hope I’ll be forgiven for that.
Now. Let’s begin in Paris, shall we? It seems like the best place to begin most things.
In 2010, my now-husband and I took a trip to Paris. It was memorable for many reasons, including fabulous weather, train trips to the largest medieval keep in Europe (which was awesome), the accidental stumbling-upon of La Musée de Moyen Age, which made my life complete and – most definitely – the proliferation of English-language bookshops to be found. Paris is a great place to be if you’re a reader; in France, they cherish their bookshops and their reading culture, and it’s wonderful to see the open-air bookstalls in the streets and the sheer enthusiasm for print that’s going on. Now, of course, 2010 is an eternity ago in e-reader terms, so maybe things have changed – but I hope not.
Naturally, we went to Shakespeare & Company. It was mind-blowing, and so has to be top of my list of favourite bookshops.
It’s a bookshop which, to me, describes what I hope Heaven looks like. Warrens of corridors, tiny nooks, unexpected rooms, clusters of scholars doing whispery things in corners, typewriters set out in case you feel like doing a bit of creating, shelves jumbled with books, more books piled on the floor, an assortment of shop animals lying about, lovely laid-back staff, and a fascinating, eclectic selection of stock. Even thinking about it makes me weep, a little, that I don’t live
there in Paris. I bought a hardback copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit here, and I treasure it.
We also took a trip into the posh end of the city to visit the stupendous Galignani. This bookshop, the oldest English-language bookshop on the continent, was equally as mind-boggling as Shakespeare & Co., but for entirely different reasons. Where Shakespeare & Co. was like a warm, fuzzy jumble, the sort of bookshop you’d imagine Gandalf owning, Galignani is clean, with sharp lines and immaculate shelves and utter, complete order, and it’s almost too much for a book-lover’s mind to take. There is so much to see. It goes on, and on, and on, and it’s so beautiful you’re almost afraid to touch anything – but then you get over that, and you get stuck in. I bought a copy of Le Petit Prince here, and I’m delighted with it. Galignani stocks English language books, but also French language – and I’m pretty sure they could get you anything you wanted, if you ask them nicely.
I’ve heard a dreadful rumour that The Red Wheelbarrow, the lovely bookshop in the Marais district, has closed since we were in Paris, but I hope it’s a vicious lie. Their website appears a little out of date, which may be a bad sign, but that makes it all the more important to memorialise it here. I bought a copy of Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, in this bookshop and I was served by a lovely, knowledgeable, kind and enthusiastic young bookseller who was eager to ensure I got a book which enriched my time in Paris – and she was on the money with her recommendation. The shop was small, and jumbled, and homely, and its upstairs hid its children’s books (so, naturally, I made a beeline for them), and I spent many happy hours browsing there. If it has closed, I’m extremely sorry to hear it.
Next, we’ll go to Dubrovnik for a short spell.
In 2008, some friends and I went to Dubrovnik for a magical week. It was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had, mainly because the walled city of Dubrovnik is among the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. One day when my friends preferred to sunbathe on the pebbled beach, I took a walk from our hotel down to the city, and spent hours alone simply wandering the streets. It’s impossible to get lost, because the walls mark the boundary of the street-grid, so once you’re within them you know you’re safe enough. On the main street (pictured above), I came upon Algebra, a treasure trove of books and art and knick-knacks, and I never wanted to leave. It’s a place where you’d likely find a Venetian-style mask nestling up against the books, or a piece of beautiful glassware being used as a bookend – and it’s definitely not for people who like their bookshops to have everything in order. It’s a jumble, and I loved it. I don’t think I bought anything, though, because it was near the end of the holiday. Sorry, folks.
I also visited several bookshops on the island of Malta while I was there on honeymoon, and while it was fantastic to have English-language books to browse, there’s really only one bookshop chain, called Agenda, which is no different to any other bookshop chain in the world. At least, we didn’t find any hidden gems, but if anyone wants to correct me I’m more than happy to go back to that beautiful island and explore…
And then, there’s Ireland.
Ireland, particularly its cities, is full of bookshops. Like everywhere, they’re struggling against the internet, but they’re holding on, and there are some real beauties to be found.
In Dublin, there’s The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, which is probably my favourite in the city because it’s small, it’s independent, and it has a charming children’s section. As well as that its proprietor is the hardest-working bookseller I know, a tireless champion of books, independent bookselling, and literary events. If you’re in the city, do pop in. Luckily it’s near a fabulous cake shop, the Queen of Tarts, so you can take your bookish purchases over there and have a relaxing cuppa while you read. What could be better?
There’s also Chapters, in Parnell Street, which is massive – its downstairs is all new books, and its upstairs is all second-hand. You’ll find gems there if you dig, believe me! It has great staff, it’s well laid out, and it’s well worth a visit.
Near Trinity College you’ll find Books Upstairs, in existence for over thirty years. Cramped and charming and nookish, this is a treasure-trove, too. I love it.
Facing the lovely Liffey, there’s The Winding Stair, which has a fabulous children’s section and is one of the prettiest bookshops I know of. It also houses a fantastic restaurant and is the only place I’ve ever been where you can have wine in one hand and a book in the other and for it not to be a book launch. Bottoms up!
In Waterford, there’s The Book Centre, which is fabulously, gloriously big and celebratory and shiny and beautiful. I haven’t been back for years but I really want to make the trip. I first encountered this shop when I was about ten, and it has remained in my mind as the ‘ideal’ ever since.
In Galway, there are loads of bookshops, but Charlie Byrne’s stands out. I have only been to Galway once, as a child, but I know I was in Charlie Byrne’s and a copy of Hounds of the Morrigan was bought for me there. The book is magic, but the place it was bought is equally magic, and the two have blended into one in my mind. I’d love to go back.
And then there’s Zozimus Bookshop. In a town very close to my heart, on a street I love dearly, this bookshop is a balm to my heart. It’s a second-hand shop, but I’ve come upon so many treasures there that I can’t name them all, and I’ve gone on to support authors whose works I’ve spotted in Zozzy’s by buying some of their books new in other shops. Its owner is a fount of knowledge and a genial man, and among its shelves is where I feel most at home.
This is only a smattering of my favourite bookshops, really. Everywhere I go, the first thing I look for is a bookshop, and so everywhere I’ve been I’ve encountered bookselling nooks which I’ve loved. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistlestop tour, all the same, and if there are any shops you’d like to mention, have at it in the comments!
*Or bookstores, if you prefer.