Ahead of the release of this year's Auckland Writers Festival programme, Kate Ford goes in search of the world's best bookstores.
Could there be any other place on the planet that fills a bookshop lover with more joy? Hatchards, London's oldest bookshop — in operation since 1797 — stands grand in the nucleus of Piccadilly. This opulent five-storey book mecca is sprawling with everything from your classic Jane Austen and Charles Dickens novels to the latest Yuval Noah Harari release.
Hatchards boasts three royal warrants, a symbol to say they provide the Queen with her fix of fiction. With an imposing central staircase lined by plush carpet, Hatchards is a truly lavish place to browse for your next book or attend a signing or author event. Plus, it's right next to tea haven Fortnum & Mason — and what goes better with a good read than an excellent cup of tea?
Shakespeare & Company, Paris
The current brick-and-mortar store Shakespeare & Company exists as an homage to the original bookshop of the same name. Paris' first Shakespeare & Company was a popular hangout spot for famed writers such as Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. It closed during the German occupation of Paris in the 1940s and this popular replacement opened its doors in 1951.
Located in Paris' Left Bank, a mere three-minute walk from Notre Dame cathedral, the shop often heaves with tourists who spill out into snaking lines waiting to get inside. It's worth the wait. Peruse the shelves of this maze-like store to find a number of literary treasures. And don't leave without the tote bag. The cafe next door is well worth a visit, too.
The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles
If you're in LA but looking for a bookstore that's more grungy than glamour, pop in to The Last Bookstore. Noted for being California's largest independent bookshop, The Last Bookstore sells both new and used books and records.
It's known for being a highly Instagrammable location — thanks to its sculptural archways and tunnels made from overstocked books — but don't let that put you off. There's always an exciting event happening at The Last Bookstore, with regular author-signings and themed monthly book clubs in genres such as true crime, feminism, and dystopian books.
The Strand Books, New York
This iconic institution is said to house more than 18 miles of books under its roof. That, apparently, equates to more than two million books. A family business, The Strand opened in 1927 on what was then known as "Book Row", due to the lavish number of 48 bookstores across a mere six blocks. Sadly that number has dwindled so much that The Strand stands tall as the sole survivor of Book Row.
There's a distinct level of cool about The Strand. Patti Smith used to work here. And recently the owner, Nancy Wyden, argued with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee, saying that the Strand should not be recognised as a landmark as it would lead to unnecessary bureaucracy and higher costs. No wonder the New York Times has labelled The Strand as "the undisputed king of the city's independent bookstores".
Fewer things can cause as much delight as a cafe within a bookstore. This gem in Mexico City creates a cosy vibe with couches, indoor plants and it's crammed with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Browse their extensive English-language selection, pick a book and curl up with a coffee and pastry. With an emphasis on literature, art and humanities, spending an afternoon here definitely is a form of bliss.
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
Translating to Library of High Water, this bookshop would make sense only in Venice. Using an inventive system, all books are housed inside bathtubs and waterproof containers or, as in one room, inside a gondola. The reason, of course, is to prevent the books from drowning when the canals and local waterways rise. It's a fanciful space, made more memorable by the 'fire escape' (a door leading straight to a canal), and the odd cat nestling in a nook among the books.
Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires
Named the World's Most Beautiful Bookstore by National Geographic this year, Ateneo Grand Splendid is truly a thing of literary wonder. Originally an early 20th-century theatre, this grand space still retains many features from its past, including the frescoed ceiling, red velvet stage curtains and original balconies.
With more than 700 bookstores to boast about, Buenos Aires is a city that knows how to cater to bibliophiles. If you don't speak Spanish (most of the books on offer are in the native tongue), you can still enjoy the stunning surroundings, or even grab a bite to eat and a latte — the original stage has been converted into a restaurant, complete with a pianist.
Book Soup, Los Angeles
A fixture on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, Book Soup fittingly tells us on its website that the store has been "serving readers, writers, artists, rock 'n' rollers and celebrities" since 1975. Indeed, Book Soup lives up to its Hollywood location, having made the news for regular publicity stunts, including the time Paris Hilton did a signing for her book Confessions of an Heiress. Hilton's publicist hired protesters to picket Book Soup with signs saying "Read a book, don't write one". Book Soup hosts regular weekly author events, boasting a long list of names in its time, including Muhammad Ali, Hunter S Thompson, Annie Leibovitz and The Doors.
Livraria Lello, Porto
Livraria Lello is not afraid to toot its own horn, describing itself on its website as the "most beautiful bookstore in the world". We can accept its confidence as this sure is one amazing space. Providing ultimate browsing ambience, the bookstore has a stained glass ceiling and beautiful curved staircases housed inside its Art Nouveau facade.
Although its beauty is undeniable, the bookstore has become somewhat of a tourist attraction and there's now a small fee to look inside. This is possibly down to rumours that J K Rowling gathered inspiration for the Harry Potter series when she taught English in Porto and frequented the bookshop.
● The programme for this year's Auckland Writers Festival (May 14-19) will be released on Wednesday.