Why I Always Visit Bookstores When I Travel
I'm a professional traveler, and this is the one place I visit on every trip.
When I plan a trip, I almost immediately head to Google Maps after booking my flight to start saving restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops I want to visit. No matter if I’m heading to a beach town or a city, there’s always one place that ends up on my itinerary: a local bookstore.
Book shops are where I find comfort and community at home in New York City, so it’s no surprise that I also seek them out when I’m traveling. Sure, the books themselves are the main draw, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that booksellers are often the coolest people you can find in any given neighborhood.
But more than that, the welcoming atmosphere and creative energy I’ve found in nearly every bookshop I’ve ever visited is what pulls me in like a magnet every time.
On a trip to Paris last summer, Yvon Lambert Gallery was at the top of my list of places to visit. From the outside, it’s a relatively nondescript gallery. But once inside, I was greeted by stacks upon stacks of unique art books and a wide variety of posters from past exhibitions — in addition to the gallery itself in the back.
I’ll admit there was one particular piece of merchandise that I’d already set my sights on before entering the store: a canvas tote bag with the word “books” printed on it in cursive. Since I almost always carry a book with me, it made sense that I’d have a tote to reflect that.
After browsing the art installation and collection of books and magazines from around the world, I settled on my tote, while my boyfriend picked up a poster — both perfect keepsakes to remember this bookish endeavor. It’s one of my favorite carryalls now. Plus, it makes me think of the trip every time I use it, which is something I believe all good souvenirs should do.
Planning an afternoon around a bookstore is nothing new for me. A few years earlier, I took a similar book-motivated excursion while I was studying abroad in Tours, France. A friend and I took the train into Paris for a day trip, and though we only had about 12 hours in the city, we had several items on our itinerary that day: the Catacombs, the Notre-Dame de Paris, a bistro with escargot on the menu, and, my No. 1 priority: Shakespeare and Company.
I’d heard through friends that it was the destination for English-language books in Paris, with some literary history sprinkled in. The shop opened in its current location in 1951, and writers like Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, and James Baldwin were known to be frequent visitors. Founder George Whitman named it as a tribute to the bookseller Sylvia Beach, who opened the original Shakespeare and Company a few blocks away in 1919 and hosted many members of the "lost generation of writers," including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. And for my fellow romantic comedy fans, it also plays a pivotal role in the 2004 cult-classic movie “Before Sunset.”
I did the thing that I thought an English major should do and bought a copy of Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast," ever-so-pleased with the Shakespeare and Company stamp on the title page. Back in Tours, I took the book with me to the park across from my apartment, a baguette sandwich in tow, and read the book on a bench. Despite being so far away from my family and my comfortable life at my university, I felt at home thanks to that book and the trip I took to buy it.
Fast forward a few years, and bookstores are still a crucial part of nearly every travel experience for me — and it’s always something I ask friends about when they’re visiting new places.
Late last year, one of my close friends went to Buenos Aires, and during her travels, she stopped by Ateneo Grand Splendid. From the photos she sent me, the space was beautiful — the bookshop is located in a converted theater, after all — but what excited me the most was the copy she found of the Spanish language version of Sally Rooney’s "Beautiful World, Where Are You?."
Seeing the cover was so intriguing to me that when I went to Mexico City a month later, I made sure to search for some of my favorite titles in Spanish and with international cover art. At Cafebrería el Péndulo Condesa, I found that "Normal People" by Rooney was "Gente Normal," with an eye-catching illustration of two people in a sardine tin — a poignant image, given the relationship between the two main characters.
And while the title of "Memorial" by Bryan Washington wasn’t translated, I was excited to see that cover was different from the one I’d seen back at home. The search for these beloved titles reminded me of the power that books have to make us feel a sense of community among fellow readers. Seeing that copy of "Normal People" made me feel at home that day, just like "A Moveable Feast" had years earlier.
As for future travels, when I make it back to my native California, Skylight Books is at the top of my list in Los Angeles, as is Book/Shop in Oakland. I’m itching to get to The Tattered Cover in Denver – a bookstore my mom grew up going to. And Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastricht, The Netherlands — a book shop located in an old church — will be a must-stop for both its book collection and architectural beauty.
On those trips, it’s not so much a question of if I need another book in my collection, but rather which one will make its way home to my own bookshelf.
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