This week, the Paris Review let us in on a little secret — an illegal, speakeasy-style bookstore right here in our fair city of New York. While we try to hunt down the exact coordinates in hopes of a good read (and a good story), we thought we’d tally a few of our favorite unconventional and unusual bookstores from around the world, whether they be aquatic, underground, holy or just plain strange looking. After all, even us indie-bookshop devotees could use a little extra weirdness in our lives, and in our novels. Click through to see our picks, and let us know if we’ve left your favorite unconventional bookstore off the list!
A literary speakeasy of sorts, those in the know have been whispering about Michael Seidenberg’s secret for ages. After the rent at his Brooklyn retail space (that once employed Jonathan Lethem) shot through the roof, Seidenberg moved his secondhand bookshop to his first floor Upper East Side apartment, where it exists under the radar, unknown even to many who live in his building. “Secondhand bookshops have been banished from the city,” he says. “There’s no place for them. People say, ‘Oh, did Barnes & Noble put you out? No, real estate put me out.'” And as for the cachet of a secret bookstore? “This would have not been my ideal,” he says. “I wouldn’t have thought, ‘I want to have a bookshop in a that location no one knows about.’” True enough, though if you want to visit Seidenberg’s shop, all you have to do is call him and make an appointment. He’s in the phone book, if you can find one.
Photos by Andrew David Watson.
The Book Barge
Ahoy, mateys! Step aboard the Book Barge, a floating bookshop on a canal boat that roams the UK waterways at roaring speeds of 4 miles per hour (though its usual mooring is in Staffordshire). Owner Sarah Henshaw, inspired in part by the slow food movement, explains, “we hope to promote a less hurried and harried lifestyle of idle pleasures, cups of tea, conversation, culture and, of course, curling up with an incomparably good Book Barge purchase… I hoped that by creating a unique retail space, customers would realise how independent bookshops can offer a far more pleasurable shopping experience than they’re likely to find online or on the discount shelves at supermarkets.” Books on a boat? A barge, no less? We’re sold based on the alliteration alone.
John King Used and Rare Books
Built in an abandoned 1940’s glove factory in Detroit, Michigan, John King books is five stories of creaking wooden book-maze marked by cardboard signs and hand-drawn maps, with much of the original factory signage still in place. Sure, from the outside it kind of looks like where they might film Saw 76, but they’re much more likely to have that random out-of-print first edition you’ve been looking for than any torture implements. We hope.
Urueña, “La Villa del Libro”
“La Villa del Libro” is a medieval villa on a hill in rural Castilla, Spain, population 200, that boasts a museum devoted to the evolution of the book as well as a plethora of secondhand bookstores whose rare books draw bibliophiles from all over the world. That’s a whole town (or a whole castle, depending on which idea excites you more — we can’t quite decide) devoted to book history and book selling. Either way you slice it, that’s pretty cool, you guys.
Livraria da Vila
This impeccably designed bookstore in Sao Paulo looks to be basically made out of books. The front doors are functioning bookshelves and the walls are lined floor to ceiling with books wherever you look, including, um, in holes in the ceiling for extra space. Though this is one of the least conceptually bizarre bookshops on this list, we think the form-follows-function-follows-form design aesthetic is pretty exciting. Plus, you have to admire a bookstore that puts a book every single place they can and still manages to have the place looking shiny and neat.
Coney Island Book Store and Barber Shop
Trust Coney Island to have something like this. But if you think about it, it’s kind of a genius idea, at least if you have the kind of unruly hair that takes an hour or so to trim into submission (not us, our friend, we swear). Just grab a book off the shelf — it looks like they’re all $5.00 — and bide your time while you beautify.
Poplar Kid’s Republic Bookstore
This Beijing bookstore, designed for Poplar, Japan’s largest children’s book publisher, has rivers of rainbows, hidey holes to read in, and mountains to climb, and basically looks like a Dr. Seuss book come to life. What more could a kid ask for?
The Montague Bookmill
You’ve got to love a bookstore whose tagline is ‘Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.’ Housed in a 1842 gristmill, this cozy spot on the banks of the Sawmill River near Amherst, Massachusetts, is a local treasure specializing in academic books but carrying all sorts of things. Don’t follow anyone’s directions but the Book Mill’s to get there — the website warns that ‘they’ don’t know about the bridge that’s out round the bend. Talk about seclusion, which to our minds is the perfect way to read.
OHWOW Book Club
Designed to at once evoke a Navajo blanket and a bathroom, this tiny bookshop in the basement of a brownstone in Greenwich Village serves as the retail space for OHWOW, a creative collective established in 2008 by Al Moran and Aaron Bondaroff. OHWOW publishes and sells books and shows art at their galleries and retail spaces in New York, Miami, and LA. They describe their publishing side as filling “a particular niche, providing books that blur the line between objects and treasures.” Sounds good to us.
This fantastically gorgeous bookstore, housed in a 13th-century Dominican church in Maastricht, Holland, was until 2007 being used as an ‘indoor bike pound’ by the locals. Now, it’s the holiest of book sanctuaries, and beautiful to boot, with much of the original artwork and architecture restored. Works for us. After all, we like to think of ourselves as true believers — at least when it comes to bookstores.