The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World

There are times when I’ll be truckin’ along amiably and then suddenly be like, I need to be around books. Now. Any of these stores would suffice. :) I crave the feeling of safety, of connection, of being surrounded by words and ideas and worlds unknown.


[Editor’s note: In celebration of the holidays, we’re counting down the top 12 Flavorwire features of 2012. This post, at #1, was originally published January 31.] With Amazon slowly taking over the publishing world and bookstores closing left and right, things can sometimes seem a little grim for the brick and mortar booksellers of the world. After all, why would anyone leave the comfort of their couch to buy a book when with just a click of a button, they could have it delivered to their door? Well, here’s why: bookstores so beautiful they’re worth getting out of the house (or the country) to visit whether you need a new hardcover or not. We can’t overestimate the importance of bookstores — they’re community centers, places to browse and discover, and monuments to literature all at once — so we’ve put together a list of the most beautiful bookstores…

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Amsterdam: Anne Frank’s Merwedeplein

Anne Frank once roamed these Amsterdam streets. She played and posed, sunned on the roof and leaned out her window. Before she became an icon, this is where she was just a girl.

anne frank friends merwedeplein then now collage

A photo montage of Anne (right) and her friends
Eva Goldberg (left) and Sanne Ledermann (middle) in 1936,
superimposed over what the streets look like today.
Photo: Anne Frank House / Anne Frank Fonds;
photo Montage: Michel Dankaarts, LBi Lost Boys 

This is Merwedeplein, a residential triangle of workaday Rivierenbuurt, in turn a neighborhood in south Amsterdam. This is where the Frank family lived out their relative, if diminishing, freedom before going into hiding on the Princes Canal. I thought it would be poignant to walk the streets where Anne and Margot grew up, so on my way home from bike riding to Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, I detoured to Merwedeplein to see what I could see.

anne frank's amsterdam map app

The app Anne Frank’s Amsterdam, which I’d downloaded at home, registers several places to “check in” on Merwedeplein and unlock facts, photos, and videos about Anne. Since I had to switch off my data roaming once abroad, though, it did me little good. (You need to be connected to the Internet and physically close to an item location in order to “pick it up” and open it on the app.) So instead I used my old Google Maps to chart the way.

rivierenbuurt amsterdam

I knew I was getting close when the buildings started to look like this: all brick with big white-paned windows. (Google Maps’ street view helped a lot in this regard.) After some bumbling, I found my way to Hunzestraat 25, the home of two of the Franks’ helpers, Miep Gies and her husband, Jan, a member of the Dutch Resistance.

hunzestraat 25

I believe that below and to the right of those third-floor red awnings had lived the Gies family. Miep would bike from here to where the Anne Frank House now is on Prinsengracht for work every day. On July 11, 1943, Anne wrote,

Miep is just like a pack mule, she fetches and carries so much. Almost every day she … brings everything in shopping bags on her bicycle. We always long for Saturdays when our books come. Just like little children receiving a present. Source: Pocket Books version, 1952.

I hadn’t realized it when I walked my bike through in search of #25, but the small park across the street was renamed this past June in honor of Miep.

Finally I turned onto the street where the Frank family lived (it’s only half a kilometer away from Hunzestraat).

merwedeplein street sign

And I found the Franks’ old home.

anne frank merwedeplein house

Their apartment comprised the same third-story windows seen in a brief film of Anne leaning out to watch a neighbor’s wedding procession—the only known video footage taken of her.

I didn’t want to feel any more like a stalker than I already did, so I sat on a bench across the street and took in the scene. It was clearly a lived-in neighborhood, not a museum at all but quiet and tree-lined, with one man sitting on a nearby bench reading, a young couple lolling on the grass, and a group of friends gathered at the other end of the park with their bikes.

anne frank statue merwedeplein

In fact, were it not for the small statue of Anne at one end of the greenspace, you’d never know this neighborhood had any particular historical significance.

The curtains in the windows indicated someone was still living in Merwedeplein 37—there, in the same rooms where the family took their meals, Margot must have studied, and Anne scampered up the attic stairs to the roof.

Anne Frank Merwedeplein roof

Photo: Anne Frank House / Anne Frank Fonds

merwedeplein 37 roof

Fortunately, people have already taken care to preserve and show the details of the Franks’ home life, from the antique mahogany writing desk to the circa 1930s light switches and switchplates. The everyday details humanize the icon, adding dimension to the stories behind The Story.

To walk the streets where she laughed and played is to step into the pages of history.

Amsterdam: Anne Frank

Visiting the Anne Frank House is practically required when visiting Amsterdam. Between the long lines outside and the crowds within, though, it can be tough to have a meaningful experience without feeling like you’re shuffling along in a herd, jostling for a view of the very artifacts that bring Anne’s diary home, conscious of the growing line behind you.

Anne Frank

Even so, if the house where she hid were not such a tourist attraction today, I would still move earth and heaven to see it. Anne Frank and her writing had such a great influence on me when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. To this day I remember being 13 and reading her Tales from the Secret Annex along with the Miep Gies book Anne Frank Remembered and poring over her family photographs in Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary, as well as getting to play her in 8th grade literature class when we were reading  The Diary of Anne Frank play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (which was a big deal to otherwise quiet, introverted me). In short, I was obsessed. Her adolescent perplexities, her wonder about the world, her growing love of nature and classical music and art history and ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and most of all her desire to live abroad in London and Paris someday after the war and become a great journalist … I identified with all of it, as well as with how much more free she felt to be herself and write herself out through her diary. She became such a hero to me because in her I recognized a lot of who I aspired to be. That’s what made visiting the Anne Frank House such a girlhood pilgrimage for me.

On my first night in A’dam I decided not to go inside but instead just leaned against the black rails along the Bloemgracht bridge across from the house and gazed up at the Westertoren, the bell tower of the Westerkerk nearby. In her diary, Anne talked about how she used to open an attic window for fresh air at night and loved listening to the carillon tunes emanating from the tower. That first evening, I watched dusk fall and breathed in this view as the carillon played for 9.

westertoren westerkerk amsterdam

In Gies’ 2010 obituary, The New York Times quotes Gies from her memoir as saying that upon reading Anne’s diary,

“The emptiness in my heart was eased. So much had been lost, but now Anne’s voice would never be lost. My young friend had left a remarkable legacy to the world.

“But always, every day of my life, I’ve wished that things had been different. That even had Anne’s diary been lost to the world, Anne and the others might somehow have been saved.”

It made me think of Eva Schloss, who had also gone into hiding and later survived Auschwitz with her mother—who in turn later married Otto Frank, Anne’s father, after WWII. Schloss thus became Anne’s posthumous stepsister.

“I was very happy for my mother in the beginning,” Ms. Schloss says.

“But I was also very close to her, as you might imagine, and to suddenly have to share her because she shared everything with Otto—she helped him with the publication of Anne’s diary, they traveled together, went to lectures together, she answered his letters and Anne was their life’s work—was difficult for me.

“I was in Anne’s shadow. My mother and Otto were very happy but, yes, I was sometimes jealous. And then I would think: how can you be jealous of somebody who hasn’t got a life?

“How could I be jealous of Anne? I got married. I had a family. I have three daughters. Anne suffered. Why not let her have that limelight?” (source: National Post)

Put that way, it’s monumental to think that—even as Anne’s story became known the world over and she achieved her stated desire, “I want to go on living even after my death”—those who knew her would trade what has become her iconic status for a chance for her to live an “ordinary” life. It invests the things we take for granted, like seeing a matinee at the local theater, or riding a bike and feeling the wind rush past, or eating a pastry warm from the bakery, with a sense of what a privilege it is to experience and savor those things.

Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

The one souvenir I’d wanted to bring home from Amsterdam was a copy of Barbara Stok’s graphic novel Vincent in English, from the Van Gogh Museum bookshop. When I got there the Friday night I arrived, though, it was completely sold out—and the soonest it’d be back in stock was the day after I left! Blarg. Only after I returned to the States did I realize it was still available at the American Book Center on Spui, which I’d chanced by earlier the same afternoon that I visited the museum but hadn’t thought to check before I departed the city six days later.

barbara stok graphic novel vincent

The book appeals to my nascent love of graphic novels
as well as my longstanding love of introspection.

So that evening at the museum, I consoled myself with buying greeting cards taken from panels in the book, to send to friends as airmail souvenirs. (Don’t you love the idea of carefully sticking a foreign stamp on a letter, popping it into a mailbox, and imagining its journey in planes through the air and in trucks over roads to its destination back home? Way more tactile than texting photos, as immediate as that is.)

van gogh bedroom barbara stok graphic novel

Van Gogh’s bedroom, as interpreted by Barbara Stok.

van gogh bedroom

In the meantime, I felt chills being in the same room as paintings like this! The Bedroom (1888) by Van Gogh was supposed to have inspired Egon Schiele’s similar painting The Artist’s Room in Neulengbach (1911) too, though I hadn’t covered the latter in my master’s thesis.

I arrived on a Friday, which meant the museum was open until 10 p.m. So I decided to make the artist’s acquaintance (at this point I was still running on an espresso doppio to power through the jet lag).

van gogh self portrait as painter

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait as a Painter, 1888

Visitors were fairly free to get up close and pore over the paintings as they liked, along with snapping photographs on their smartphones—particularly of the well-known works. Isn’t it incredible to peer at the very daubs of paint that Van Gogh himself had applied to the canvas? Stroke by stroke, until the now-familiar image emerged.

van gogh irises

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises (detail), 1890

van gogh wheatfield with crows

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (detail), 1890

To see how Van Gogh applied color theory was pretty fascinating. That is, when placed side by side in a painting, colors opposite each other on the color wheel—red opposite green, yellow opposite purple, and blue opposite orange—heighten an image’s overall intensity.

van gogh color theory boats

Vincent Van Gogh, Fishing Boats on the Beach
at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (detail), 1888

van gogh garden saint paul's hospital

Vincent Van Gogh, The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital
(‘The Fall of the Leaves’)
, 1889. I love how the saturated blue of the wall
picks up the blues off center in the painting.

(Barbara Stok’s Vincent panels via the Van Gogh Museum’s Google+ and Pinterest)

The Pigeon does Hamlet

Behold, lovers of children’s books, “two of literature’s most tortured characters, together at last” in the Willems Shakespeare mashup of Mo Willems’s pigeon (from Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!) performing Hamlet’s famed soliloquy.

ImageThat is one pigeon with an existential crisis.

Here is the entire parody. This day-maker brought to you by bottom shelf books, via The Children’s Book Council.