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: Biking to Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

This afternoon I regaled a coworker with stories behind my slew of Amsterdam photos, which made me realize I’ve neglected to post one of the best parts of my trip on the blog! So here it is: a bike ride from Amsterdam to Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, a village south of the city.

The weather had been a little erratic, but the last day brought sunshine and clouds with a little haze—just the weather I’d been waiting for. So, starting out from my Airbnb digs near the Jordaan, I gingerly skirted along Nassaukade, sweating at the stoplights, hoping I was in the right lane before pedaling madly after bicyclists who looked like they actually knew what they were doing. Stopped by a MacBike for an Amstel-Windmill Bicycle Tour map (security blanket!) before heading to the Amsteldijk bikeway, which follows the river the entire way. Once on the city outskirts, I began to breathe a little easier. (I’m still a country girl at heart.)

amstel pond near river windmill

This scenery inspired Rembrandt, who would head to this same countryside on weekends to work on his landscapes. Along the river, next to a windmill, there’s a statue of the master down on one knee, his sketchbook propped up on the other.

amstel riverscape horizontal

I’ve come to realize that the older I get, the more of a luxury time becomes. On this particular day I had nowhere to be, so I could ride as slowly as I liked and stop whenever I wanted. Bliss.

amstel river bike path

The river’s bike path is flat as flat, and on this day there was hardly another soul on the road. After reaching and then tooling around Ouderkerk for a bit, I biked up the other side of the river before turning around to go back the way I came—about 13 km./8 mi. each way.

amstel river rower windmill

I paused midpath to snap this shot of river reeds framing a single sculler rowing past the windmill where Rembrandt’s statue is. Makes me wish I could experience the feel of being on that water.

junky amsterdam bike

My trusty, rusty steed. It’s the kind of junky Old Reliable that I understand Amsterdammers keep, to get them around town and not get stolen. Still, who’s taking chances?

bike locks

The Dutch don’t mess around with their locks. There was an industrial-strength chain-link one to secure the bike to any immovable object, plus a second key-operated clamp over the rear tire.

amstel river bench

On my way home, I nearly blew right past these solitary benches, then decided to stop for a breather and just read and write for a bit. The breeze rustled through the grasses and occasionally boats would motor by, their owners sunning on lawn chairs set up on the deck. A few ducky friends paddled over, bobbing in the boats’ wake, expecting to be fed.

Amsterdam: Everyday life

I love spotting the little details that make life in other countries just a little different from what it is back home in Northern California. What stands out to me when I’m visiting someplace new to me must be old hat to the people who live there. But I’m sure it’s that way too for people from around the world who come to California looking to be dazzled.

I’m no shutterbug, yet having a smartphone makes it so easy to take photographs when traveling. It can be done quickly and discreetly, which is key for me since my style is to hang back and observe unobtrusively wherever I am.

Here are some snaps from my walks around Amsterdam’s historic center.

vintage fiat 500 cinquecento prinsengracht amsterdam

There’s my dream car, a vintage Fiat Cinquecento (500) parked canalside along Prinsengracht. I wish you could see the sedan next to it but out of the frame, just for scale. It’s such a wee car.

amsterdam houseboat

Next time I visit Amsterdam, I want to stay on a houseboat. Like this one (it’s where Joanna Goddard stayed during her long weekend in the city)! It’d be so cool to sleep on the water, or curl up on a living-room window seat or out on the deck with a book and a cup of tea as boats motor past.

bruin brown cafe canalside pannenkoeken

Few things can be more idyllic than pulling up a chair at a brown cafe and settling in for pannenkoeken, favorite book in hand. This outdoor terrace sits at the junction of Prinsengracht and Leliegracht, where I watched canal boats lumber by on the water and bikes roll over the bridge, Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoir Relish: My Life in Food for company and a koffie verkeerd (essentially a caffè latte) within reach. It’s so liberating to have nowhere particular to be on a particular day.

bicycle rush hour amsterdam

Meanwhile, for Amsterdammers it’s business as usual on a weekday workday. Above is a vestige of bicycle rush hour; the bicycle stoplight had just turned green. Since I’m not used to urban cycling even in the States, I didn’t dare take a bike through the bustling center for most of my stay, striated as it is with tram lines and roadways and bikes whizzing past, ridden by folks who actually know what they’re doing. Still, I do admire how in A’dam there’s the sidewalk, and the road, and between them a wide, specially demarcated lane for bikes. Is that flat, well-paved shield from both motorist and pedestrian (and potential collisions) the reason why bike helmets haven’t caught on among the general/nonracing biking public there? I wonder if the 2013 release In the City of Bikes by Pete Jordan has some insight on that.


Bike rush hour in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It only looks
like it’s on fast-forward.

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: Anne Frank House

It’d be easy to walk right by the Anne Frank House and not realize what it is, except for the line snaking out the entrance (which you can’t see in this photo, but it’s there! It’s off to the right, entering the building next door that has since become part of the museum).

anne frank house prinsengracht

Looking up at Otto Frank’s former Opekta offices
from a canal boat on Prinsengracht. The hiding place
(Het Achterhuis, or Secret Annex) is in the back.

anne frank house entrance entryway door 263 prinsengracht

Anne Frank and her family once walked through these doors.

Anne Frank Huis sign

On the advice of a couple of friends, I showed up at the house an hour or so before closing time, when they said you’re more likely to walk right in even without a reservation and have the place relatively to yourself (meaning you can linger over what interests you and double back if you like, without feeling you’re in anyone’s way). And it’s true. Even making a res online ahead of time and skipping the ticket line outside doesn’t mitigate the crowdedness once you’re inside—unless you go in the evening, when everybody else is out having dinner. This strategy worked so well, in fact, that I visited the museum twice; once on the last Saturday night of August, when the house was open until 10 p.m., and once again the night before I left, when it closed at 9.

You’re not allowed to take photographs inside, but The Secret Annex Online takes you through a 360° tour of some of the rooms in the hiding place, include Anne’s bedroom along with the attic (which is off-limits to visitors). Some of the smallest things about the annex were the most moving: the pencil marks showing how much taller Anne and her sister, Margot, grew while in hiding (Margot grew about 2 inches, while Anne shot up about 5!); or the very postcards and magazine cutouts that Anne plastered on the walls of her room, typical teenager-style.

Amsterdam: The Begijnhof

When I travel, I pretty much like to hit the ground running as soon as I arrive. I tell myself that I’ll just walk around and acclimate, get some sun and a feel for the city, but inevitably I end up wanting to check some places off my list too.

That’s how I found myself at the Begijnhof, an oasis of calm founded in the Middle Ages that I’d read in Nat Geo’s “I Heart My City: Keith’s Amsterdam,” which was an ideal first stop in the city. As I sauntered in, a wedding party was just emerging from the small church, toting pastel balloons, taking pictures, and talking quietly. I tried to watch from a discreet distance and also looked up through the trees at the top windows of the houses surrounding the small square. The general hush of the place was soothing, so I found a bench and just sat and breathed it all in.

amsterdam begijnhof

Imagine how a light, cool breeze must feel wafting in
through those partly open windows.