Growing up, I was always enchanted by bookstores. At my local bookstore, I would wander through the seemingly endless shelves, searching through the battered copies of used books and the shiny new bestsellers. I would pull out a novel and curl up on the floor between the shelves to read the first few pages, hoping each time that I had discovered the perfect purchase. Now, bookstores continue to remind me of the endless possibilities of the literary world, displaying all of the incredible new books that are being published today as well as classic and unforgettable works that were written decades or even centuries ago.
Unfortunately, bookstores—both local and larger corporate establishments—have been in trouble for some time now due to the rising popularity of eBooks and online stores such as Amazon, where consumers can purchase titles from the comfort and convenience of their homes. Borders, which had been the second-largest bookseller in the nation, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and was forced to close all of its locations, while Barnes & Noble started to close locations earlier this year to save money. Many local, independent, and used book stores across the country have also had to shut down, leaving behind empty shelves and deserted storefronts. In 2011, a Buzzfeed staffer captured these mass closures in a post entitled “25 Depressing Portraits of Closed Bookstores,” accompanied by an equally bleak caption: “Sad. See you in another life, bookstores.” As these stores close, we lose vital community centers that fostered a love of literature.
Despite being someone who recognizes and values the importance of local bookstores, I am often lazy or busy enough to fall into the habit of ordering books through Amazon, without even looking in the library or local bookstore. Over the past year, and especially while abroad in Paris, I made a greater effort to visit local bookstores when I wanted to read a new novel, and was amazed by the incredible variety of stores that I discovered. Two in particular—the Strand Bookstore in New York City and the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, France—filled me with the same awe and excitement that I felt in bookstores as a child.
The Strand Book Store, New York City
The Strand, located on the corner of East 12th Street in Manhattan only two bocks away from Union Square, is an incredible place to find new, used, and rare or out-of-print books. Its claim to fame is that is houses over 18 miles of books, many of which are sold at discounted prices. Outside, there are usually carts displaying books for $5 or less—a great deal if you have the time and patience to sort through the wide, random range of titles. Inside, the bottom floor is the place to find historical works, titles in foreign languages, and books that focus on specific or slightly strange topics: the Strand’s display of books about cats, for example, is one of the finest and most extensive I have ever seen.
With so many miles of books to choose from, the Strand is the perfect place to find an author or specific book for which you have been searching unsuccessfully—after months, for example, I finally found Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” which was well worth the wait. If the range of books doesn’t astound you, the prices will, since most books at the Strand—even new or bestselling titles—are significantly cheaper than at other establishments, making this a true paradise for any booklover.
The Abbey Book Shop, Paris, France
The Abbey Book Shop in Paris is one of several well-known English bookstores in the city, but is by far the most interesting and unique shop I saw during my time abroad. Located on Rue de la Parcheminerie near Notre Dame, the Abbey is very close to Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookstore once run by Sylvia Beach and habited by authors such as James Joyce and Hemingway. While Shakespeare and Co. has become an enormous tourist attraction—always filled with English-speaking visitors willing to buy very expensive titles—the Abbey Book Shop is a more secret, unexplored spot not found on the itinerary of most tourists.
A friend visiting me in Paris, determined to find a good, inexpensive novel for his plane trip home, had heard of the Abbey and suggested that we visit. When we arrived, the storeowner and an employee were sitting at a table outside, eating their lunch and drinking wine while waiting for customers to enter. The inside of the shop is astounding: the walls are completely covered by shelves of new and used books, and piles of novels in the center of the floor rise from floor to ceiling, precariously leaning into the aisles.
While it initially seemed impossible to find anything is this crowded store, the storeowner could navigate the titles with ease: when my friend requested a specific book, the owner pulled out a narrow ladder and immediately pulled the novel from a top shelf. You could spend hours just sorting through one stack of books at the Abbey, constantly unearthing new and unexpected finds that would be unavailable at any other bookstore.
Establishments like the Strand and the Abbey are reminders of the importance of bookstores within our communities and the literary world. These stores, with their shelves of new and old titles, are unique havens where people can search through, read, and buy an unbelievable variety of literary works—an experience that cannot be replicated by an Amazon search or Kindle purchase, and which must be protected.