As Bastian Balthazar Bux, the young hero of Michael Ende's Neverending Story realised, a bookshop can be the jumping off point for a great adventure. That's true whether it's a little local shop like The Shop Around the Corner run by Meg Ryan in You've got Mail, or a modern chain like Fox Books, the vast family business of her rival, Tom Hanks. Exploring a country's bookshops is a charming way to discover the local culture, and you can find these havens of knowledge, both big and small, with their atmosphere of calm and their sense of discovery in the most unlikely places and with the most impressive pedigrees. Join us on a journey of exploration as we take a look at some of the world's most unusual bookshops.
Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen (Maastricht, Netherlands)
Possibly the most beautiful setting in the world for a bookshop, this 800-year-old church once belonged to the Dominicans and – rather more recently – it was used as a bicycle store. But after a refurbishment by the Dutch architects Merkx + Girod, the vaulted ceilings, arches and pillars have been transformed into a real temple of knowledge. A vast black multi-storeyed wall of a bookshelf is located asymmetrically between the central and right-hand naves. You climb up between the books to find yourself high among the pale stone ceiling ribs and on a level with the fine ogival arch windows.
Hatchards (London, England)
In London's Piccadilly we find Hatchards, official supplier of books to the British royal family, and replete with history. The shop opened in 1797 and Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde were among its select list of customers. Today, the narrow corridors are visited by people from all walks of life, from politicians and scholars to students and the general public. A wooden staircase leads between the six floors of books, although, in a nod to modern convenience, there is also a lift.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Located in the Recoletos neighbourhood of the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, the building that houses this extravaganza of a book store was originally a theatre. As its name suggests, it is indeed both grand and splendid, retaining much of the original architectural detail of the building, from the painted domed ceiling to the crimson velvet curtains. There are a number of comfy armchairs, the boxes are small reading areas, the area previously occupied by the stage is now a cafe, and the ticket windows are to be found in the area dedicated to paperbacks. It may not be as comprehensive as Borge's Library of Babel, but it offers rather more readable books in a far more comfortable setting.
El Pendulo (Mexico City, Mexico)
A more modern option, now, in Mexico: El Pendulo was set up in 1992 as a cultural and artistic space surrounded by a bookshop; it houses a cafe, an art gallery, a small discussion area and even a room for screening art films. In Spanish, it's referred to as a "cafebreria", a portmanteau word combining cafe and bookshop. In its relatively short history, it has transformed and reinvented itself to become one of the most well known and prestigious cultural centres in the Mexican capital, and now has a number of branches located around the city.
Scarthin Books (Derbyshire, Great Britain)
Trading under the slogan 'Britain's most enjoyable bookshop', Scarthin Books in Cromford, Derbyshire, is perhaps not as impressive as the bookshops listed above, but it has plenty of charm of its own. It's been selling new and second hand books since 1974, and boasts that the service is both 'quirky and competent'. One particular strength is the children's section with some 9,000 titles, but their specialist subject is 'everything'. There's a busy cafe on the premises, serving home-cooked vegetarian food with vegan and gluten-free options. Scarthin's slogan used to be 'A bookshop for the majority of minorities', and the premises are the setting for a host of activities including philosophical discussion, a reading group and Buddhist meditation.