Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews
Image: Karl Rogers

Bookshops — particularly independent ones — are different. Although sales are important and making a profit is essential for their survival, this is simply a by-product of an altogether nobler aim: to be a serene and safe sanctuary where readers can commune with ideas, with words, and with pictures. Bookshops are the airports of the imagination — the place where your mind can take flight to other worlds. They’re spaces for contemplation, relaxation and escape — and places where, in most cases, lingering is actively encouraged.

While the internet, e-readers, and huge chain-stores have battered the fortunes of small bookshops across the world, it’s clear that bricks-and-mortar stores are still surviving — and, in some cases, thriving. What’s behind this renaissance?

I can’t speak for all customers, but I know why I keep returning. At a visceral level, I relish the way a good bookshop makes me feel — welcomed, protected, excited, and connected. (When did ever make you feel warm and fuzzy?) I appreciate the advice of smart, real, flesh-and-blood humans about what to read. I like the magical serendipity they offer — the way you could stumble across a new favourite book or author simply by scanning the shelves and picking a book at random, or by selecting something that has seduced you with its exquisite cover. It’s a method of discovery that has no equivalent in the online realm.

As public libraries in many countries, including our own, struggle to maintain their relevance, with inadequate acquisitions and staffing budgets, bookshops have increasingly become a proxy of sorts for these precious places. And, they’re not just spaces for cul­tural consumption, but for production too: plenty of bookshops have launched their own publishing arms, literary festivals, and other kinds of events, energising the literary landscape of the locales in which they’re based.

Whichever city I visit, I try to go to at least one bookshop. My absolute favourite was the Reading Room, created by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London a few years ago. The high-ceilinged, white-walled space was one part bookshop, one part wine bar — and managed to be both glamorous and inviting. You could munch on light snacks, sip a glass of wine and pore over one of the thousands of art and design titles for sale. Although the Reading Room is no more, there are plenty of other bookshops I’ve loved that continue to thrive.


Kalk Bay Books, Cape Town. This southern peninsula spot has halved in size since its 2006 opening, but it still offers a fantastic range of interesting literary fiction and non-fiction and an impressive newsstand.

The Book Lounge, Cape Town. This cosy two-storey bookshop close to Parliament lives up to its name, with a thoughtfully edited selection of local titles, as well as gems from abroad. It also hosts South Africa’s leading literary festival, Open Book, every September.

Bookdealers of Melville, Joburg. This bookshop is crammed to the gills with the interesting, the obscure, and the awesome — I lose hours here every time I visit. I’ve found wonderful titles that it would’ve been near impossible to track down anywhere else.

Love Books, Joburg. It’s hard to think of more apt name for this Melville trove: as you browse the shelves it’s clear that lots of love and consideration that has gone into its selection. You’ll find great reads in every genre, but the standout range of kids’ titles deserves a special mention.

Bridge Books, Joburg. This inner-city gem, housed in a beautiful former bank, focuses on new and used books from and about Africa, and also acts as a conduit between traditional publishers and the street booksellers of Joburg’s CBD. It has a busy calendar of children’s story-times, launches, and workshops.

Central Africana Bookshop, Blantyre. Central Africana, tucked away in obscure light industria, has an unparalleled selection of mostly used and rare books about Malawi and central Africa, as well as decent range of guides to the region.

Waterstones Piccadilly, London. I make a point of visiting this store, the flagship of Britain’s premier books chain, every time I’m in London. It is gloriously vast — six floors of books and magazines about absolutely everything under the sun.

Daunt Books, London. This shop is housed in a gorgeous Edwardian building on Marylebone’s high street. Books of different genres are grouped together according to region or country, so it’s ideal for travellers searching for books about the country they’re heading to, whether that is a novel, travelogue, or guide.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris. This storied space is one of the most famous independent bookshops in the world, and has hosted Ernest Hemingway and plenty of other literary luminaries since George Whitman opened its doors in 1951.

Hennessey + Ingalls, Los Angeles. This store is close to the beach in Santa Monica, and offers a mouth-watering range of art books and delicious stationery.

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles. This behemoth in LA’s revitalised Downtown has more than 250 000 new and old titles.

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco. This space is far more than just a bookstore — it was also the pioneering publisher of Allan Ginsberg’s once-banned Howl, and has long been a fervent crucible of controversial ideas and counter-culture. On my last visit, I spent ages browsing, going from one cosy room stacked with books to the next.

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