12 Fictional Bookstores We Wish Were Real
From a truly magical shop to a Barcelona stronghold to a 24-hour bookstore that puts your late-night web browsing to shame
When I step into a bookstore, whether it’s the smallest, most crammed second-hand shop or a glossy retail chain, I’m always overwhelmed with excitement. Every spine along the shelf is a possibility. I know there is something great hidden among the stacks, if only I can find it. As a kid, my passion for bookstores had a fantastical bent, and I’ll admit that it took me a long time to give up hope that one day, while browsing a seemingly normal bookstore, I’d discover a book of spells, or a long-forgotten mystery, or a portal to another world. When I got a little older, I realized two things: (1) the only place where this actually happens — the portal, the magic— is in the books themselves (okay, let’s be honest—also movies) and (2) I’m not alone in imagining that bookstores hold the key to some sort of fantasy or adventure. Writers of all kinds (novelists, screenplay-wrights, just about anyone who picks up a pen) love to create imaginary bookstores and to fill them with all kinds of intrigue — magic, puzzles, crime, romance, and yes, books! So for all you bookstore-connoisseurs out there, here’s a list of twelve shops where I’d happily spend an afternoon, even if it’s only via my imagination.
1. Monsieur Labisse’s bookshop from The Invention of Hugo Cabret
This children’s book by Brian Selznick takes place in a French train station that’s home to all kinds of interesting spaces, from lookouts hidden behind clock faces to a toy shop jumbled with dolls, puzzles, and parts. Monsieur Labisse’s bookshop is a bibliophile’s dream; its floor-to-ceiling shelves are crammed with beautiful books that just beg to be opened and thumbed through. In short, Labisse’s is what I long for every time I’m stuck browsing the new diet/celebrity memoir table at the Hudson News in Penn Station.
2. Sempere and Sons from The Cemetery of Forgotten Books trilogy
Set in Barcelona during and after the Spanish Civil War, this trilogy by Carlos Ruiz Zaffron portrays a city that’s muted and tense, and a place where art is dangerous. Within this atmosphere, the bookstore Sempere and Sons becomes a small beacon of warmth, passion, and resistance. It’s a thrilling (and powerful) idea, that selling books can be such an important, political act — one that can even get you killed.
3. Flourish and Blotts from Harry Potter
If it’s easy to spend hours in a regular bookshop, its hard to imagine ever leaving Flourish and Blotts, the magical bookshop in Diagon Alley where every Hogwarts student goes to buy their reading for school. There are thick compendiums of spells and cursed journals and text books that will bite off your finger. It really brings a new meaning to the magic of reading.
4. The Shop Around the Corner from You’ve Got Mail
This unlikely love story is also Nora Ephron’s plea to support your local retailers. Meg Ryan is trying to keep her independent Upper West Side bookshop, The Shop Around the Corner, from going under after Tom Hanks opens a big box bookstore in the neighborhood. The set producers made Ryan’s shop the platonic ideal of a charming family-owned bookstore. There is a cozy children’s nook laden with toys, quirky book displays, framed book covers on the walls, and fluttering pink striped curtains on the windows. If this shop actually existed, I’d definitely drop my children off here for story hour while I went across the street for some wine and a locally sourced cheese plate.
5. Women & Women First from Portlandia
Speaking of quintessential independent bookstores, Women & Women First is your classic West Coast progressive bookstore, where the booksellers are less concerned with selling the merchandise than with making sure you’ve joined the movement. In a meta-twist, the real Portland bookstore where the show filmed, In Other Words, ended their relationship with the show, claiming that Portlandia is “diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize.”
6. (The eponymous) Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
There are certain pokey old bookshops that look like they’re more of the owner’s passion project, or overflow closet space, than a functioning retail venue. When Clay Jannon gets fired from his tech-bot job in San Francisco, he takes a job at just such a bookstore — one that’s open 24-hours despite its serious lack of clientele. Browsing a real life bookstore at 3 a.m., especially one that has ties to a secret society, would be much more exciting than my late-night sessions on Amazon.
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7. Le Cahier Rouge from the Red Notebook
Antoine Laurain is known for capturing “la vie Parisienne,” and if his fictional bookstore Le Cahier Rouge is anything like actual Paris bookstores, then he’s succeeded in making me want to move to France. This is partially motivated by my stomach: in addition to selling books, Le Cahier Rogue is an active literary center that hosts readings with all you can drink vin chaud and savory biscuits.
8. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Written in 1917, Morley’s novel centers around a traveling bookshop called Parnassus. I love this idea and think that we should revive it, along with all other forms of entertainment on wheels, including circuses, fairs, and traveling theater groups.
9. Geiger’s Bookstore from The Big Sleep
The Hollywood of Raymond Chandler’s noir detective novels is hardboiled and seedy, and in The Big Sleep, even the bookstore is criminal. Private investigator Philip Marlowe discovers that Geiger’s books is a front for an illegal pornography business, making it one of the few places where gangsters and bookworms cross paths. (Okay, so there may be a few reasons why this store probably shouldn’t exist after all…)
10. Black Books from Black Books
Here’s more proof that not all great bookshops are warm, kid-friendly places. Black Books, the setting of the absurdist, hilarious British sitcom of the same name, is run by a hard-drinking, smoking, antisocial curmudgeon. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
11. Island Books from The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A. J. Fikry, the owner of Island Books on the Nantucket-like Alice Island, is also a bit of a curmudgeon, but he has excuses: he’s a widower, his book sales are plummeting, and his prized collection of Poe poems was just stolen. In addition to its main plot (there is the sudden arrival of an orphaned child, I’ll leave it at that), this novel is an ode to books, bookshops, and book-lovers.
12. The Travel Book Co. in Notting Hill
This reminds me of one of favorite real life speciality bookstores, Idlewild Books in New York City — there is no better place to go and get excited about the vacation you’re taking (or all the vacations you want to take.) The fictional Travel Book Co. does have a few things that Idlewild doesn’t: it’s in the dreamy London neighborhood of Notting Hill, just steps from a picturesque outdoor market, and its charmingly scruffy interior comes with a charmingly scruffy owner, played by — who else — Hugh Grant.
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