7 Books Set in Bookstores
Dream of owning a bookstore? Then this reading list is for you
I’m the type of person that plans their travels around bookstores. A new city to explore means a route through bookish haunts: a walking tour of shops dedicated to words, my maps app aglitter with saved spots waiting to be discovered. I went to Maastricht once just to see a gorgeous 13th-century church converted into a bookstore, planned an Austrian trip around abbey libraries, and packed every visit to London with a lengthy itinerary that weaves from shop to shop (and calls for extra baggage. And after, a spending freeze!). My closet suffers from bookstore tote bag overload.
Few things compare to the joy and exhilaration of a good bookstore browse. That smell of crisp paper and wooden shelves, getting lost in stacks and pages, touching spines and palming stories, the delight of discovering a new author or title… entering a bookshop feels like leaving the world behind in the best possible way. Give me that papery perfume, that soundtrack of rustles and creaks, perhaps a windowpane streaked with rain, and endless tomes of words and worlds to rummage through!
If you plan your travels around good bookstores like I do, if few things excite you as much as hours lost among shelves, if eau de bookshop is your favorite scent, then this reading list is for you.
[Editor’s note: We link to our affiliate partner Bookshop which supports independent bookstores, but we also encourage you to order directly from the stores featured below: Birchbark Books, The Bookshop, and Shakespeare and Company.]
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
When the joys of snail mail and bibliomania combine! This short, sweet, epistolary tome about book lovers is a classic to drink up in an afternoon. A true tale told through letters between a New York City writer and a London-based antiquarian book dealer, 84, Charing Cross Road is a charmer. Spanning a heartwarming 20-year-old friendship, the transatlantic correspondence delights with its varied discussions, surprises (Christmas gifts and food packages), and the ongoing suspense of will-they/won’t-they finally meet. Put the kettle on, pop a crumpet in the toaster, and savor these bookish dispatches as you daydream about British bookstores and the lost art of letter writing.
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
What would it be like to work in a bookstore in a wee Scottish town? Cold, for one. But reading Shaun Bythell’s descriptions of bookshop life is nothing but warm and cozy, with plenty of chuckles along the way. The curmudgeonly owner of Scotland’s largest used bookshop relays daily tales of customers (the cherished ones, the crotchety ones, and the fools), books read, books acquired, tasks and chores completed, conversations overheard, complaints raised, and stupid questions asked by book seekers. There always seems to be a kettle on, a fire stoked, a great big stack to sort through, a warming dram to sip with a visitor, a cat slinking around… If you can’t get to a bookstore, but you’re pining away for a good browse and a good steep in that wooden-shelved aura, read this. A warning, however: may result in a deepening desire to book a flight to Scotland!
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
A widow opens the only bookshop in a small seaside English town, and problems ensue. The other shopkeepers are not too happy with her, she incites the wrath of the local arts patroness, and her dilapidated store creaks, leaks, and is haunted by a ghost. Take away the pesky problems, and the premise has the makings of a dream many of us bibliophiles may have—a sweeping coastline, a quaint town full of quirky characters, a charming bookshop, and a passion to inspire others by way of literature. But this is a melancholy tale, a slim tome about a kind, determined optimist who tries, despite the ugliness of the world, society, and people. Exquisitely crafted sentences and characters, powerful observations, and a bibliophilic bend: read it and weep.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Another widower with a bookstore, another curmudgeonly bookish soul, another small town inhabited by quirky types… add a bit of mystery, a dash of romance, and you have the recipe for an enticing, escapist read (if it’s a bookstore that you want to escape to). A.J. Fikry is a depressed bookstore owner, a grieving grump with a drinking problem and a bookstore in a slump. There’s too much opportunity for spoilers here, so let’s just say that everything changes when he receives an unexpected package. If you favor grouchy, persnickety book nerds, you’ll get along swimmingly with A.J. Fikry.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich’s latest is a romp: an ex-convict works in a bookstore that’s haunted by the ghost of a former customer. Boisterous, poignant, powerful, stippled with richly colored characters… even on the sentence level, this book bristles with color and electric energy, building an absorbing flow that keeps you flipping the pages. This is a ghost story, a Native American story, and a mystery for the present day that touches on the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. At its core though, The Sentence is an ode to bookishness that name drops titles and authors galore, details the minutiae of operating a bookstore, and even features cameos from the author herself (who really does own a bookstore!).
Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Krista Halverson
One of the world’s most famous bookstores distilled into book form. This gorgeous volume is a must for any fan of the Parisian haunt or for those wishing to visit. A history of the shop that delves into its rich archives, resulting in a collage of memories and mementos, rare photos, essays and poems from the luminaries that stepped through its doors or even slept in the beds tucked between bookshelves, like Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Rifling through this tome feels a bit like walking through the shop’s hallowed book-lined halls, full of treasures and surprises, inspiring words emblazoned across stair steps and doorways, corners of poetry and handwritten notes, a magic well, a typewriter hidden away in a nook, someone plinking away at a piano somewhere… it is enchanting.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
A dusty old San Francisco bookstore is the setting for a rollicking adventure complete with teetering shelves lined with mysterious books, bizarre customers, and a 500-year-old secret society. Books and computers clash but ultimately co-exist in this love letter to bookishness and technology alike, an ode to both analog and high-tech, print and digital. A mystery to get lost in and a bookstore you won’t want to leave!