Google Maps may help us get around, but nothing can replace losing yourself—or, rather, finding yourself—in a bookshop.
Some are cavernous, inviting you to spend hours traveling through Andalusia with Paulo Coelho. Some are quaint vintage shops where you can unearth rare gems—maybe even a first edition. These are the places where a book might choose you, the ideas within it inspiring you into a future (and future trip) you couldn’t have expected. That’s the magic of a book as a tarot card, of sorts—an experience Google can’t even begin to touch.
From a funky outdoor bookshop in Ojai to a sanctuary in the middle of Chinese rice paddies, PRIOR charts five extraordinary bookstores around the world. Each is a community center, where you can tap into the locale’s creative pulse—or, at the very least, purchase a memento to bring home.
Daunt Books in London, UK
Daunt Books is a pilgrimage spot for PRIOR. Its Marylebone branch, which opened in 1912, is worth visiting for the Edwardian oak balconies and stained-glass windows alone. But, oh, the books. Organized by country no matter the genre, travel guides, maps, novels, and history books on, say, France, all sit together in one section. This is what makes Daunt the ultimate place for armchair travel. The emphasis is on Europe and North America, but wander downstairs to discover other parts of the world. And if you find yourself in London in March, don’t miss the annual Daunt Books Festival, a two-day extravaganza of book talks and readings by some of the U.K.’s most notable authors.
Bart’s Books in Ojai, California
When the late Richard “Bart” Bartinsdale’s collection of over 20,000 books became too large for his home to handle, he started to use the sidewalk. Locals could drop coins into the empty coffee cans as thanks for anything they “purchased.” (What could be more Ojai than that?) That was in 1964. Today, Bart’s is the largest outdoor bookstore in America—in fact, the story has come full circle, and the outdoor shop has taken over the inside of Bart’s former home. Find stacks of cookbooks in the kitchen and an extensive selection of art books in the “gallery.” The honor system remains outside, though, where night owls can peruse the shelves and slide a couple bucks through the slot in the door 24 hours a day. If you didn’t visit Bart’s, were you even in Ojai? It’s a must.
La Conchiglia Libri & Arte in Capri, Italy
La Conchiglia Libri & Arte in Capri is, well, all about Capri. Wander in and you’ll come across Sergio’s Lambiase’s books on the iconic films set on the island, a collection of photographs by Umberto D’Aniello, and Apicius Insulae’s La Cucina di Capri as well as antique maps and prints. There’s even a section of books on famous artists such as American painter John Singer Sargent and British writer George Norman Douglas who were, at one time or another, inspired by Capri. The shop is also where you’ll find a listing of local cultural events to attend while you’re there.
Paddy Field Bookstore in Xiadi, China
Built between old rammed earth gables of a long-abandoned house in Xiadi, an 800-year-old village in China’s Fujian province, the Paddy Field Bookstore is all but invisible from the outside, blending in with the surrounding Ming and Qing-era wooden structures. A branch of the popular Librairie Avant-Garde, an independent book shop that first opened in Nanjing in 1996, Paddy Field specializes in books on the protection of ancient villages, folk arts, and rural education around the world. And it’s as much of a bookstore as it is a community hub, holding art exhibitions, theater shows, and live music acts throughout the year.
La Librairie des Alpes in Paris, France
Alpinists need look no further than La Librairie des Alpes in Paris’s Latin Quarter. In business since 1933, it’s home to over 10,000 modern and vintage books on the Alps as well as guides, maps, and journals you can’t find anywhere else. It’s all Alps all the time, and it’s the best. When deeply specialized bookshops like this one exist, where you can spend time with carefully selected volumes before making a purchase, why would you default to Amazon?
Ben Hannon Hubley works on PRIOR’s content & editorial team, after having worked at the New York Times in Beijing. He received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and speaks Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. He is based in New York.