Quite possibly the best bookshop in the world

In an age of e-book readers, it’s easy to forget the sheer pleasure of handling a newly published book, snuffling its ink and admiring its typeface and design. Not to mention the delight of browsing.

Can one ever have too many books? To paraphrase Dickens, books are the ghosts of time past, present, and yet to come. As he wrote in Chapter IV of what is probably the most autobiographical of his novels, The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) :

“My father had left a small collection of books in a little room up-stairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time…”

The companionship of a good book is only outweighed by the warmth of welcome of a good bookshop. Sadly, these are increasingly few and far between. Perhaps the very best is Hatchard’s, the oldest bookshop in London, and the second oldest in the United Kingdom. (Technically, the oldest is the bookshop of Cambridge University.) Hatchards was founded in 1797 in Piccadilly, London, by John Hatchard, whose portrait can still be seen on the shop’s staircase.

An Aladdin’s Cave of newly published books, Hatchard’s is carefully organised in enticing sections where readers can browse all day long. Its interior has been described as reminiscent of a rambling old house, with five floors of small rooms linked together around a central staircase. The atmosphere is, well, literary, and quietly erudite – in a word, civilised.

In Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa the nirvana for bibliomaniacs is Nicholas Hoare Books. Filled with beautifully arranged volumes that include fiction, current affairs, biographies, history, travel, art and design, the interiors are more like a personal library than a bookshop. The design is simple, with wall-racks rather than traditional shelving. In an interview in The New York Times in 2008, the manager of the Montreal location described them as “like a British country-house library translated into a bookstore.”

Nicholas Hoare Books pride themselves in reaching beyond the conventional database of current titles to bring together different aspects of the same subject. Whoever chooses their stock certainly displays a rare sense of what book lovers might like, from the obvious to the downright quirky. They also host events in all three locations – including book launches and artistic exhibits. Once again, readers are encouraged to browse, which recalls a passage in Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (2006):

“We pick our way down endless library shelves, choosing this or that volume for no discernible reason: because of a cover, a title, a name, because of something someone said or didn’t say; because of a hunch, a whim, a mistake, because we think we may find in this particular book a particular tale or character or detail, because we believe it was written for us, because we believe it was written for everyone except us and we want to find out why we have been excluded, because we want to learn, or laugh, or lose ourselves in oblivion.”

Too many books? I don’t think so.

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One comment on “Quite possibly the best bookshop in the world

  1. Erin Green says:

    oh man! Philip I’m so glad you blogged about this store. I forgot about it. I’m going to hit it up next week once I get paid . . . and go to St Lawrence for a hot dog, too. mmm. That store has the weirdest selection of books. I love it.

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