Shopping around the globe ... (clockwise from left) Livrario Lello in Porto, Hatchards in London, El Ateneo in Buenos Aires
What does a city do with an 800-year-old church with no congregation? Well, it could make like the Dutch and convert it into a temple of books. The old Dominican church in Maastricht was being used for bicycle storage not long ago, but thanks to a radical refurbishment by Dutch architects Merkx + Girod it has been turned into what could possibly be the most beautiful bookshop of all time. The Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, which opened just before Christmas, retains the character and charm of the old church, while being fitted with a minimalist and modern interior design that overcomes any suggestion of fustiness. From the images you can find on the web you can see that it is a bookshop made in heaven.
All the world's a page at El Ateneo, a bookshop converted from an old theatre in downtown Buenos Aires. As you can see from this photomontage the El Ateneo has retained its former splendour, with high painted ceiling, original balconies and ornate carvings intact. Even the crimson stage curtains remain part of the show. Comfy chairs are scattered throughout, the stage is utilised as a reading area and café, and even better, the former theatre boxes are used as tiny reading rooms.
Proving that purpose-built bookshops can be every bit as beautiful as converted buildings, the divine Livraria Lello in Porto has been selling books in the most salubrious of settings since 1881. Featuring a staircase to heaven and beautifully intricate wooden panels and columns (see for yourself with these gorgeous 360-degree views), stained glass ceilings and books - lots of lovely books.
A mere profiterole to the fabulous layer cakes of Porto and Buenos Aires, but the Secret Headquarters more than holds its own. Nestled in the creative cluster of Silver Lake, just east of Hollywood, this boutique store offers a sophisticated alternative to most of its rivals and has a reputation for being one of the neatest, friendliest comic stores anywhere. Canadian science fiction author Cory Doctorow rates it as the finest in the world.
The might of the Michigan-based megastore may make a lot of independent booksellers fearful, but few book lovers can fail to be beguiled by the neo-classical architecture of its behemoth Glasgow branch. Originally designed by Archibald Elliot in 1827 for the Royal Bank, Borders has occupied a prime spot on Royal Exchange Square since the millennium and won over many of the city's book lovers. People reading on the steps outside have become as much a feature of Glasgow as the traffic cone on the head of Wellington's statue. Well, almost. Would have been higher on my list if the aesthetic magnificence of the building had in any way been matched by the interior.
Of course, others might prefer the altogether more earthy beauty of a shop like Scarthin Books in the Peak District. Scarthin's has been selling new and second-hand books since the mid-1970s. It has rooms full of new and old books, a delightful café and what can best be described as a small exhibition of curiosities on the first floor. It is a bookshop so beloved, that it advertises local guest and farmhouses on its websites where devotees can stay overnight.
Located in a dear old house near St Magdalen's church in Brussels, Posada Books is as famous for its pretty interior as it is for its collection of new and second-hand art books. Has a remarkable collection of exhibition catalogues, which goes back to the beginning of the last century, and holds occasional exhibitions too.
The Polanco branch of Pendulo in Mexico City has long been known as one of the best ways to beat the heat in the largest city in the world. Although it only has a small English language section, its open architecture populated with several trees makes for an excellent afternoon's escape. In honesty, as popular for its excellent cafe as it is its books.
If you love bookshops even where you can't read the language, then Keibunsya in Kyoto needs to be on your list too. Some say it's the lighting, others the well-proportioned panels around the walls. Or perhaps it's the little galleries embedded in the bookshelves. Most agree it's just the quiet dignity of the place that's hard to beat. Lots of pretty Japanese art books to marvel at and a few English language ones as well.
Although the bookshop of Cambridge University is technically the oldest bookshop in Britain, Hatchards of Piccadilly, which has been trading since 1797, is definitely the most aristocratic. Not only does it boast three royal warrants, meaning it supplies books to Her Majesty, it has counted Disraeli, Wilde and Byron among its regulars. Today it retains the spirit of days past, with an interior described by one follower as "reminiscent of being inside a rambling old house, with six floors of small rooms all linked together curling around a central staircase."