From Paris’ Shakespeare and Company to San Francisco’s City Lights, independent bookstores have always breathed a nostalgic charm that no chain store can beat. We take a look at the best of Belgium‘s independents bravely weathering the digital revolution.
As far as locations go, this is one for the books. Literally. Aptly named The Flood, the Mechlin theatre-turned-bookstore is packed with novels, magazines and newspapers. It’s the kind of all-absorbing place you wander into during the early afternoon for a quick peek and stumble out of when it’s already dark outside, wondering where in the world all that time went. Make your way up to the top floor for some authentic, strong coffee (no syrupy lattes here) and some quiet time to help you decide which of the ten books in your stack you can’t live without. And if you go a little overboard anyway and don’t feel like lugging a library around, have your purchases delivered to your house via a trusted Mechlin eco courier. Opening hours: Mon-Wed 10 am-6 pm, Thu 10 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 10 am-7 pm and the first Sunday of each month 1 pm-6 pm
Looking at its date of birth, Het Voorwoord (or ‘The Preface’) is a pretty brave enterprise. The relatively new venue opened up shop about six years ago, around the time independent bookstores everywhere were being forced to call it quits due to declining sales. Still, love for the written word (and a good cup of joe) prevailed, and the bookshop-café in the heart of the ‘Kempen’ area soon became an author favorite. Readings are frequently held in an informal atmosphere at the equally charming bar next door, which owner Gert De Bie co-runs. A small but nice vinyl record collection was recently added to the mix. Opening hours: Wed-Sat 10 am-6 pm, Sun 8 am-2 pm (Summer) and 9 am-2 pm (Winter)
Passa Porta and its biannual festival have become fixtures on the Brussels cultural scene since the bookstore opened its doors 12 years ago. The international house of literature has bloomed into the favorite place of a diverse crowd of book lovers and puts a ton of effort into widening the horizons of anyone who sets foot through the door. The multilingual bookshop, literary evenings with foreign authors, translation workshops and living quarters for artists in residence have made Passa Porta a renowned rendezvous spot for readers and writers from all corners of the world. Opening hours: Mon-Sat 11 am-7pm and Sunday 12 pm-6 pm
The reputation The Green Aquarius, located in the charming cobbled Wolstraat of Antwerp, has acquired over the past 40 years of its existence is impressive. Its authority and expertise in the fields of history, international politics, literature and the human sciences are undisputed. A friendly cooperation with the university keeps the students and professors streaming in, while children get a reading corner all of their own. The store believes that a wide variety – including books in other languages – is key, and annually shines a spotlight on a deserving book they believe got ignored by the mainstream media by awarding it De Groene Waterman Prize.
A reading at De Groene Waterman | Courtesy of De Groene Waterman
Bookstore, Library, Shop
Still known to the seasoned Leuvenaar as ‘The Horse of Troje’, the bookstore on the spacious Ladeuze Square in the heart of Leuven — also home to the grand city library – has been retitled ‘Boekarest, Capital of Letters’. Along with the name change, meant to stress its status as a proud independent bookstore, the homey shop got a little refurbishing done. Thankfully, the high ceilings and hardwood floors got to stay, along with a quality selection that ranges from the Russian classics to new emerging talent from the Low Countries. Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10 am-6 pm
Named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s otherworldly child hero, Au P’tit Prince is a literary home for one and all. At the store, officially crowned a ‘quality bookshop’ by the Walloon government, even toddlers too young to read for themselves can experience the joy of disappearing into a fictitious world by listening and soaking up some beautiful pictures during one of owner Eva’s adored story hours. Opening hours: Tue-Fri 10 am-6 pm and Sat 10 am-1 pm and 2 pm-5 pm
Not many smells go hand in hand like freshly brewed coffee and the air that escapes a new book while rifling through it. Married couple Lies and Mark, the founders of Barbóék, cleverly picked up on this when frequenting their favorite coffeehouse-bookstore on the block, the now gone De Dry Coppen. The youngest venue to grace this list (they opened in Summer 2015) truly is designed to be a second home to the book lover. The roomy space is filled out by a patio and loads of nooks and crannies to disappear into while being carried off into other worlds. Opening hours: Mon 2 pm-6 pm and Tue-Sat 10 am-6 pm
Keeping the variety alive and providing you with personal advice on those rare finds you wouldn’t come across in any random chain store – that’s been the charmingly cluttered Book Owl’s adamant mission for close to 80 years. Let Marc, Dirk or Manuella – who usually know the location of every single book by heart – help you in the search of your new favorite read, or peruse through the large collection on your own with some soothing classical music in the background. Opening hours: Mon-Fri 9:30 am-6 pm and Sat 10 am-6 pm
If you’re tired of hanging around the ‘other languages’ section in stores or picking up books with magnificent covers but not being able to read their dust jackets, step inside Sterling Books. The international team of Belgian anglophiles and straight-up Americans – who design their own original bookmarks for you to use – are always happy to share their recommendations and provide you with the English or American newspaper of your choosing.
The English-language bookshop in the heart of the capital | Courtesy of Sterling Books
The oldest bookstore in Bruges, The Heron popped up near the end of the 19th century at just the right time, when illiteracy in the medieval city was incredibly high (40 percent) compared to the rest of the country. Today, the family business has expanded quite a bit. Next door at number 13, their specialized travel bookshop has opened its doors, selling guides in various languages, pocket dictionaries, globes, atlases, and all sorts of other gadgets that make globetrotters salivate. Even a book outlet was established, yet the over 125-year-old shop has never lost its warm domestic touch; the old family living room upstairs was recently turned into a literary salon.
With a rich family history dating back to the Second World War, a roomy top floor attracting artists of all kinds and a success that resulted in the opening of another shop, Vervier’s Au Fil d’Ariane (or ‘The Breadcrumb) could easily be called the Heron’s Walloon counterpart. Look for the difference in the profound expertise of all things beautifully drawn, children’s literature and comic books alike.