De Kaft, literature hunting in a living room | courtesy of De Kaft
Even in the age of Amazon, e-books and future day drone book deliveries, Ghent has clung tight to its physical houses of literature. These 11 distinct bookshops, including one that doubles as an artist gallery and another that houses a superb typewriter collection, are where the Gentenaar goes to hold an actual book in his or her hand.
Bookstore Walry has remained a true and steady temple of reading for close to 40 years. By continuously organising author visits, signing sessions, even outdoor pizza parties on the eve of its annual holiday, Walry has built a loyal clientele of culture lovers that regularly consult the team led by passionate owner Paul Luyten for sound reading advice. In the back, a courtyard garden and lunch café liven things up. Besides Dutch-language literature the shop also offers a great selection in Spanish and Italian.
From it’s split-down-the-middle website to its obscure art publications, RIOT is quite the characterful addition to Ghent’s literary scene. Part bookshop, part gallery, the plywood-rich space belongs to a growing subset of initiatives by the city’s young creatives. It settled in the affordable but increasingly attractive Dampoort neighbourhood in 2014 and has become a great underground source for art mags and events like graphic design printing workshops.
RIOT, fond of hard-to-find art mags and highlighting emerging young talent | courtesy of RIOT
Paard Van Troje
Helped by an eclectic event calendar that doesn’t necessarily stick to the literary field – think exhibits showcasing the works of local artists or ‘Swedish folk on a Sunday afternoon’ – and a 60-seat café serving a decent cup of joe, Paard Van Troje (‘Trojan Horse’) has become one of the best-known independents in Ghent. The spacious family-run business on the Kouter square likes a good classic (as its name would suggest), and stocks some beautiful special editions on its wooden bookshelves spread across multiple rooms. A wide selection of children’s books from toddler to YA is part of its charm, and a Kathleen Kelly quote can’t help but pop to mind: “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading does.” Well, they organise midnight Harry Potter sales. Enough said.
Coffee table books galore at Copyright Bookshop Ghent | courtesy of Copyright Bookshop Ghent
We’ve already recommended its Antwerp location and Copyright’s Ghent branch is no less inspiring. Like its brother, this shop focusses on all things design, from architecture to typography and even garden. You’d never guess from its clean, modern look that Hilde and Johan’s space has been a hotspot for the city’s many art students for over a quarter of a century.
British expat Godfrey Mason may not run the tightest ship, but he has still succeeded in creating a little peace of bibliophile heaven. The English Bookshop is crammed with teetering piles of second-hand books, all in the English language and many of them relating in one way or other to Mason’s main interest: history. Everything from classics to exciting biographical documents and obscure sporting literature can be found after a good rummage, and the signature dusty smell emanating from the wall-to-wall books welcomes the dedicated reader home every time.
Looks like it's closedHours or services may be impacted due to Covid-19
For those who ‘prefer to read in the language of Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, or even Strindberg,’ Limerick boasts a wide offer of English, French, German and Swedish literature alongside its Dutch-language books. Gert Brouns’ place has been profiled together with Walry as one of Ghent’s literary strongholds, going its own way in a sea of chainstores thanks to unequalled personal service. The point is emphasised by the grand typewriter collection of renowned Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans that found a home here in 2013, and by the assortment of both nostalgic and new children’s books.
Author Willem Frederick Hermans’ exceptional typewriter collection on display at Limerick | courtesy of Boekhandel Limerick
Le Bal Infernal
Bar, Cafe, Belgian
A couple of years ago, closed café Le Bal Infernal rose like a phoenix from its ashes to become even more of an exciting rendezvous hub for the Gentenaar. Now a used book café-cum-coffee bar, literature with a previous life lines the walls. Visitors are encouraged to bring their old favourites and exchange them for a new reading adventure at a mere euro a pop. Write a personal or inspiring message in the flap, and the swap is free of charge.
The entrance to Atlas & Zanzibar, travel bookshop and map heaven | courtesy of Atlas & Zanzibar
With a large-scale globe and an elegant banner that reads ‘maps’ and ‘travel guides’, Atlas & Zanzibar effortlessly lures in the incurable wanderer. Ghent’s travel go-to is run by avid explorers Greet and Eddy, who know what they’re talking about when they tell you for example to take one Patagonian trail over another for the most gorgeous nature displays. Their map selection is impressive to say the least – it includes city maps, coastal maps, biking maps, hiking maps, fauna and flora maps, etc. The stock is browsable online on ManyMaps, though few things beat folding out the plan mid-shop and pouring over the region you wish to visit with a magnifying glass and expert advice on hand.
De Kaft, literature hunting in a living room | courtesy of De Kaft
At De Kaft, chances are you’ll find your new favourite book literally snooping around someone else’s living room. After the eponymous physical shop gave up the ghost in 2014, entrepreneur Leen Van der Poten took over its stock of cared for second-hand titles and filled the shelves and tables of her 18th-century townhouse with them. Every Tuesday to Saturday afternoon, Leen opens the doors to her home for themed sales of art books, books on Ghent and a whole host of other subjects inspired by an inventory of thousands upon thousands of second-hand treasures. De Kaft recently dropped cookbooks in favour of a focus on history, philosophy and science.
S.M.A.K.’s bookshop takes care to coordinate its offer with the exhibits on display in its halls. The daring Museum of Contemporary Art curates its own Top 100 of art books, and a lot of the time exclusively printed tees or postcards designed by visiting artists will be sold in limited supply.
There's no telling what obscure publications you might come across at Galerie St. John | courtesy of Galerie St. John
Don’t forget to actually rifle through the books at Galerie St. John, an antiquarian and decorative arts store housed inside a converted Baroque church. The exceptional setting crowded with unusual statues, ornate vases and silver cutlery usually operates via auction, but there are some objects – like old manuscripts and intriguing leather-bound books – that can be bought on the spot.