Living in Italy certainly has its perks… A short train ride to Venice is unquestionably one. Last week, while meandering over canals and waxing poetic, I remembered this book shop I’d read about when I knew I’d be moving to Italy. Prior to researching the area we were to live in, or anything of significant importance, I Googled, “bookstores in Italy” or something equivalent because visiting every single “must see” bookstore or library in Europe is on my bucket list. Yes, friends, I know where my priorities are.
On previous excursions to Venice, my husband and I had no plan, except to “get lost”. In the excitement of being in Venice, I forgot about this shop. I don’t know if it was the just bloomed wisteria which dappled balconies, the murky turquoise water sparkling in the afternoon sun, the memory of a novel that took me to Venice long before I set foot on its cobbled streets; which contributed to my remembering. Or my desire to walk into a bookshop and find a treasure… Preferably in English, because despite my six-year study of the Italian language, when I read in Italian, it is slow going.
A not-so-quick Google + map search provided me the address to la “Libreria Acqua Alta” which means “Library of High Water”, and my husband a mission: to get me to this book shop. A few hours and ninety percent of my iPhone’s battery life later, I was there.
The Liberia Aqua Alta, calls itself the “most beautiful bookshop in the world”. I wouldn’t vote it “most beautiful”, but it is a welcoming, eccentric, dusty store which makes it’s guests feel as though they’ve stumbled into a place that could only be found in a story.
Upon entering, visitors are cocooned in a cacophony of books, welcomed by feline guards who are remarkably tame and take no notice of all the store’s patrons. You will find a motley crew of genres ranging from new publications to old second-hand books. I like to imagine how the books came to be at La Libreria “Acqua Alta” were they left behind by tourists in gondolas, found underneath hotel room beds, or left by distracted café goers? Oh, the stories they could tell…
You will find books in many languages, mostly in Italian of course, but don’t let that stop you. A book from this shop is a perfect memento of your visit to Venice. Pick a book that speaks to you and take it home as a special treasure. I discovered two books. The first was The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis. It is a yellowed, 1958 copy, with notes by a former owner who was called Brigitte Rü-something. I can’t really read her handwriting, but she wrote Friuli, 1961 on the inside title page. The second treasure I took home was Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, published by Penguin in 1074. It too is delightfully yellowed but in otherwise excellent condition. I couldn’t help but wonder where these books have been, or how long they sat piled on the shelf waiting for me to find it.
There are books on Venice, stacked high front and center in a gondola that takes up much of the floor in the center of the shop Yes. You read and see correct. Who needs a shelf when you can store your books in waterproof bins like a bathtub or gondola?
On each side of the gondola that monopolizes much of the main room’s floor space, are narrow aisles. You’ll have to squeeze by other bibliophiles in rapture to get to the back of the store where you’ll discover a staircase made of old encyclopedias.
You know the ones rendered useless by the Internet… They’ve been given a new purpose. I can think of far worse walls and much sadder ends to a book’s life than that of delighting people from all over the world. It is exciting climbing the steps, wondering what you’ll discover…
Which as it turns out is just a canal. But it is a canal in Venice.