As in all the other cities, our bookstore search was divided into two parts - the organized one (we had a list of bookstores we wanted to visit in each of the cities on our way) and the improvised one (we kept our eyes open while walking through the streets and were rewarded on a couple of occasions). We were well aware that our visits will be limited to browsing, as our budget was pretty tight to say at least and, surprisingly, our backpacks were getting heavier with every next step. Still, Brussels was our first stop, so we were still fresh, well-fed from home and both able and willing to walk. So here's a list of bookstores which have managed to impress us the most, along with some authentic photo material for you to enjoy.
The first bookstore we have visited in Brussels was the one we were the most eager to see - Posada Art Books. This bookstore is like a true maze, one might even say a spiderweb woven with stairs and shelves tangled up in books and comics. Located in an artsy street, Posada is just as artsy, or perhaps even more than its surrounding competitors - there were several other antiquarian and second hand bookstores in the neighborhood, none of which, unfortunately, carried English language books. Posada Art Books is definitely a master in its own branch - covering any category and subcategory that even slightly deals with art - with books in French, Dutch, English and other widely spoken or less frequent languages. The interior of the bookstore is another aspect which managed to leave a print in our bookstore-filled minds: the high walls are decorated with shelves with not only books, but also old typewriters. There was also an interesting kitchenette in one of the rooms which also contained books. Posada is a very stylish bookstore, but not in the more shallow meaning of this word. During its existence, this bookstore has naturally reached the point where it represents its own unique and individual style, which has become characteristic of the whole place.
The staff at Posada was also very cool, they seemed like true masters in their craft and they were also very talkative. The impression of a Tower of Babel was only grew stronger when we have witnessed an interesting conversation between two employees, where one of them talked only in French and the other only in Dutch.
Sterling Books is a pure English language general bookstore, which has been supplying the Belgians with quality titles for over ten years. With its gallery-type of interior (neatly organized shelves and book covers on display), it makes browsing a very pleasant and comfortable experience. The immense selection of books is certainly what makes this bookstore stand out when compared to other general English language bookstores. There is also an interesting children's corner where, besides browsing through books, children can also play since there are many toys and other fun things which keep the little ones entertained. Sterling Books is also the place, where we've discovered the book that accompanied us all through our summer trip - 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die - from now on, referred to simply as 1001 Books. Now, though we're not that little anymore, we still need some sort of entertainment as well. So here's how it worked - you open the book on a random page and flip through the pages and you get a point for each book you've read. The first person to reach the desired number of points wins. In the first epic clash, Sonja pulled out a close but deserved win.
Another quite important thing to mention about this bookstore - or about any other in Brussels or the whole Western Europe carrying new titles for that matter - is that the prices of the books are not as favorable for buyers coming from countries that are located a bit more to the east of them. Some of the prices on books were even higher than those suggested by the publisher. This, however, does not seem to be an obstacle for people living in the 'more developed' world since the cash register seemed to be occupied most of the time.
Librairie Filigranes was a part of our morning program on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Filigranes is open on Sundays, actually, it's open every single day of the year and the sign 365>365 displayed under the bookstore's name shows that this bookstore takes a certain pride in this unique feature. We were well aware of this fact and our Sunday walk wasn't marked by any doubts of this sort. However, the calm and sleepy atmosphere of a Sunday morning was all but over once we entered the bookstore. Even for us, experienced bookstore visitors, the crowd at Filigranes was a bit surprising to say at least. The place resembled a busy marketplace much more than a regular bookstore. We are unable to judge if the situation is the same during weekdays, but during our visit it seemed that this place is a very popular weekend hangout spot among the locals.
The English section hidden in the basement was a whole different story - underground, small, and almost deserted. After passing through the bulletproof metal orange door which originally used to keep the money behind it safe, we found ourselves in a rather small room full of English titles. The selection of English books in Filigranes was ok, especially for a bookstore that doesn't specialize in English books. You'd surely be able to find your favorites in the fiction section where we've also found our recently discovered browsing companion 1001 Books... So we were quite content. However, we must conclude that most probably the best protected English section of any bookstore in Europe would deserve a wider and maybe a bit more bold selection of titles.
Many people have heard about one of the biggest bookstore chains that goes by the name of Waterstone's. It is a UK based bookstore which offers a wide range of both academic and general books. This is its Brussels branch and the first English language bookstore in this city. We were not sure whether or not to include this bookstore for the above mentioned reason - the word chain is not that frequent in our Guide, as we much rather show our support to independent bookstores. However, we have received several recommendations for this bookstore and once in Brussels, we decided to see for ourselves. And as you may have noticed by now, Waterstone's in Brussels has managed to persuade us that it deserves a post in our guide. The following few lines offer a short explanation to back up our decision:
Waterstone's is simply a very good English bookstore, and this fact is the most important condition for any bookstore to appear in our Guide. We also think that Waterstone's in Brussels has played an important role in promoting English books in Brussels, a role which can't be matched by any of its branches in the UK. The store is well-organized, by subjects and by authors, divided into two levels and, above all, it had our all-time companion 1001 Books - and now, it was Ivan's turn to try and have his revenge. And defended his honor, he did.
Brüsel, with its enchanting red walls and urban atmosphere, was definitely one of the most pleasant surprises on our Western Europe bookstore hunt, and the facts that we knew nothing of it and hadn't previously planned on making a stop here just add to the feeling of excitement and exhilaration. The bookstore, or rather a mixture of a bookstore, comic store and a gallery, got its name from a magical timeless city of Brüsel, a fantasy place from a graphic novel by a great Belgian comicbook artist François Schuiten - a novel that bears the same name and has a striking similarity with the city of Brussels itself. For just any Belgian comic strip, one can go to almost any major bookstore. However, here you'll find the rare ones together with an impressive collection of figures, figurines and gadgets of your favorite characters.
In our opinion, Brüsel belongs to those stores which you can't simply pass by. For us, it was a really nice refreshment after a tiring day in the city. You definitely won't confuse this unusual bookstore with any other. Visiting Brüsel actually made us think of a new Top 5 'Eccentric Bookstores' category which will very likely appear on Bookstore Guide one day. We feel obliged to add one last warning for the lovers of the comic genre: Beware, because this dark red inferno will suck you in and it won't let you go easily.
Posada set the standard for art bookstores way up high. Librairie Saint Hubert, at least in our eyes, was able to meet it. The comparison of Brussels's two famous art bookstores naturally comes to one's mind. So here's our point of view: both of these bookstores definitely belong to the best in their category, yet they are different in almost every way. They both breathe history, but while Saint Hubert has a glowing atmosphere of which can be best described by the adjectives luxurious, stylish and upper-class, the air in Posada is filled with the smell of books, and the squeaky staircases and old typewriters gazing at you from the walls create a feeling of place where time is ticking away at a different pace than in the outside world.
We entered Saint Hubert with a certain respect, due to both the posh interior and the staff members, who looked a bit more serious and strict than is usual for a bookstore. These initial impressions only added to our latter astonishment. Saint Hubert is more than able to keep the pace with the recent trends in modern art and this is clear to anyone who enters the store. This is the aspect that we probably liked the most, that Saint Hubert is able to combine two elements which are often viewed as contrasting - a very fancy and stylish look cut out from the 19th century and a fresh and bold attitude when it comes to stock, exhibitions and art in general.
All in all, Brussels, the capital of Europe, can indeed be classified into the category of cities with a considerable number of independent and second hand bookstores - out of which we've managed to single out the ones carrying English language titles. If you happen to speak French or Dutch then know that by exploring Brussels' bookstores even farther than we've done, you won't be left disappointed. Due to its linguistic as well as ethnic diversity, Brussels holds other specialized bookstores, for example Punto y Coma, which specializes in titles in Spanish, or Orfeu - for Portugese titles, or even Piola Libri, an all-Italian bookstore. Furthermore, Belgium produces 30 million comic-strip books annually, and exports three quarters of them. Out of the quarter that stays in Belgium, many are distributed to Brussels' comic stores - which can be found at literally any corner of the capital. Comic stores also have many imported English language comic books and graphic novels. Thus, if you are a book lover, then Brussels is definitely a place for you!
Check out our Reports from other European cities.