Travel inspiration and insider tips

5 years, 9 months ago

The Booksellers of Madrid

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Passion and independence define Madrid’s booksellers. They don’t just give you a bit of peace and sanctuary from the Emperor’s New Clothes or the likes of J. K. Rowling’s agonisingly alliterative attempts at adult angst or another 50 shades of purple prose. They have a reverence for books born of necessity, not really surprising when you think about Spain’s 20th century political history.

Under Franco’s brutally oppressive dictatorship, books were high on the General’s hit list. They changed hands covertly, underground networks snaked round Madrid, booksellers turned literary bootleggers and committed bibliophiles risked more than library fines to read the banned, supposedly subversive and, a lot of the time, just plain disliked. When Spain collectively cracked the champagne on the 20th of November 1975, few places popped more celebratory corks than Madrid’s libreria.

6046628482_10272345ac_zcredit: Domiziana S.

The tradition of second-hand, well-thumbed, recommended, difficult to find and rare, is still at the heart of the city’s most fascinating bookshops today. It goes hand in hand with a love for literature that symbolised hope in some of Spain’s darkest times. And it’s why you don’t just drop into Madrid’s bookshops to pick up a book: you hang around, browse for hours and if you can’t find what you want, ask. In Madrid it’s a matter of honour to unearth ‘the’ book for you, however elusive. And if a Madrileño can’t run it to ground, chances are it hasn’t been written yet.

Here’s a short list of my favourite booksellers in a city that’s more than earned its stripes as a literary great.

Arrebato Libros, La Palma, 21 

arrebato libros madrid

Old books, new books, rare books, collectors’ magazines, hipster tomes and even antique coins are stacked high behind the imposing red panelled doors of Arrebato Libros. Not so much a bookshop as a Madrid cultural icon, Arrebato (translated roughly as ‘outburst’) brings the great, soon to be great, experimental and plain outrageous to read, perform and present their work at the Malasaña store. Its publishing arm has an impressive catalogue and there are no shortage of international names connected to this small, but powerful, literary presence. Arrebato organises the city’s annual ‘2km of Poetry’ event. You can buy books by the bundle for shockingly little money here, you can sell books if you must and if you’re looking for a book they don’t have they’ll make it their business to find it for you. And Arrebato is also another excuse to be in Malasaña, one of Madrid’s liveliest barrios and looking even better after its (non-gentrified) restoration.

La Tarde, C/Ruiz, 15

I always think La Tarde (another Malasaña classic) is what bookshops must seem like when you’re a little kid. The sheer number of books, the absence of any discernible order, the mix of antiquarian and rare with the simply loved and second hand give La Tarde a fairytale quality that’s more Brothers Grimm than essence of Disneyland. It is charming, no doubt about it, but there’s also just the right whisper of sinister that’s a pre-requisite of the best traditional bookshops. Disorganised as La Tarde looks, I never doubt the staff not to know exactly where everything is – and why. They’re wonderful, knowledgeable and specialise in finding out of print books or limited editions with the kind of efficiency that would put a seasoned Vatican librarian to shame.

Cuesta de Moyano, Calle Caludio de Moyano

9413299567_edcd5c319c_zcredit: Ricardo Abengoza Hernandez

The Cuesta de Moyano open air book market doesn’t like to be compared to its Parisian counterpart, Les Bouquinistes, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities. If anything I prefer the Madrid version, it always seems just a little less ‘business’ than Les Bouquinistes, it’s definitely not as touristy and it’s a lot, lot less expensive. So while the sweet little wooden stalls and the old-fashioned charm might remind you of Paris’s left bank bookselling legends, the prices of anything from a rare first edition to an out of print classic or a nearly new paperback certainly won’t. And another reason to pick up a bundle of books at Cuesta de Moyano is its closeness to Madrid’s gorgeous Buen Retiro Park – perfect for lying in the sun and getting lost in someone else’s imagination for a few very peaceful hours.

Panta Rhei, Calle Hernán Cortés, 7

Panta Rhei

A brilliant Madrid bookshop where language isn’t an issue because the main topic is art, design, illustration, photography and all things visual. The interior’s bright and bold and packed with desirable print to buy and browse (you’re expected to explore at length in Madrid bookshops anyway). Regular exhibitions and lectures can cover anything from children’s book illustration to graphic comic design. As always, the staff really know their stuff and couldn’t be more helpful – even if your Spanish is less than basic. If you like stuff to hang on your walls back home, Panta Rhei is where to look for the inexpensive, unusual, bizarre and often very beautiful.

La Libre Librería Café, Calle de Argumosa, 39

la libre libreria cafe madrid

Give me really good coffee, jamón ibérico on that rough, doughy Spanish bread and a new (or new to me) book and you have my heart for all eternity no questions asked. Understandably I love La Libre – restaurant, coffee shop, bookseller and place to while away hours doing nothing but reading and snacking. The menu’s eclectic and so are the books, mostly second hand and costing about the same as the coffee and La Libre’s very civilised hours mean it’s even good for a spot of light breakfast browsing.


Reading Up On Madrid

The Fencing Master, Arturo Peréz-Reverte

The intrigue and dark drama of late 19th century Madrid as Spain faces revolution and young master fencer, Astarloa, perfects his traditional skills until everything he believes falls into question with the advent of passion in his life. Romantic, beautifully written and filled with wonderful Spanish brooding.

The Garden Next Door, José Donoso

When two Chilean writers are offered an apartment in Madrid for the summer they can’t believe their luck. But their dream of inspiration and success and harmony is pulled apart bit by bit as their life slowly unravels. For all its apparent doom-laden subject, Donoso’s touch is light and all the bitterness and disappointment is funnier than you might think.

House of the Deaf, Lamar Herrin

When Ben Williamson’s daughter is killed in a Basque Separatist bombing in Madrid, he travels to Spain in search of someone to answer for his loss. A poignant, powerfully written perspective on a country and people we all believe we know.

Hidden Madrid: Madrid’s Oddities and Curiosities, Peter Besas

Beneath the surface of Spain’s seemingly very proper capital lies layer after layer of the totally bizarre. If you’re short of time and long on curiosity this guide is a great way to do a little digging.


Featured image by Shehani

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