When I moved to Ghent, I had my goals all sorted out. Step number one – find a comprehensive stationery store. Check. Step number two – locate a well-stocked-yet-off-the-beaten-track spice shop. Checkity check. Step number three – find a bookstore that will quench my never-ending thirst for English classics, fantasy books, great non-fiction and an occasional cook book. Because priorities.
The first two I’ve successfully located almost immediately, but the third one eluded me for longer than any book addict would feel comfortable admitting.
If you’re an unrelenting book lover like me, you’ll know the existential dread of not stepping into a bookstore for more than two weeks. Or heaven forbid, not bringing home ten new books while your partner questions your sanity. (I do not have a problem.)
Some people compulsively adopt stray kittens. Me? I buy books. The book lady is the new cat lady.
I tried all the sensible spots, whose flashy streetside names promised an end to my search – like Fnac or the Standaard Boekhandel. But there was still something missing. I was missing…a sanctuary. As always, when in doubt, put on your exploring shoes and check every single bookstore your city has to offer.
Cover image © Mirna Pavlovic
As with the botanical gardens in my previous article, I got way more than I bargained for with this little gem near the train station. Upon entering I was greeted by the children’s book collection and a vast array of Dutch non-fiction, but then the corridor suddenly opened up into an introvert’s heaven. It is difficult to describe the exact atmosphere of that little bookshop, but there was something magical and soothing in the air. My heart leapt when I saw my favorite editions of Jane Austen, clad in their beautiful linen covers. English classics? Checkmate.
Yet there seemed to be something more there. I caught a glimpse of an open door around the corner at the far end of the bookstore. As I crossed the threshold, lights flickered on and bounced off of a dozen old typewriters. No, hundreds. One hundred and sixty, to be precise. The mysterious little room at the far end of Limerick bookstore is the final resting place of 160 typewriters of the famous Dutch novelist Willem Frederik Hermans. Because you know what they say about typewriters – one ain’t enough. It seems the acquisition revolved around quite a bit of drama, and was even called “a shameful scandal”.
For all my notebook connoisseurs out there, the bookstore also offers Leuchtturm notebooks. Yes, you can buy the Leuchtturm1917 bullet journal there, too. You’re very welcome.
Limerick, you sure know how to charm a girl.
Boekhandel Limerick, Koningin Elisabethlaan 142, 9000 Gent
2. Atlas & Zanzibar
Just down the street from Limerick, a globe protrudes from the façade, bearing the letters “Atlas & Zanzibar”. Inside lies a treasure trove for all the wandering souls. Atlas & Zanzibar specialize in selling maps for travelers, and when I say specialize, I mean they REALLY specialize. Here you can find road maps, terrain maps, atlases, world maps, regional maps, town maps, province maps, village maps, big maps, small maps, maps on pillows, maps on bags … You get it by now. Maps. But other than that, they sell a great variety of travel books and guides of all sorts. Even found a mini SAS Survival Guide in here. Gotta be prepared for that zombie apocalypse.
The store seems to go on indefinitely, with maps covering the floors like carpets, and some corners are specifically designed for closer inspection of the map you want to purchase. Glass magnifiers and all. Just in case you want to feel like Indiana Jones, while researching the Inca trail in a murky corner of a bookstore.
That’s totally not what I did. Okay, a little bit. (A lot.)
Atlas & Zanzibar, Kortrijksesteenweg 19, 9000 Gent
Down the same street again, and you’ll pass another store called Epic. This one also has a specialty – comic books and graphic novels. After, all, they do say Belgium is the “home of the comic strip”, due to its rich contribution to the comic-strip culture with classics like Tintin, Suske en Wiske, Lucky Luke, and The Smurfs. You name it, it’s Belgian. A blend of visual arts and the written word, they attract a whole different audience from your usual book-loving Homo libris. However, comics in all forms have resurfaced as a medium with possibilities that open up a whole new world of narratives. They continuously evolve in terms of stories they tell, and can sometime get a point across more strongly than a standard book.
Enter my two favorite ones – the very politically charged and prophetic, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, and a strangely philosophically perceptive and metatextual Watchmen, both of which you can find in Epic.
Also, the good ol’ Garfield makes so much more sense when read as an adult.
Epic, Nederkouter 55, 9000 Gent
4. Ajuinlei Book Market
Every Sunday between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Ajuinlei becomes a hunting ground for the best deals on second hand books. You can find a great deal of Dutch books, while on the other hand, English books are rare on these stalls. Prepare for quite a lot of surprises while digging through the boxes. I came across a Dutch kinky comic book from the 80s with a very suggestive cover, followed by a gorgeous leather-bound book from 1936. Very eclectic.
The Ajuinlei book market makes for an adventurous stroll by the canal. And when you reach the end of the merchant stalls, look to your left. There’s another adventure awaiting.
Ajuinlei Book Market, Ajuinlei, 9000 Gent
5. The English Book Shop
TheSquare.Gent authors are all pretty sad that the English Book Shop closed in 2018. But to keep its memory alive, we left our write-up here for you (and us) to reminisce.
Situated at Ajuinlei 15, The English Book Shop is exactly what it sets out to be. Yup, you’ve guessed it – a bookshop for all books English. I entered the store and several things happened all at once. I was immediately engulfed in an overwhelming smell of dust. Then I spotted an old man sitting inside what seemed to be a small fortress made out of books, casually having lunch. The scent came from the books – books on the walls, books on the floor, books just casually propped against a staircase that doesn’t actually lead to anywhere. And it seemed to have taken on a life of its own, becoming a living force filling up every inch of breathing space.
And the man turned out to be a British expat Godfrey Mason, the ruler of this little kingdom. Under his rule, the bookstore offers…everything. You have your historical biographies, your World War II reports, your science fiction, your classics…I randomly pulled out a book that had its pages dipped in the most amazing deep purple and it turned out to be “At the Court of the Borgia – Being an Account of the Reign of Pope Alexander VI written by his Master of Ceremonies”. Say. What. Pope Borgia? Political scandals, drama and rumors of incest – that pope Borgia? The English Book Shop, you sassy thing, you.
“You might go in looking for a specific book in mind, but you’ll probably come out with something you never thought you’d buy.”, says a report of this store. And oh boy, can I confirm this or what.
The Copyright bookstore is situated just a dozen meters away from The English Book Shop, yet they couldn’t be more different. Copyright blinds with its bright, clean and modern style. Also, most of the books can be found still in their plastic sheets. While that does keep the books in flawless condition, it makes browsing kind of difficult. Sometimes you just don’t know what exactly hides behind the cover of that contemporary art book whose plastic is wrinkling in your hands.
Art books are exactly what Copyright is all about. You can find almost anything in here, from books on architecture and interior design to photography and furniture. They are very much up to speed with all the new releases, so if you’re searching for a specific new art book, Copyright will probably have it.
Copyright Bookshop, Jakobijnenstraat 8, 9000 Gent
7. De Slegte
From Copyright’s door, take a left, go over the bridge and keep straight on until you see two big windows filled with books on your right, along with “De Slegte” right above the door. That’s our next destination.
Even with my poor knowledge of Dutch, De Slegte always makes me giggle at the unintentional pun in its name (De Slechte? De Slegte? I’ll see myself out.) But it’s really not that bad. This sprawling bookstore in Voldersstraat occupies 6 levels in total, all of which are stuffed with books and all of which you can explore to your heart’s content. But be prepared to lose hours in there. Especially once you get to the upper floors with the more precious vintage books in glass vitrines. As usual, Dutch and French books prevail, but English books can also be found. Somewhere on those six floors. Happy hunting.
Boekhandel De Slegte Gent, Voldersstraat 7, 9000 Gent
8. The Other Shop
There’s a new player in town, and it goes by the name of The Other Shop. It’s quirky, it’s modern, it oozes personality and it will definitely steal your girl. The Other Shop sets out to make an impression as an edgy bookstore with a post-postmodern (dare I say, hipster?) feel to it. And you know what, it does a pretty good job at it.
The books on offer are in line with the store’s overall personality – different. Shakespearian versions of Star Wars, beautiful journals that beg to be wrecked (literally, Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith), and gorgeous hard cover cook books (I do want to know how to make affordable Thai food) – flashy covers scream for attention from every corner of this, not even a month-old, bookstore.
Apart from that, you can buy beautifully crafted notebooks and seriously funny cards for all occasions, among other things. Because nothing says “I like you” quite like a “I would love to get acquainted with your wiener” card. Well played, The Other Shop. Well played.
The Other Shop, Mageleinstraat 40, 9000 Gent
9. Paard Van Troje
A true Ghentian classic. The Paard is a favorite destination for book lovers and coffee lovers alike. This charming hang-out spot embodies the Trojan Horse (Paard van Troje = Trojan Horse) in the truest sense of the term. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a bookshop hidden inside a café!
The interior is enchantingly rich. When you step in, you are greeted by the lively chatter from the tables and beautiful books staring down at you from the wooden shelves. Paard takes the best from all the other bookshops, adds its secret sauce and transforms it into something magical. The shop sometimes also hosts book presentations or readings, which only adds to the atmosphere of an already lovely space.
You can find a good selection of English books here, along with an impressive variety of children’s books and interesting gifts for book lovers. Ah, and cake. We mustn’t forget cake.
Paard Van Troje, Kouter 113-114, 9000 Gent
10. Flea Market Bij Sint-Jakobs
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, the area around Sint-Jakobs transforms into a flea market. We all know what that means – coming home with three vintage candlesticks, a broken Polaroid camera, a cigarette case from World War II and a couple of brass rings. The usual stuff.
But if you look hard enough, there are usually some books to be found as well. And knowing flea markets, you could stumble upon a real gem. Or a kinky comic book from the 80s. Whatever melts your butter.
Antiques Bij Sint-Jakobs, Sint-Jacobs, 9000 Gent
11. Le Bal Infernal
Le Bal Infernal is a cosy used book café with a gloriously dramatic name. It sits just next to Sint-Jakobs, which makes it perfect for post-flea-market relaxing while admiring your newly acquired vintage candle sticks.
The café is, of course, all about books. The large shelves cover entire walls, and you’re more than welcome to grab a book while you sip your morning coffee or soupe du jour. Heck, you can even take a book home with you. There’s just one rule though – for every book you take, you have to put one back in. And not just any book, mind you. It has to be in the same category. So if you take a travel guide to Kenya, your Game of Thrones doesn’t cover it. Sorry. All in all, a wonderful concept, with a true pass-it-on spirit.
Le Bal Infernal – used book café, Kammerstraat 6, 9000 Gent
About the author:
Writer. Photographer. Finder of ways. She caught the travel bug some years ago and hasn’t fully recovered since. Her quest for the abandoned, the forgotten and the derelict has led her all over Europe – fuelled by a fascination with the world’s lost architectural heritage and a yearning to see what lies beyond the horizon. Always on the hunt for the next hidden gem. You can follow her adventures at www.inkquietude.com.