Bookshop Tourism

A few weeks ago Nic and I came across a US site Bookstore Tourism and we were both taken with the idea of booklovers either making pilgrimages to specific bookstores or, more likely, adding a bookshop or two on an upcoming business or holiday trip. We liked this idea for purely selfish commercial reasons - hopefully people will make a special trip to come and see us when visiting Oxford (for example). However, it also started a germ of an idea of a global network of small, independent bookstores all promoting each other to their regular customers who come in looking for travel books: "Oh, going to Devon this Summer, here's a list of bookshops you might like to pop into if you have a chance". Not exactly the "Bookstore Tourism Movement" talked about at the BookExpo America last week, but something nevertheless positive, inspirational, and easy to start in a small way. I think it works well with the whole blogging culture to boot. As I discussed here previously, my job for the last few years has taken me to a few exotic locations, and I'm currently in Medan, Sumatra on my (last ever) business trip for my current company. So - to kick off the "mostly bookshop tourist network", I decided to seek out and report on a bookshop cafe here in Medan called "Socrates". Medan doesn't have many English language bookshops, I didn't have a great deal of time on the trip, and it's a national holiday today in Indonesia. I did visit one Indonesian bookshop in the Thamrin Plaza, but it was small, crowded and seemed to be mostly full of comics. Someone had recommended Socrates to me at one of the business meetings here earlier in the week - so I jumped into an air-conditioned taxi (it was 32 degrees C here today) and went for lunch. I have to say upfront - the place is definitely more cafe than bookshop. With a name like "Socrates" it reminds me of the QI bookstore in Oxford, as the books on display are an eclectic mix of philosophy and business success - mostly in Indonesian, but some in English. There are also plenty of other second-hand books that you can read whilst eating and drinking your (frankly excellent) vegetarian food and fresh juices. The cafe is split into two - the top has a very low ceiling, so the seating upstairs is Japanese style with low tables and you sit on cushions - surrounded by second-hand books to read, and some books for sale at the far end. Downstairs is more traditional cafe decor. (The Socratic quote on the far wall was a nice touch "Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.". Underneath was an array of self-help books). The waiters didn't speak any English, so after some interesting exchanges using my limited Bahasa Indonesian (and a Lonely Planet phrasebook) and I sat down to eat. Whilst I was there, I was fortunate that the owner - an Indonesian-Chinese man called Benny - came in and we got chatting. His English was excellent, and I asked him how the bookshop idea came about. He said it was simply a combination of two passions - vegetarian foods and books - and although the bookselling was not the core part of the business, he had regular customers who liked the ambience and bought books fairly regularly. Nice to know that even on a small scale, creating a place that people like to return to often translates into regular books sales! After taking a few piccies, and finishing my meal, Benny offered to pick me up that evening and take me to "Plato" - his new place also in Medan. I declined (I leave tomorrow) and besides, this one doesn't have a bookshop. I guess I should finish off the report like a proper travel writer, and tell you that dishes cost approximately Rp19,000 (that's about, ooh, £1.00) and I can particularly recommend the freshly squeezed juices (at about 50p a pop). I appreciate that the chances of anyone reading this blog a) being into books, b) being a vegetarian, and c) being in Medan are somewhat remote, but FYI "Socrates" is on Jl Airlangga No.14-C, Medan. Nic and I will try to bring you some more bookshop tourism in the run-up to our July 1st opening. Feel free to recommend any bookshops that people should take a detour to visit, post them here and we'll add them to the network. Next stop, KL tomorrow on the way back to the UK. Meanwhile, Nic has been busy sorting out shelving (involving a nightmare visit into the strange world that is Ikea) and more bookstore stock-idea raids into chains (Ottakars). More news on the store next week...


  1. Well what do you know! I love books, am vegetarian and am thinking of going to Indonesia this summer. (Scratching head in a bit of a confused manner) - Where's Sumatra then?

    But seriously the idea of advertising other bookshops around the country/world sounds fantastic. I am seriously thinking of going to Indonesia in the summer and your report has made me think that maybe I need to pack a book or five.

  2. What are the chances of that?

    Having gone over and read your blog, let me know of any good bookshops in Paris!

    Seriously, let me know when you are going ( I've spent quite a bit of time there recently (East Kalimantan, Semerang, Jakarta, Medan). Sumatra is the north part of the archipelago - Medan is the main city. Try to visit Lake Toba (about 5 hours from Medan) because I never managed it, and it's supposed to be beautiful...

  3. Ooh bookstores! Well my two favourites are The Red Wheelbarrow (22, rue St.Paul, 75004 Paris) It's small and cosy and the manager Abigail is a scream, she'll give you an in depth review of any book at the drop of a hat. There are often readings and events going on.
    My second favourite is The San Francisco Book Co. (17, rue Monsieur le Prince, 75006 Paris). It's a second hand book store, but the books are in excellent condition and it's very well organised.
    Shakespeare and Company is probably the most famous in Paris - they have their own website - but I find them a tad expensive. Nevertheless it's a real higgedly piggedly mediaeval building with a hodge podge of books EVERYWHERE and they also organise events. The next big one is - Travel in Words: A four day literary celebration, running from June 15th - 18th.

  4. For bookstores in Paris, what about Harmattan? I find their mixed-on-the-shelf multilingual inventory so provocative. And I love the Africa/Asia/Latin-America focus, with the books organized by country. Really, there's every category of book in the store: literature, cooking, anthropology, current events, children's -- but -- all these books are organized by country, with different languages intermingled.

  5. Anonymous4:55 am

    Wow! Imagine a hungry vegetarian looking hungrily for secondhand books (and I am soooo "into" books anyway, ever since my first Dickens when I was eight) in an internet cafe in Medan!!!

    Thanks so much for the info--even the price of the juices is helpful, ahahaha! terima kasih and mahalo (I'm from Hawaii)!