Of boats and books

I recently set out to visit ten of the best independent bookshops in the world, as recommended to me by Guardian readers, in an article by Marta Bausells. Two on the list struck me as being rather odd, for they were on the water…why would anyone dare to sell books on the water?! As I pondered this, I was already onboard the Vaporetto in the magical city of Venice, Italy, heading towards Liberia Acqua Alta and, I hoped, an answer to this very question.

Liberia, Acqua Alta is literally a treasure island. Surrounded by Venice’s world-renowned canals, it is a bookshop which has adapted to live on the water, like some tenacious new species in nature. Everything’s in a waterproof container of some kind; gondolas, bathtubs, even wheelbarrows. Acqua Alta is a haven of books, designed to float away at a moment’s notice.

I learnt from a friendly bookseller – as I scrambled through this organised chaos of paper and binding, gondolas and cats who come to the bookshop to find shelter from the wet– that the bookshop has indeed flooded in the past, waterlogging much of the merchandise. You would suppose that this would deter any passionate bibliophile, however, the people of Venice are, after all, accustomed to living with the canals. Their solution here at Liberia Acqua Alta was to recycle the books damaged by the flood into furniture, resulting in a most unique tourist attraction; the staircase of books. Tied together in bundles with string, their waterlogged pages peeping out along the edges, I felt the individual pages sag beneath my tread. Now I can go to my grave in the knowledge that I have climbed up books… although this seems to me to be the next logical step for an avid reader and bibliophile to take- pun intended!

The mildewed stench of damp paper permeates the air; I can’t tell whether Liberia Acqua Alta has done enough to ensure its glorious survival, but it’s not the only brave little bookshop voyaging out on the tide. In fact, its spiritual sister is literally on the water – Word on the Water is a boat in London, upon which its owner, Jonathan R. Privett (alias ‘The Professor’) sells books.

The inspiration behind Jacques in Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, The Professor is a true bohemian beatnik, shrouded in clouds of cigarette smoke. Our conversation competed with the insistent barks of Sasha, the dog, as we sat by the woodstove, ensconced in the cosy vacuum of the present moment. And the rarity of this experience was not lost on me, for the independent bookshop is an endangered species, due to the closure of many stores around the world.

The Professor talked about losing these shops like he was grieving. But for all the fallen comrades we mourn, we both remained hopeful for the future of the independent bookshop. The professor was keen to highlight that bookshops are disappearing because of hiked-up rent prices…not because of any general loss of love for reading. As I departed the boat of books, moored near London’s Olympic Park, I reentered the busy capital with a new appreciation for individuality. We must fight for the right of these booksellers to share their originality with the world; that’s why we need articles like Ms Bausells.

If these two unique floating examples prove anything, it’s that the power of the written word can overcome even the most unlikely of obstacles.


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