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A world tour of bookstore cafes

What better place to check out a new city than a warm, welcoming bookstore?

February 06, 2011|By Mark Vanhoenacker, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Among European cities, London's bookstore cafes have the most distinguished pedigrees. The city's legendary 18th century "penny universities" used to charge for access to both coffee and literature. Though free refills haven't been seen in Britain since, London's bookstore-cafe scene is once again thriving.

Start at the London Review Bookshop, a scone's throw from the British Museum. Just a few years old, the bookshop and its adjacent cake shop are a worthy and much-loved play on the city's remarkable coffeehouse past. Enjoy the sticky cakes, the plentiful copies of the London Review of Books and the chance to share the large central table with Londoners or fellow travelers.

Or try Foyles, on Charing Cross Road, Britain's avenue of bookstores. Foyles stands out as one of Britain's largest and best-loved bookshops. But it is also one of the easiest and least expensive places for visitors to plug themselves into the cultural life of London. Its extraordinary selection of readings, debates and exhibits is diverse and mostly free (no small matter in one of the world's priciest cities). Its author events involve, as Foyles modestly claims, "practically every great writer of the age." Come too for the music, including classical concerts and a regular jazz series, and for the pleasingly run-down cafe. In a country not particularly known for its sandwiches or customer service, Foyles excels at both.

London Review Bookshop & Cakeshop, 14 Bury Place, London; 011-44-020-7269-9030,

Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London; 011-44-020-7437-5660,

Perhaps it's the British heritage at work, but among Asian cities Hong Kong offers a unique selection of bookstore cafes. The sleek Kubrick Café, in the Yau Ma Tei area of Kowloon, is indulgently artsy, while cultural revolutions of another sort are addressed at People's Recreation Community in the Causeway Bay district on Hong Kong Island. The specialty here is cake and books banned in mainland China.

For one more cultural upheaval, try Bookworm, in the village of Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island. A short ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, the excursion is a trip in several senses, as central Hong Kong's "Blade Runner"-meets-Wall Street vibe is replaced by the ideal stage set for a Cantonese "Tales of the City." Amble up the pier (past the "All you need is love" graffiti), and down the main street. Bookworm is on your right.

Inside this tiny cafe, lime-green tables and "Pride Destroys Everything" signs are set off against a peculiar offering of used books, including a vast selection of Spanish-language guides to Greek isles. The menu is equally esoteric: Try shepherdess pie, "Buddhist-friendly" pizzas and "Hello organic cakes!!" Are they offering such cakes, or greeting them? Who knows. But count on Bookworm for erratic hours, friendly staff and music nights.

Kubrick Café, Prosperous Garden, 3 Public Square St., Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong; 011-852-2384-8929;

People's Recreation Community, 1/F, 18 Russell St., Causeway Bay, Hong Kong; 011-852-2836 0016,

Bookworm, 79 Yung Shue Wan Main St., Lamma Island; 011-852-2982-4838,

Like Hong Kong, Mexico City has a selection of memorable bookstore cafes, all branches of El Péndulo, a local chain of elegant "cafebrerías" (cafe plus librería) scattered across this sprawling megalopolis. Each has a full menu of Middle East-accented Mexican food and reasonable English-language sections.

The Zona Rosa branch is an oasis of class in the city's increasingly run-down gay district, or you can walk through nearby Condesa to its inaugural branch. Browse your way to the second-floor terrace, where no one minds if you linger for hours under a canopy of fine-leafed trees. But don't miss the concerts, readings and courses that make El Péndulo Mexico City's most accessible cultural resource for travelers.

El Péndulo, five branches, including 115 Avenida Nuevo León, Colonia Condesa, Mexico City; 011-52-55-5286-9493,

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