Travel Traditions: Bookstores as Social Barometer

I have a lot of travel traditions; things I like to do in almost every place I visit. I like to go to the supermarket to see what lines the shelves, I stop by convenience stores to take a peek at local soft drinks and candies and of course I love to browse in bookstores. My first job was working at Waldenbooks in the local mall, but well before that bookstores were my favorite place to be. Today I love bookstores just as much as when I was a kid, maybe even more so. There is something inherently calming about sipping a cup of coffee in a big, comfy chair and browsing through a mountain of books. That’s why I love pursuing this hobby even when traveling.

Paris is a favorite bookstore stop for me. I love to wander around Gibert Jeune and peruse the titles. Even though I speak French, I very rarely buy anything, except for the odd Tin Tin book. What I enjoy more is to browse the titles and see what other people are reading. I also love reading French guidebooks for the U.S. Perception is everything and these guides can be hilarious sometimes.

Tel Aviv Carmel Market

Singapore is another great spot to pick up some books. The few stores I went through were very similar to an American style Borders or Barnes and Noble with the sprawling layout, multimedia section and of course coffee shop. The differences lie in the popular books. There are some international favorites, but many regional ones as well. It was in Singapore where I bought both Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography as well as an intense portrait of the Thai monarchy. The book was a hot item in Singapore, its proximity to Thailand ensuring many Thai expats as well as those who just love the nearby country bought the book. My favorite find though was a collection of short stories by Neal Humphreys, a Singaporean humorist. Singapore is a different place and his ability to point out its eccentricities poignantly and with a sharp wit is a literary tightrope he balances well.

Traditional bookstores aren’t the only places to find local books; flea markets and random book stalls are popular as well. One afternoon, walking through the downtown core of Tel Aviv I noticed a small, outdoor book stall set up in an alleyway. Most of the books were in Hebrew and while I couldn’t understand the titles, there was one that caught my eye. It was a small picture book published in the 1970s detailing the Six-Day War. I couldn’t read a word of it, but the photos contained therein told me everything I needed to know. The Israeli point of view on the war was a fascinating look into the heart of the Israeli people.

I think that’s why I like visiting bookstores in foreign countries; for the opportunity to learn things about the people that no one would ever tell me. Learning what they are reading and what books are popular takes me into the heart and soul of a country that no amount of sightseeing could ever accomplish.

What are your travel traditions? Is there something you try to do no matter where you go?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

2 thoughts on “Travel Traditions: Bookstores as Social Barometer”

  1. I love the last part of your article. I totally believe that you learn things from a book that no amount of sightseeing could accomplish. Autobiographies are great too.

    I don’t think we have a travel tradition per se, does eating local foods count?!
    Maybe I’ll have to start visitng bookstores more often! I usually swap books wiith other travellers or in a hostel!

  2. I’m noticing a growing attraction to visiting tea houses. On my last couple of trips, I’ve brought back different types of tea as my souvenirs. However, my real travel traditions seem to be overpacking and underbudgeting. Those are the real constant, lol!

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