Books

Illustrating the Greatest Bookstores in the World

Cartoonist Bob Eckstein illustrated 75 of the world’s most beautiful, strange, and beloved local bookstores, many of which are in danger of closing.

Bob Eckstein, "Weapon of Mass Instruction, Argentina," a mobile bookstore tank (courtesy the artist)
Bob Eckstein, “Weapon of Mass Instruction, Argentina,” a mobile bookstore tank (courtesy the artist)

The luminous El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires was once a theater, and is now a spacious bookstore, with a café on the stage, and reading spaces in the boxes. Meanwhile, in Paris, is the cluttered counterculture-oriented Un Regard Moderne, so packed with books in its two rooms that no more than five people can browse at a time. They’re completely different experiences, yet each is a beloved part of their communities, and an example of the global diversity of bookstores.

Cover of 'Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores' (courtesy Clarkson Potter)
Cover of ‘Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores’ (courtesy Clarkson Potter)

Bob Eckstein illustrated 75 international bookstores in Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers,  out now from Clarkson Potter. On December 6, he will be holding a reading and discussion on the publication at Book Culture on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

The New Yorker cartoonist, and snowman expert (yes, really — his 2007 book was on this frosty history), has a distinctive illustrative style, where scrawled words layer over colorful paintings. (Eckstein once illustrated my pet cemetery tour in this way, with notes on the tombs and portraits of the participants.) For Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores, there are quotes from shop owners, patrons, and celebrities.

Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores
Bob Eckstein, “Quimby’s, Chicago, Illinois,” with a story from cartoonist Chris Ware (courtesy the artist)

Eckstein explained to Hyperallergic that Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores evolved from two 2014 New Yorker features on New York City bookstores. He wasn’t initially that much of a bookstore fanatic, although that changed after about a year and a half of talking to bookstore owners.

“Then I started really getting involved,” Eckstein said. “I was really invested in the whole project, and even my work reflected that. My work started to get more intense, the paintings got more romantic.”

He wasn’t able to visit every bookstore due to logistics, but he traveled to as many as possible. Whether witnessed or seen in photographs, each is an impressionistic vision of the site. “I tried to use my imagination to make the paintings the best foot forward for the stores,” he said. “And when I didn’t use reference, that’s when the stores looked most beautiful.”

Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores
Bob Eckstein, “Adobe Books, San Francisco, California” (courtesy the artist)

You can see how his paintings evolve in an online video at the Wall Street Journal. He tried to evoke the story of a bookstore in the elements he portrayed, whether the dynamic shape of the “Weapon of Mass Instruction” mobile book tank made by artist Raul Lemesoff in Buenos Aires, or the small corner-set Three Lives & Company in New York’s Greenwich Village. “At six hundred square feet, it’s the size of a luxurious Park Avenue closet,” explains its owner Toby Cox in a quote overlaid on the cartoon. Cox notes that when someone buys a book, they have to rearrange a whole shelf.

Eckstein added that for every bookstore that was included, there was one that had to be cut. Some included have already closed, such as Moby Dickens Bookshop in Taos, New Mexico. In this way, the book is also an argument for the survival of the local bookstore, as a place of stories, both in the wares, and the connections made there.

Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores
Bob Eckstein, “Un Regard Moderne, Paris, France” (courtesy the artist)

Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers by Bob Eckstein is out now from Clarkson Potter, and available at your favorite local bookstore. On December 6, Eckstein will be holding a reading and discussion on the publication at Book Culture (450 Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side, Manhattan).

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