Book. It’s a bit functional, as words go, isn’t it! Guttural. Dull. Definitely not suggestive of how the contents of those pages can transport us from an international space station to 1800s France, from modern day Wicklow to 1920s New York, and from a fantasy world where a wizard reigns supreme to 1904 Dublin (and that’s just a small selection of books in my eye-line right now!).
Similarly, bookshop. Hardly the most awe-inspiring word in the English language. And these days hardly the most awe-inspiring of places either, at least for me. Especially some of those larger chains with shelves whose contents are neatly ordered by popularity or in alphabetical order.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against them, they just don’t excite me. I’m sure that’s something to do with my taste in reading material, which could best be described as ‘all over the place’. Shelves organized neatly would be fantastically helpful if I had even the slightest idea what I was looking for. I rarely do – my selection of reading material can best be described as impulsive. I’ve even been known to buy something that literally falls off the shelf and into my hands!
So when I discovered Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice, it was pretty much as if I’d died and gone to heaven. I think I may have fallen in love with a bookshop. My mother would probably argue that it’d be more in my line to find a man to fall in love with, but she can blame her brothers for creating a book lover!
Acqua Alta (high water, in Italian) is a phenomenon in Venice which is caused by a combination of a high tide, low atmospheric pressure and a scirocco wind blowing up the Adriatic Sea, all of which force the water levels in the lagoon to rise. Once those water levels rise, they flood Venice. Levels can get past the 1m level, but they’re often much less. Thankfully I’ve only experienced the latter, and it was more of a novelty than a nuisance, barely ankle level. Hence my version of the ‘holiday feet’ photograph!
Because Libreria Acqua Alta is right next to a canal, it’s in an area that floods. So the name is appropriate. And the ‘shop fittings’ are also appropriate. (I use inverted commas because they are no ordinary shop fittings!)
It’s not completely disorganised, don’t worry. The front section is very much geared towards the tourist, with an extensive selection of books about all things Venetian and Italian, all in a range of languages. Whether souvenir or gift, you’re guaranteed to find something of interest. There’s also a good selection of maps, with varying degrees of detail, and some less cheesy postcards and prints. The further back you go, the broader the collection gets. Mostly in Italian, but not completely. All at reasonable prices too, I should add.
Going further back through the shop requires a modicum of patience though, if the shop is a little busy. There’s not a lot of room to move, not least because there’s a full-sized gondola in the middle of the shop. Yes, I said a full-sized gondola! It’s stacked with about as many books as you could fit in a gondola, with said vessel seemingly propped up by more stacks of books resting on a variety of crates and boxes.
Further back, more peculiar and ‘original’ shop fittings. Old cabinets, lockers, shelves, bathtubs. No, that’s not a typo, I did mean bathtubs! You see, the idea is that the shop fittings keep the books safe from the flooding of acqua alta, and what better way to do that than a bathtub!
The shop fittings aren’t the only oddities in this Venetian gem! Out the back of the shop is a staircase crafted from old books and scraps of very worn carpeting. It could so easily be misinterpreted as a ‘waiting for bin day’ situation, until you read the words painted on the wall, urging you to climb the books and look over the wall. Your reward is a view of the canal that the bookshop sits next to, a small bridge crossing that canal, and more often than not a small boat with one of the locals going about his business. In other words, a classic Venetian scene.
Apparently if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to meet the owner’s cat, since it basically has free reign in the shop and minces around among the stacks of books as only a cat can. I didn’t have the ‘pleasure’ of making its acquaintance, which suited me just fine (I don’t like cats, they don’t like me, the world is big enough for us all!).
Of course there are more than a few books amidst all of this setting, so I easily passed an hour there before I started to get hungry and wandered off to get something to nibble on. But had I gone there fed and watered, I’d have been there for hours. I’ll be going the fed and watered the next time. Because there will definitely be a next time! Probably more than one actually! Well, I did say I’d fallen in love with it!