The entrance to Filigranes, a large bookshop on the Avenue des Arts in Brussels, is decorated like a giant gingerbread house, with snowflakes painted on the windows and beautiful seasonal displays facing the street from warmly-lit windows. It’s like walking into a fairy tale.
The first room is large and open, with books and book-related products covering every inch of the walls and crowding tables, displays and even bits of the floor. The shelves wind their way in and out of corners, creating both wide open spaces and smaller, cozier ones for the more reclusive. I personally tend to classify myself in the latter category, so I was pleased to find that there is room enough for everyone to have their own space. As the rows of books carry you from the front of the shop all the way around the room, there are little nooks where you can dip into the quiet philosophy section for a moment, then dip back out into the jolly noises in the rest of the shop. In the middle of this first room are not one but two cafes, where book-lovers and coffee-lovers alike can stop, relax and enjoy the lively, festive atmosphere of the shop. Thankfully, the cafe-goers and the bookshelf browsers never step on each other’s toes: there is enough space in this massive shop for everyone to choose between the quiet retreat of a corner surrounded by pages or the bright and bustling cafe scene. Indeed, looking at the coffee-sippers, half chatting and half admiring their new purchases, I realised that many of them had probably been quietly browsing only moments ago. Do you know what this means? You could spend hours in this shop, arriving first thing in the morning and not feeling that you need to leave until closing time, because in this delightful city of books you’ll have food for the mind (novels, philosophy, history, art), food for the body (oh those eclairs…) and food for the soul (poetry, god damn it) at your disposal.
Yes, it would make quite a good day trip, spending a whole day wandering around the bookshop, peeking into corners and admiring the smooth white spines of French books and only taking a break to refuel. But the thing about Filigranes is that you might end up staying for hours even when you certainly hadn’t planned to. The place is a labyrinth (there’s a map of the shop on their website), a seemingly endless progression of more and more rooms, each one seemingly bigger than the last and each one full of wonderful and exciting things. It’s a book city, a book palace, a book maze and the perfect place to get lost. Room after room unfolds and the further you get from the entrance, the quieter the rooms become as the more obscure genres find their homes. Here, in the suburbs of the book city, are the comics and graphic novels, children’s books in French and other European languages, a small games and toys section (all very tasteful, don’t worry), humanities, and cooking. The art section is particularly noteworthy, as it’s larger than many and filled with books which tell the stories of talented artists and reproduce timeless paintings, but are also beautiful objects worth treasuring in their own right. Brussels is full of art, artistic people and really lovely art bookshops, including the Librairie St Hubert, which I’ll write about soon. From what I’ve seen, Brussels embraces the most high-brow of art forms, but is equally devoted to the quirkiness, randomness and playful side of art. In fact, in the bookshop of the charmingly weird Museum of Musical Instruments I flipped through a book about art deco masterpieces hidden in the architecture of the city. It’s fitting that Filigranes, one of its best larger bookshops, should have such a good range of titles. There’s also a champagne and caviar bar in the middle of it all. In case you get thirsty.
And at the very end of the shop, which, as in any good labyrinth, is right next to the beginning, there is a truly impressive and inspiring collection of international books in English, other European languages and I’m sure many others that I was too overwhelmed to notice. It always strikes me as a bit unfair and a bit embarrassing that most bookshops in the UK never have more than a bay of books in other languages – though places like The European Bookshop, Skoob, Book Mongers and The French Bookshop in London are trying to change that. Although the quality of these international English bookshops is never guaranteed to be any good, at least it’s an attempt at internationalism. But at Filigranes, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the foreign language section; like every other genre represented, it is top notch, with a thoughtful mix of canonical favourites and the best of what’s out now. Filigranes makes the best possible use of the vast space it has by ensuring that on its shelves there is no genre, no country, no language and no style which is unrepresented.
As we wandered through the shop last week, marvelling at its size and scope every time we turned a corner and found it opening up into a new room, an announcement came over the loudspeakers and a voice invited browsers to stay a little longer than usual for a pre-Christmas do. Authors were coming in to sign books, red wine was being passed around, live music would be starting imminently and in every way possible, the party was kicking off. There was dinner to make and a warm cozy flat to get back to, so after spending entirely too long flipping through the magazines, art books, French poetry and novels in English, I pulled myself away. But walking out into the dark, cold street I took comfort in the thought that all evening, book-lovers, music-lovers and food-lovers would be reading, laughing, eating and, surrounded by beautiful words and favourite characters, enjoying the company of friends.