Category Archives: Brussels

Taschen

IMG_2218Taschen, Rue Lebeau 18, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

If you love art, chances are that you know Taschen.  The German publishers of beautiful and fascinating books on art, architecture, design and photography can be found in libraries, museum shops, and good bookshops the world over.  They publish ‘coffee table’ sized books which are not only full of stunning art and masses of information, but are also wonderful, comforting physical objects in their own right, worth treasuring.

The Brussels shop is in the Sablon district, just off a lovely square that it shares IMG_2225with a beautiful old church, a weekly antiques market and about half a dozen chocolate shops.  Wandering around the shop I saw everything from clothbound editions of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm to The Complete Paintings of Gustav Klimt to the 36 hours series – colourful and creative travel books detailing how to get the most out of 36 hours in locations around the world.  Reflecting the diversity of their subject matter, the books in this shop take many different shapes and sizes.  There are massive five volume guides to the architecture of the twentieth century, small notebooks or pocket-sized books of photography and art books which are coffee-table size but are so expertly and lovingly crafted that they demand far more attention than mere background pieces.  My personal favourite was the Mid-Century Ads: Ads from the Mad Men Era series, with beautiful full-page, full-colour images of adverts from the 1950s and 60s. Just looking around you can tell that Taschen clearly take great pride in their books and make an effort to produce books that will delight all their readers, whether they’re artists looking for inspiration, academics doing research or know-nothings like myself who just like the feel of the thick , fresh pages between their fingers.

The Brussels shop is modern, minimalist and clean; rows of perfectly arranged IMG_2221books fill up the sleek black shelves.  As much as I love disorderly piles and shelves where the alphabet has given up and let anything poke out where it may, there’s something inspiring about a clean wall of uniform books lined up in front of you. It’s a magic, I think, that comes from the knowledge that while they all look so well-behaved, the second you pull one out from the wall it will suck you into an adventure that may well be a lot messier and weirder than the first impression suggested.  There’s also the knowledge, which I always sense when looking at a bookshelf, that every book in the orderly line holds some different secret inside of it.  There’s nothing more exciting to me than a wall of orderly books just waiting for you to pull one out and let it come to life. Fortunately, at Taschen, you don’t even have to take the book home with you to begin; the vibrant illustrations and stunning photographs on these pages come to life all on their own as soon as they’re opened.

FIMG_2222or the books that don’t fit on (or are just too beautiful for) the shelves around the edges, there are big golden blocks dropped all around the middle of the shop.  Books are never piled but always artistically displayed on the top.  There isn’t much inherent logic in the arrangements; 36 Hours in Latin America and the Carribean may well be sandwiched between The Golden Age of DC Comics and The Big Penis Book.  Seriously.  It makes for a unique and very enjoyable browsing experience. Even IMG_2224more books peak out from inside the gold blocks; piles of books lined up perfectly wait in these little nooks, not fussed about being away from the limelight. They’re relaxed about it, because people like me will always be quite happy to hang out on the floor for a bit if it means getting the chance to admire each and every one.  I did leave with dust covering the back of my coat, but I think it was worth it.

The Taschen shop is a great reminder of why we love and need independent bookshops and independent publishers.  Taschen and other publishers like it are the champions not of the faceless masses, but of the passionate weirdos.  They are places where the random, the niche and the IMG_2220obscure are celebrated.  They form communities of readers for the people who need them most; the scholar of Ancient Assyrian sculpture working in isolation in a tiny studio flat, the nature photographer whose family and friends don’t see why she won’t just get a normal job, the weird arty kid in small-town middle America who just wants to know that someone else in the world loves Modigliani this much!  By filling up our museums and galleries and bookshops with their inspiring, life-affirming books, Taschen assures us all that Yes, this is important, and No, you’re not the only one who thinks so.  In this beautiful shop in Brussels and in the countless other places around the world where their books are found, Taschen are succeeding in opening our minds and exciting our curiosity.  And that, I believe, is how you go about making the world a better place.

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Filigranes

IMG_2215Filigranes, Avenue des Arts 39-40, 1040 Brussels, Belgium

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 IMG_2210corners, 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 IMG_2213hadn’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 equalIMG_2212ly 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 IMG_2214like 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.

Tropismes

IMG_2163Tropismes, Galerie des Princes 11, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

Places like the Galerie du Roi, a covered arcade in the centre of Brussels, near the Grand Place, fascinated Walter Benjamin.  Lined with chocolate shops, bookshops and cafes, the Galerie du Roi is akin to the arcades of Paris, those magical places which Benjamin alternatively described as ‘Dream Cities’ and ‘Catacombs.’  At times, he praised them as places which fostered browsing, people-watching, flâneur-ism and observation while at other times they were dens of consumerism and commodity fetishism.  I can’t enter a place like this without thinking of Benjamin and wondering what he would make of it.  Indeed, sometimes when I go into a bookshop, I can’t help but feel a bit of conflict between the commercial aspect of shops (we are, after all, just buying products for consumption) and the intangible quality which creates so much more meaning: the opportunity they provide for us to expand our minds, embrace serendipity and start a journey.

IMG_2165At Tropismes, a large bookshop just off to the side of the Galerie du Roi (on the Galerie des Princes, no less), the balance is struck perfectly.  The beautiful displays in the window and the clean, modern interior create a palace filled of wonderful, attractive things to buy.  But the books on offer are chosen, curated and presented with so much charm, playfulness and intelligence that it’s hard to see them as just numbers in someone’s inventory or products to push before the Christmas rush.  That, I think, is what makes books different from every other thing we buy: they are not just bought, consumed and thrown away.  Instead, we as individuals bring each and every one to life in a different way and create a completely unique relationship with it.  We carry them through our lives (either on our bookshelves or somewhere at the back of our minds) and we don’t just act on them, but let them act on us.  Books are truly magical and Tropismes, which is whimsical and full of hidden possibilities, is a fitting home for them.

Naturally, the majority of the books are in French.  I don’t know why (perhaps someone can enlighten me) but books in French always seem to have quite plain white spines, so a wall full of them looks particularly refined and calming.  Tropismes has an amazing IMG_2164selection of French fiction, philosophy, poetry and history, as well as a mouth-watering cookery section downstairs which represents cuisines from all over the world, but particularly French and Belgian food.  On the ground floor, little nooks just big enough for a few people give the opportunity to get up close and personal with the books even when the shop is busy. In addition to books in French and books translated into French, there is a good collection of English books, which are always oddly reassuring. Tropismes has an admirably international range of novels and you can read where the books come from on the little labels that poke out from the IMG_2172shelves.  Tropismes takes you on a tour of world literature from every continent.  In one picture alone you can see a selection of Arab, Palestinian, Hebrew, Indian, Russian, Slavic, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Czech, Egyptian, Libyan and Iranian literature.  Now, I like to think that I’m quite good at reading books from other parts of the world, but Tropismes puts me (and everyone else I know) to shame.  And yet it never feels intimidating or pretentious because the whole atmosphere of the shop is friendly and inclusive, embracing people from all over the world just as it embraces their books.

When I went in, there was a pleasant level of chatter all throughout the bookshop which made it feel warm and inviting.  The shop is open, with bright lights illuminating what is in fact a beautiful old building.  The sleek and modern mirrors (which reflect the Christmas lights outside) work well against the older decorative features of the building, particularly the ornate columns and the beautiful roof.  The combination makes people feel happy, and that’s all there is to it. IMG_2169One of the things I truly love about bookshops (and people) in England is that they understand the value of peace and quiet and know how to be silent and let a person think, but this happy, community bookshop reminded me of how nice it can be to have a chat as well.  The booksellers were all lovely and (from what I could understand) very well-informed about everything they had in stock as well as about books from all over the world that they didn’t.  On a couple of separate occasions I heard a bookseller talking to a customer about just how they were going to manage to get their hands on that new novel from Burkina-Faso or somewhere equally random.  One thing I noticed is that the booksellers here were quite a lot older than the majority of booksellers in the UK.  Waterstones and London independents tend to be populated with twenty-something English graduates (like yours truly) and IMG_2171struggling playwrights  because there’s some kind of cultural idea that it’s okay to ‘just’ work in a bookshop when you’re twenty-three but by the time you’re forty-five you really ought to have a ‘proper job.’  I may be inferring too much from this, but it seems to suggest that in Brussels, they take their bookselling as seriously as they take their chocolate.  (I’m still smarting a bit from being told off by a chocolate seller for getting too close to the merchandise.)

Down in the basement, in addition to the cookery section, you’ll find books on pretty much everything under the sun.  There’s psychology, music, cinema, IMG_2170sociology, anthropology, science, nature, art and architecture, all of which are arranged impeccably in beautiful displays on the shelves and tables.  Although the basement doesn’t have the same light, airy, open feel as the ground floor, it’s still a place where you could easily spend hours if you had the time.  In fact, I think it would take that long just to get your head around the selection.

IMG_2166Finally, there is a large children’s section up on the first floor, which is a balcony looking down over the rest of the shop.  Here you’ll find children’s books for all ages and all types of children.  What was brilliant about this selection was that they weren’t just French translations of American children’s books, but new and innovative picture books, novels and comics from the country that brought us Tintin.  The graphic novels available all looked excellent, which I suppose is to be expected in a city that has a Comic Strip Museum and an apparent love affair with the genre.  It also seemed to me that a lot of the children’s books were much edgier than their Anglophone equivalents; I saw a lot of books and graphic novels that dealt IMG_2167with adult themes in understandable ways, rather than sheltering children in fairy-tale worlds.  I was particularly happy to see that small Belgian children are being exposed to great literature – there was a A La Recherche du Temps Perdu  comic book, which I now really really want.  I can’t say whether that’s indicative of a difference between the UK and continental Europe, but it is interesting how much you can learn about a culture just by looking at the books their children read, isn’t it?

Which, in a way, brings me back to where I started, with Walter Benjamin (can you tell that I love him?) and his marvelous exclamation: ‘How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” As I examined books at Tropismes, I thought of him sitting in a new flat unpacking his library of books, picking up each one and letting it flood him with memories of the city where it was bought and the stories it carries on and between its pages.  I’m sure that the books I buy in Belgium will serve the same purpose, guarding my memories and my stories until the next time I pick them up again, in whatever city I find myself in.  For now, exploring the world at Tropismes has been adventure enough.