One crisp Wednesday morning in May, I swam into the Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice. Located in Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, the bookshop is boldly dubbed, ‘the most beautiful library in the world.’ The owner’s rapturous welcome on entrance goes beyond the forced customer service normally received in corporate chains, it is absolutely genuine. A captivating smile and general good humour create a warm and jovial atmosphere throughout. He is Luigi Frizzo, undoubtedly proud of his literary haven – and rightly so!
As a bookseller in another life, my immediate thought on entrance was on the ‘busyness’ of the store. To catalogue this wild bush of books and its rooms stuffed, congested with tales – cascading with literature – would be an impossible task. A touch of surrealism is added by a gondola plonked in the middle of the room. The name of the bookshop ‘Libreria Acqua Alta’ refers to the phenomenon of high tides (‘acqua alta’) that used to be a seasonal annoyance but which are affecting Venice more and more. Book-lovers flow and bob around the musty space, as the waters navigate around the canals of this voluptuous city.
A bust of Marilyn Monroe emerges, ascending quite aptly from a stage of piled erotic books, racy brochures and vintage porn, among contemporary works. Cats that look crafted by taxidermists become animated; they are alive, not dead! There are vintage cartoon postcards, ancient paperback poetry collections, amazing art catalogues and coffee-table books. It is a good job that my budget was 30 euros as I could easily choose most of the books and replace my furniture with them in keeping with the inspiring book by Leslie Geddes-Brown, Books Do Furnish a Room.
The bookshop Libreria Acqua Alta does bedazzle. People seeking a particular book would find it difficult, an absolute mission. But this adds to the charm of this writing palace. Instead, you stumble on books that seem to find you. A hot priest calendar winks from a wall. When I first saw one of these in Rome, several years ago, I assumed it was some type of joke, but this is a genuine affair. One of my close friends keeps her calendar hung up in the cupboard underneath her staircase, as a kind of alternative confessional booth. Her Mum, a devout Portuguese Catholic, would find such blasphemy an atrocity outwardly, but I bet she takes a peep at it on the sly…
As I climb up a stairwell constructed of books, to view a canal in the courtyard at the back of the shop, there is a sharp silence in the air, a quietness that bombards all the senses. What the devil is it? The grasping cognitive brain tries earnestly to identify the source of the calm. It is not a case of the penny dropping, but the whole mental bank’s bubble bursting. It is the lack of cars! Absolute bliss! This bookshop is one polished trinket in the tiara of elegance that makes up Venice. The cool blue lagoon waters mirror the cloudless sky, mermaid’s hair strands along the wet lapis lazuli surface. It’s an ethereal place, a piece of heaven.
I take in the majesty of the Venetian air and then dive back into the ocean of books. I may swim for a while, float, and enjoy this unique space, this unique city. I may drown in literature but that isn’t necessarily a bad way to pass through this life. I’d be happy to forever haunt the waters of this unique bookstore in quite possibly the most beautiful city in the world.
So let the waters wash over me.
Main Venice photo by Toa Heftiba via Unsplash