Call me old-fashioned but like many other people, I love real books that I can hold in my hands and savor by a crackling fire or on the beach. So when we travel, our first port of call is usually the local bookstore to pick up something beyond the standard guidebooks and paperback novels. In Venice, it is the Libreria Acqua Alta (which means High Waters Bookstore in English).
It is an appropriate name. Perched on the side of one of the city’s numerous canals, the Libreria Acqua Alta has been and could easily again be a victim of the floods that inundate the city’s streets and businesses every winter and spring. However, the owner, Luigi Frizzo, is prepared for anything.
Sitting behind his counter, surrounded by some of the four cats that also live here, Luigi (who is 72 and fluent in five languages) relates how 15 years ago, after traveling the world for most of his life, he opened the bookstore on the Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa. He describes it as “the Most Beautiful Bookshop in the World,” pointing to a handwritten, smudged notice outside, as evidence. It is definitely one of the quirkiest bookstores in the world.
I ask Luigi for a cookbook of Venetian cuisine, and he immediately points me towards the front of the store, at the same time welcoming visitors, trying to guess where they are from by how they speak, inviting them to look around, to spend some time exploring his collections. And explore you must.
A full-size, intricately decorated gondola fills the front room, crammed full of books. In multiple side rooms, shelves are made of bathtubs, basins, and containers. Presumably, they will float when the bookshop floods.
Cozy nooks and crannies abound including a wooden bench overlooking the “fire escape” to the canal. In case of fire, you simply jump into the water. You can sit and read as you watch the gondoliers pole by. But keep an eye on the level of the water or you could find it lapping at your shoes.
In another courtyard, Luigi has repurposed out-of-date encyclopedias to build a staircase to the top of the wall. A hand-painted sign invites you to climb up and peer into the nearby canal. Elsewhere a wall built from piles of old books lines a small area with a table and chairs.
Luigi’s collection of books in several languages can only be described as eclectic – new and used books on a wealth of subjects including food, sports, best-sellers, art, music; comic books; old maps and postcards; novelty gift ideas and much more.
Books are piled higgledy-piggledy on tables and chairs, in some cases touching the low ceiling of the ancient building. There does not appear to be any logical order but ask Luigi for a specific title, and he unfailingly points you to the correct shelf and even the right position on the shelf.
Besides being a treasure trove for bibliophiles, the Libreria Acqua Alta offers some interesting photographic opportunities, especially during Carnevale when many models will stop by for a visit with Luigi or simply to have themselves photographed.
Most tourists simply walk past without a second glance but, if you are in Venice, you should stop by and, even if you don’t want to buy a book, merely enjoy the originality of Venice’s Libreria Acqua Alta. Of course, if you aren’t careful you could find many treasures to add to the weight of your luggage.
IF YOU GO
The Libreria Acqua Alta is located down a small side alley off the Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa 5176/B in the Castello area of Venice. The easiest way to find it is to go to the Campo Santa Maria Formosa (about a five-minute walk from Piazza San Marco) and then follow the Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa until just before you reach a small bridge over the canal. The Libreria is on the left.
Open 9 am to 8 pm weekdays.
No specific website.