Libreria Aqua Alta is not what you expect from a bookstore.
This quirky shop in Venice sometimes finds itself under water. It’s home to a family of cats who sleep among its stock. It has books piled inside old bathtubs and an 11 metre-long Gondola. And it has functional staircases entirely constructed from stacks of dusty encyclopedias.
Owner Luigi Frizzo set out to create something different 14 years ago when he opened the “Most beautiful bookshop in the world” as the sign above the entrance proclaims.
Built on the edge of one of the city’s canals, it quickly became popular with Venetians and has since morphed into an offbeat tourist attraction.
When I finally found it after getting lost for a while, I discover as many people posing for photos in its kitschy environment as there are browsing for books. A small line has formed of visitors waiting to have their photo taken next to the “most beautiful” sign with its cheery boastfulness.
In his younger days, Mr Frizzo worked in the forestry industry, on ships travelling through Europe and even as a croupier at casinos in South Africa and London. But Venice is home now and unless you want to immerse yourself directly in the tourism industry, what better business to open in this historic hub of literature than a bookshop?
This gorgeous city in north-eastern Italy has a storied literary history matched only by Florence and the capital, Rome. Apart from producing an endless stream of prolific Italian authors and poets, Venice has also been the one-time home of legendary wordsmiths like Ernest Hemingway and Lord Byron.
As it happens, Hemingway’s favourite stamping ground in Venice, Harry’s Bar, is only 700 metres south of Liberia Acqua Alta. He was such a regular that he had his own table at the bar that remains one of the most popular drinking holes in old Venice and just a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco.
San Marco is the epicentre of Venice’s hulking tourist industry, a lavish place where having a single coffee at a piazza table can cost up to $13! It’s a glamorous place embellished by stunning ancient architecture, chic boutiques and ever-so-pricey restaurants.
Despite being only a short walk away, Libreria Acqua Alta seems entirely removed from this fantasyland. Books are ‘stacked’ rather than organised, piled high in every which direction, half of them new, half of them secondhand, some of them very old.
The subject matters vary considerably, from history to archaeology, medicine, cooking, poetry, architecture and photography - image-driven books on ancient Italy and Venice, of course, are the specialty.
The more expensive books sit high on shelves rather than being dumped into a gondola, bathtub or wooden crate. Those makeshift storage spaces are designed to keep their contents safe when the inevitable floods swamp the shop in winter.
Most years, Venice is inundated by rising sea waters - the Italians call it “Aqua Alta”, or high water - which gave Mr Frizzo’s library its name. Some winters his customers have to wade through the shop in gumboots.
One year the flooding was so extreme that thousands of dollars’ worth of books were destroyed. Being the resourceful man that he is, he used some of them to build the unusual staircase at the shop’s rear which leads visitors up to a lofty vantage point above the neighbouring canal.
The store’s four dozy cats, snuggled in amongst mounds of books, struggle to get a wink of sleep due to the incessant flashes of mobile phone cameras from visitors.
Mr Frizzo has no qualms about disturbing his pets. When a customer asks for a photo book on the history of Venice, he shoos away a plump Moggy blocking access to a volume of black-and-white photography.
Like his shop, the proprietor cuts an unusual figure. His grey shorts are held up on his generous belly by a pair of suspenders that resemble measuring tape. His short-sleeved, button-up shirt has no less than five pens clipped to its two pockets.
Mr Frizzo’s outfit is that of an active person and he is just that; constantly on the move, guiding customers to particular shelves, picking up piles of books, tidying, organising, always busy in his quirky Venetian business.
- Address: Libreria Aqua Alta. Calle Longa S. Maria Formosa, 5176/b, 30122 Castello, Venezia
- The time of year you visit Venice is crucial. In summer, from June to August, the weather can be very hot and the city is swarmed by tourists. In winter, Venice often suffers from flooding. March to May and September to November offer the best weather and smaller crowds.
- The most famous library in Venice is the opulent Biblioteca Marciana, which is on the edge of San Marco square.
- After visiting Libreria Acqua Alta make sure to visit the stunning ancient Basilica Danti Giovanni e Paolo, just a few minutes’ walk away.