I am an avid reader;
read mostly in English;
and live in Brussels.
Therefore, I am well acquainted with all the best places to uncover English books in Brussels. I wanted to share some of my choice places with you.
First of all, you can always turn to French-speaking bookstores — librairies, not to be confused with the world “library”, which is said bibliothèque.
Most of them will have an English section. This will often be rather restricted, but if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can always ask them to order it for you.
Here are my two favorite librairies, Filigranes and Tropismes.
Filigranes is located near the Arts-Loi metro station. It has a wide variety of books in French, and a whole English section hidden downstairs. It also boasts a small café in the middle, offering chocolate pie, pastries, sandwiches and the like. Though a little cramped, this is a really lovely place for any bookworm.
Like many things in Brussels, Tropismes is rather hard to stumble upon if you don’t know it’s there, as it is hidden in a side-alley off the Saint Hubertus Royal Gallery. Tropismes, however, is a real gem — and also rather a labyrinth, with rooms on different levels, and in all different styles. The first room is long and thin, with ornate ceilings. The walls are covered with mirrors, which make the room seem to stretch on forever — the first time I went there I was bitterly disappointed when I found out that it didn’t. If you want to visit the next part of the store (*), you have to cross this lovely inner courtyard, where a mossy fountain gurgles merrily.
Tropismes has a very small English section — only a few bookcases, I’m afraid — but they will order anything they don’t have.
In a minute I will move on to actual English bookstores, but please bear with me a moment longer. You see, no description of Brussels bookstores would be complete without a paragraph on Pêle-Mêle (— please pause a moment while pronouncing the name of this hallowed store).
Pêle-Mêle is THE secondhand bookstore. More than a simple librairie, it is an institution.
Before leaving for Pêle-Mêle, a thorough cleaning-up of your personal library is mandatory. All the books you won’t read anymore, or never actually read (but sssh, I won’t tell), go into an enormous bag. This you lug all the way to the store. You go in by the side entrance, and dump all your books on an old wooden counter. (The wall by the counter is covered in old photographs — gap-toothed children, sleepy babies, cheerful grandparents, postcards from Paris, from Rome, from South America. A sign says “Found in books. If it’s yours, please claim it”). The salesperson pays you for your old books, and you leave with a smile, feeling like you got a really good deal.
This, however, was only step one of the Pêle-Mêle experience. Next, you go into the bookshop itself. It’s a long, low-ceilinged room. A musty, old-bookish smell pervades the air. The shelves are stacked (and double-stacked) with books about absolutely everything : from neurology to Spain, from Greek philosophy to vegetarian cooking, from plays to poetry.
In the way way back there are two entire walls devoted to English books. They have lots of thriller / crime novels (think John Grisham, David Baldacci, etc.), but also a good selection of classics, children’s books, and other styles.
To top it all, most of these books cost less than two Euros. Pêle-Mêle is the Ali Baba’s cave of books.
Now, finally, on actual English bookstores. The top three are Waterstone’s, Sterling Books, and Treasure Trove.
Waterstones is situated on Boulevard Aanspach. This street, as shown by its architecture, used to be quite posh. Sadly, it is now grimy and strewn with trashbags, suspicious puddles, and some even suspiciouser stores.
Despite all this, Waterstone’s is well worth the trip. In a spacious, carpeted shop, they offer a large variety of books (with a really good children’s section upstairs). They also cater to the culinarily homesick Englishman : shortbread, tea, marmalade and digestive biscuits.
Also on the positive side, Waterstone’s has several very squishy armchairs dotted about the premises.
I’d say all this store lacks is a really good café, and a more affordable price range.
Sterling Books is a recent discovery. A friend brought me there this summer, and since then I have been back several times. It is located just off the busy Place de la Monnaie (metro station de Brouckère).
Sterling has a smaller children’s section than Waterstone’s, but I think they have a good bit more non-fiction. Their prices are also considerably lower. And Sterling boasts a small café in the back, offering breakfast, coffee, tea, pastries, pies, quiches and soups — the walnut pie is very yummy. You can order a pot of Earl Grey tea, pick up the newspaper or a promising book, and settle down for the afternoon. They even offer Wi-Fi, so you could bring your computer and work there.
Treasure Trove is a little bookstore devoted entirely to children’s books. (Note : technically, it’s not really in Brussels, but just on the outskirts, in nearby Tervuren. I’m including it, because it’s really easy to get there with the 44 tram). Treasure Trove is small and very kid-friendly. Each week there’s a special theme — Roald Dahl or Winnie the Pooh, for example — and also a related craft projected that you can do when you’re there.
In the back of the store there’s a cosy little spot with armchairs and a sofa, and they hold storytime there twice a week (Wednesdays and Sundays, from 2pm to 4pm). It’s completely free. The kids come in (with their parents; it’s not a free daycare) and can pick the book they want read. (I’ve heard there’s a girl who comes in about once a month and does it really well. Her name’s Olga, or Alice… or was it Allison?)
The Children’s Library
Up till now, I’ve only presented bookstores. This is not because I like buying new books all the time; I don’t. I much prefer libraries, where dog-eared copies get passed around from reader to reader. I find a library is much more in keeping with the spirit of reading itself.
Unfortunately, Brussels lacks a really good English library (— this is an open call to any entrepreneur who might be reading my article!). However, there is one.
This library is very special to me. It’s a huge part of my childhood, and is the soil in which my child’s imagination took root.
Everything about the Children’s Library is magical. It’s in a little room on the top floor of the Centre Crousse. This is an old, red-brick, turreted building, a castle from bygone times. It’s surrounded by wonderful grounds, full of all kinds of exotic plants, with a small playground and even, oddly, a barbecue pit.
The room itself is absurdly small, but that’s quite normal. You see, The Children’s Library receives no subsidees whatsoever. It is entirely run by volunteers, which is part of what makes it so special.
It costs about 5€ a year for one card, and you get to take out three books every two weeks, for only 50 cents. They also have a box of old books and tapes for sale. If you’re feeling generous, you can donate books to The Children’s Library.
The Children’s Library is run by volunteers, the Library is only open on Wednesdays (from 3 to 5:30 pm) and on Saturdays (from 10 to 12:30 pm).
A trip to any of the places I’ve mentioned is a delight, an indulgence, and adventure. I hope this guide helped you, and that you will enjoy these stores just as much as I do.
However, don’t only stick to these. There is always room to explore! Who knows what amazing bookstore might be waiting around the next corner?