I have always maintained that a city is not a real city if it does not have a bookstore. It can call itself a city, but without bookstores it cannot fool anyone – when the popular British writer Neil Gaiman uttered these words, he was certainly not thinking of Kraków. Today, there are around 80 bookstores in UNESCO’s first Polish City of Literature. They may not have been the setting for a Harry Potter film adaptation, like the famous Livraria Lello in Porto (yet!), but they are no less unusual and diverse.
Kraków’s bookstores are places that open up to new reading experiences, living cultural centres, and spaces where you can simply talk about books. Let’s get to know them better!
The oldest bookstore in Europe
One of the oldest European bookstores can be found in Kraków – it is located in the Kromer’s Tenement House at No. 23 on the Market Square. In 1610, a citizen of Cologne, a merchant, Franciszek Jakub Mercenich, established here an ‘open shop in the street, where the books are sold’. After a long break, the bookstore returned to this address in the second half of the 19th century. Later, the popular Gebethner & Wolff bookshop chain opened a branch here – and this is the name under which older residents of Kraków still associate the address.
In the 21st century, the bookstore is still open and organises meetings with writers: it has hosted, among others, Stanisław Lem, Carlos Fuentes (who called the place ‘a temple of books’), Amos Oz and Herta Müller. Between the Gothic portals of the two halls in the last room of the bookstore, you can find memorabilia of Kraków’s Nobel Prize winners – Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, and the ceiling of the characteristic narrow passage leading to them is decorated with the portraits of several dozen writers associated with the city.
Via the University Route
The presence the oldest university in Poland, Jagiellonian University, as well as other universities has for centuries created conditions for the development of bookstores in Kraków. The richest offer addressed to the numerous students in Kraków is held by the Główna Księgarnia Naukowa (Main Academic Bookstore), the largest independent bookstore in Poland (ul. Podwale 6). Its second largest independent bookstore is Księgarnia Akademicka (Academic Bookstore) located in the heart of the old university quarter (ul. Św. Anny 6) and the De Revolutionibus bookstore (from 2023 located at 8 Rynek Podgórski) founded on the initiative of Prof. Michał Heller, a bookstore which creates an intersection between the worlds of science and literature and refers by its name to the famous dissertation of Nicolaus Copernicus.
A unique place on the Kraków bibliophilic map is Massolit Books. The bookstore, whose name refers to the secret society of writers from The Master and Margarita, a novel by Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov, has become an informal centre of Kraków’s English-speaking community. A visit to the atmospheric premises in an old tenement house at 4 Felicjanek Street, filled to the ceiling with second-hand books, the sounds of New York jazz, the smell of coffee and a chocolate brownie, is an unforgettable experience. The second location of the bookstore, which is also known as the artisan bakery chain of the same name, is situated in the Kazimierz district, at 25 Józefa Street.
Antiquarian bookstores and books as remedies for the soul
When exploring the world of Kraków’s bookstores, it is impossible not to mention the antiquarian bookstores. Kraków – one of the few centres of Polish culture that escaped the devastation of war in the 20th century – is the second largest antiquarian market in the country. The charming locations along Stolarska and Sławkowska Streets attract professors and students, and in the vicinity of Kraków’s universities you can find small antiquarian bookshops specialising in specific disciplines.
Undoubtedly the most beautiful antique bookstore in Kraków occupies the former site of the historic Pharmacy under the Guardian Angel at ul. Kościuszki 18. The antique, book-filled pharmacy furniture in the Abecadło Antykwariat is a ready-made photo location, but also an interior that has become a favourite place for local community meetings and numerous cameral literary soirées. Here, books are true ‘medicine for the soul’, as the owners themselves declare.
A must-see on every bibliophile’s itinerary is Szpitalna Street, whose unique atmosphere was once created by the activities of antiquarians of Jewish origin, such as several generations of the Taffet family. Today, Szpitalna Street is home to two antique bookshops: Rara Avis and Bibliofil, which hold regular auctions and focus on selling old prints. Rara Avis was the site of a Polish auction record – in 2012, a perfectly preserved first edition of Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass was auctioned off for PLN 85,000!
The landscape of the antiquarian quarter in the northern part of the Old Town is complemented by the oldest, continuously operating Antykwariat Kamiński at 3 Św. Jana Street, with a history dating back to the inter-war period. During the Second World War, the antiquarian bookshop run by Stefan Kamiński was one of the centres of the underground movement – it was here that underground newspapers were printed and information was exchanged.
In Kraków, you can find specialised music bookshops (Kurant, Rynek Główny 36) or comic bookshops (Fankomiks bookshop, ul. Batorego 2). The Lokator bookstore at 1 Mostowa St., which combines the functions of a bookshop, café and author’s publishing house, is very popular. An interesting combination is the Bonobo travel bookshop, which attracts travellers who organise photo shows of their expeditions there, and the adjacent Cud bookshop, which offers books on spirituality. Both venues occupy opposite sides of the corridor of the tenement house at Mały Rynek 4.
The pride of Nowa Huta, the largest district of Kraków, is Café NOWA Księgarnia, located in the tourist information centre at 7 Zgody St. The stylishly decorated bookstore and café has become a popular meeting place for Nowa Huta residents and is literally bursting with events organised there: workshops for children, meetings and concerts. A similar culture-forming role for Podgórze is played by the bookstore of Spółdzielnia Ogniwo at 11A Smolki Street, which offers literature with a more socially engaged profile.
The Nić café-bookstore (ul. Sławkowska 28) has become an important address that integrates Kraków’s large Ukrainian community. It is not only a space filled with books written in Shevchenko’s language, but also a café, a meeting place and a venue for cultural events addressed to Kraków’s Ukrainian community.
Another popular attraction is visiting the Popper Synagogue at 16 Szeroka Street in Kazimierz, where the bookshop of the Kraków-based Austeria publishing house is located. Austeria, whose name is inspired by the traditional Polish-Jewish tavern from Julian Stryjkowski’s novel, focuses on Jewish and Central European themes, publishing, for example, the works of Joseph Roth or Isaac Babel. Austeria’s unique publishing and editing endeavour is its Books for Writing project, a series of individualised notebooks with archival photographs and quotations dedicated to cities and people of culture.
In recent years, museum bookstores have been emerging as a separate category. The bookstores of the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (ul. Lipowa 4) or that of the International Cultural Centre (Rynek Główny 25) are real sources of inspiration for those looking for art albums and original publications.
In the urban space
Kraków is vibrant with books not only in the intimate spaces of its bookstores, but also in the urban space. A well-known event celebrated by the inhabitants of Kraków is the Sunday book market at Hala Targowa, where numerous amateurs of old objects and books make their pilgrimage. At Plac Nowy in Kazimierz, the tradition of the flea market is still alive and well, where you can find old furniture, records, postcards and other collectibles in addition to books. Also worth mentioning is the Kraków Book Fair – an open-air market of Krakow antiquarians and book dealers, held in the summer season at Plac Św. Marii Magdaleny (St Mary Magdalene Square) and Plac Św. Ducha.