11 Unusual Bookstores You Can Visit

Sure you can buy books on Amazon, but nothing compares to going to a bookstore and picking out the right title by hand. Here are some unique bookstores that are filled with as much charm as they are books. 


This Rio de Janeiro bookstore features a rainbow made of books that wraps around the shop. Although those titles are not for sale, there are plenty of options available on the ground floor. Despite its large size, the creators wanted the store to feel cozy and welcoming. Color is an important theme of the establishment: The top-floor children’s section also features a multi-hued, striped seating area. 


Bookstores can be located in just about about any kind of building. Waanders In de Broeren has taken up residence in a renovated 15th-century cathedral northeast of Amsterdam in the municipality of Zwolle. The store preserved a lot of the church’s original features, including the nave and enormous wood organ. "We wanted all the additions made to the church to be sober, in respect to the church, modest," the architects explained


This decommissioned postal train in Auvers-Sur-Oise, France, is filled to the gills with books. It may not look like much from the outside, but La Caverne aux Livres—The Cave of Books—is home to thousands of books from all genres and eras.


Former journalist Sarah Henshaw didn't know much about boats, or owning a business, when she first opened the Book Barge in 2009. She gutted a canal boat that she bought with money borrowed from her parents, and filled it with donated books that were given in response to a plea in a newspaper. Today the floating bookshop sells carefully curated books that stray from the bestseller list. Visitors can climb aboard at the Barton Marina in Staffordshire, England, on Saturdays. 


If you want to truly be surrounded by books, consider Livraria da Vila. This São Paulo bookstore is housed in a uniquely structured building with revolving bookshelves that make up the storefront. The multi-level former house also has books lining the space from floor to ceiling, and a large circular hole in between the first floor and basement that's also lined in books. 


As the name suggests, William Faulkner once inhabited this New Orleans apartment. Although he only stayed for six months in 1925, the space kept its literary ties. Owners Joe DeSalvo and Rosemary James fixed up the apartment and transformed it into a bookstore that carries rare publications, first edition classics, and books by and about Faulkner. It’s said that the ghost of the writer still hangs around some of the female staff, and occasionally hits on them. 


Nestled in a historic mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, this French and English bookshop—a project of the French embassy—is as charming as it gets. The upstairs has a beautiful zodiac mural overhead, reminiscent of the one in Grand Central. The fresco is inspired by the Italian Renaissance, when the line between science and poetry was much fuzzier. 


Bart’s Books is said to be the largest independently owned and operated outdoor bookstore in the country. Richard Bartinsdale opened the store in Ojai, California, in the '60s, when he found his personal collection was getting overwhelming. Bartinsdale initially used coffee cans instead of a register; the honor system is still in place today. With books as cheap as 35 cents, it's easy enough to cough up the change.


Literary New Yorkers have long known of the book speakeasy Brazenhead Books, once tucked away in a rent-controlled apartment. “Some nights, it’s more like a book nightclub than a bookstore,” owner Michael Seidenberg told The New York Times. The store was recently forced to close after the landlord evicted Seidenberg, but he is currently looking for a new location for his book collection.


Previously a firehouse, Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, New York, now operates as a bar-bookstore hybrid that lets you grab a beer while you peruse the shelves. The bar prides itself on serving a wide variety of craft beers, mostly from nearby breweries. Members of the former firehouse, C.H. Evans Hook & Ladder Co., will sometimes revisit the bar and reminisce over a beer. 


Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice, Italy, is known for its unusual book storage solutions. Visitors can rummage through books kept in bathtubs, boats, and other unusual containers. The nautically themed bookstore even has a full-sized gondola that floats when the store floods (the name literally means “library of high water”). This fantastic bookshop will probably have any book you need, but those with allergies should steer clear: Besides the thick coat of dust, there are also a number of cats prowling around the shelves.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]