An illustration of a woman reading in a colourful bookshop, with a hectic airport scene in greyscale in the background

On the distinct charm of the airport bookshop

How a search for Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and a delayed overnight flight revealed a source of unexpected magic amidst everyday travel.

We were fresh off a two-hour van ride and a three-and-a-half-hour flight – seven hours of travel all in, not to mention a stack of customs and Covid-related forms and queues.

We were tired, hungry, and grumpy – and still facing a ten-and-a-half-hour flight from LAX to Heathrow. So, when we arrived at our gate to find that our late-night departure would be delayed by two more hours – and without a flight pillow to scream into – we decided to go for a wander. That’s when we stumbled upon Book Soup.

Airports are hectic, liminal spaces that feel slightly surreal at the best of times, almost nightmarishly inhumane at the worst: the food is expensive and dreadful; everybody is either stressed or bored; and with border control and airport security more rigid and scrutinous than ever, it can verge on traumatic just getting to one’s flight without frazzled nerves. Especially in the Covid era, where you pay for – and then anxiously await – the results of tests that might, at any second, scupper part of all of your holiday. We weren’t just tired but anxious about getting home, too.

We found ourselves floating around the exquisite sanctuary of beautifully curated bookshelves

Travel and books are already bedfellows – books can help us travel both practically (think guidebooks and non-fiction travel-writing) and metaphorically (to other places, eras, and mindsets in fiction and poetry) – and there’s nothing better than planning what to read on holiday, either: I brought The Secret History, but if I’d finished it early or not enjoyed it (as my partner did with her book) there’s nothing more exciting than an excuse to pick up something fresh on a stopover, either to suppliment or even replace your current stash of holiday reads.

I’ve mentioned the limited time you can spend in an airport bookshop, but the limited space bears mentioning, too. There’s only so much room in your baggage, which means that airport shops naturally force you to be as selective as possible – you can only bring the best, the most page-turning, or the most practical. Human beings love limitations, and airport bookshops are the ultimate mix of restriction and indulgence.

I would later find out that Book Soup, a revered independent shop situated on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, is a cultural landmark in Los Angeles – and that its LAX location is a (rather inspired) one-off – but while it did stand out from your average airport WH Smith or Hudson News, those shops retain the same limitations (and, therefore, magic) that Book Soup did. They narrow your selection for you, sometimes forcing you to pick up something you might not otherwise ­– especially if you happen to finish your packed books before you’re set to fly home.

Airport bookshops are the ultimate mix of restriction and indulgence

There was, it turned out, a pristine edition of The Secret History on hand, but my partner found two other books she wanted more – she could always borrow my copy, she reasoned, when I finished. And so, just two hours or so before midnight in Los Angeles – roughly 6 a.m. in the UK, for those counting – I left Book Soup with Collected Stories, my partner with Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour and a Lily King novel. We were tired, but we’d found what we were looking for: books, certainly, but more importantly, an hour of respite when we needed it most.


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Illustration: Nathalie Lees for Penguin

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