SAN FRANCISCO, California—The City by the Bay has a vibrant, thriving literary culture that supports quite a few interesting indie bookstores, and any book lover will enjoy exploring their well-stocked shelves.
As a newcomer to this city, I have the pleasure of discovering many of these stores for the first time. The thrill of walking into a place stocked full of books, with quirky décor and posters covering the walls, is an order of magnitude greater than stepping into a chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble, which, like Starbucks, manages to look the same wherever it’s located.
Here’s a rundown of some of the bookstores you should visit when in SF:
• City Lights Bookstore: This is the mothership. It was founded in 1953 by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin. The shop has a homey, vintage vibe to it, with posters and hand-drawn signs on the walls and windows—a famous one reads: “Stash your sell-phone and be here now.”
The ground level features fiction, non-fiction, and literary magazines. The second floor is the poetry section, showcasing the works of beat poets that Ferlinghetti associated with—Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg. Postcards of these and other personages fill a rack; they make great souvenirs. Take a selfie while sitting in the “poet’s chair.”
City Lights also has a basement where they keep memoirs, mysteries, and other genres. They also have store-brand tote-bags and journals. Right outside is Jack Kerouac Alley, with quotes in brass letters embedded in the pavement.
• Dog-Eared Books: Outside the branch on Valencia Street in the Mission District are big bins of discounted books. Inside it’s large and airy, and has an excellent selection of new and used literary works. Their foreign language selection is interesting—Baudelaire in the original, anyone? If nothing catches your fancy, check out the handy messenger-style totes emblazoned with the shop logo.
• Borderland Books: It’s also on Valencia. It sells new and used science fiction, fantasy, and horror. There’s a coffee shop right next door that patrons can access through the bookshop. Get the latest releases and new editions of classics—I came away with a collection of Dorothy Sayers short stories. They carry an eclectic selection, from Rhys Bowen’s “On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service” to Tolkien’s just-released “Beren and Luthien.” The shop’s postcards show covers of pulp fiction books.
• Green Apple Books: This place is huge and crammed to the gills with books, old and new. Be prepared to spend serious browsing time here. If you enjoy the hunt and are patient, you can find great bargains in all genres. There’s a record store next door for those who love vinyl.
• Kinokuniya Bookstore: Located in Japantown, this store carries a wide selection of mangas; I got copies of Fruits Basket and Black Butler for my children here. They also have Japanese stationery, art supplies, and a well-regarded stock of graphic design books. The upper floor has English-language books and other merchandise. Try the restaurants in the area, and look for the shops that sell incense and mochi.
• Forest Books: also in Japantown, this is a small, cozy place. They are known for their selection of books on Buddhism and other Asian religions; Asian, Native American, and African history and culture; and Western philosophy. The vibe is very Zen. Do take a souvenir bookmark to remind you of your visit here.
• Alexander Book Company: Racks of discounted books are placed outside and I’ve spent quite some time browsing and picking up quite a few bargains there, before even entering the shop! They have a shelf for literary magazines such as McSweeney’s and Granta. There are sections dedicated to mysteries, African-American romances, classics, literary fiction, history, and travel—and that’s just on the first floor (they have three). They also have a great selection of Moleskine notebooks, calendars, postcards, and Penguin Book-themed merchandise. It’s where I saw “Manila Noir,” an anthology of crime stories written by Filipinos, prominently displayed near the entrance when it was first released.
• Book Passage: This is in the Ferry Building and one set of doors opens right out onto the pier area. Seagulls flit by and there’s a bracing sea tang in the air. Inside, it’s warm and cozy. Find the latest here, from bestsellers to cookbooks and SF travel guides. Their tote bags are packable!
There are other bookstores in the area that I mean to visit, among them Alley Cat Books
on 24th Street, The Booksmith on Haight, and Bird & Beckett Books (they have jazz nights!). There are quite a few others that you can look up online.
If you had time to visit only one, I suggest City Lights Bookstore because of its historic value and its ties to the Beat Generation.
There is much to explore in this beautiful city, and the bookstores are among the best places to be.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, @artuoste