The book is alive and well in San Francisco, in spite of the fact that many of the Bay Area’s IT businesses appear to be hell-bent on destroying it. A quirky collection of fiercely independent bookstores have become lynchpins of the city’s diverse, walkable neighborhoods.
Here are five bookish hangouts worth checking out.
City Lights has been a literary meeting place ever since Lawrence Ferlinghetti started it in 1953 as the first all-paperback bookstore in the US. When he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, the lengthy obscenity trial turned it into a best seller and put City Lights on the map as the Beat literature headquarters. Now the bookstore has three floors of new-release hardbacks and paperbacks, including an upstairs poetry room and hand-picked titles from smaller publishers that promote innovative ideas and anti-authoritarian politics true to the Beats’ legacy. When you visit, be sure to head across Jack Kerouac Alley to Vesuvio, which started life as a hangout of the Beat Generation of poets and writers and is San Francisco’s answer to Les Deux Magots Cafe in Paris.
Green Apple Books, the largest used bookstore in San Francisco, is also perennially voted the best used and/or independent bookstore in the Bay Area. It is easy to see why; it has a comfortable, neighborhood feel, extremely knowledgeable staff, and an encyclopaedic collection of new and used books, records and CDs. New editions are in the front, many with index cards offering helpful staff evaluations. There are also great I “Green Apple” SFO tee shirts (in the same vein of famous the I love NY t-shirts) the walls are lined with fierce masks, and out front a mural features the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Mother Goose and an alien reading a copy of To Serve Man.
Omnivore is a bright little bookstore that connects the past with the present with its rare, vintage and signed cookbooks that offer centuries of knowledge on growing, raising and cooking food. A food lover’s dream place in a city that is renowned for its gastronomy, Omnivore offers everything from how to catch a hare or make cider to the ins and outs of starting a kitchen garden in a 21st century apartment. There are not only sections on cheese books and French cooking but also a host of foodie events including chef signings, customer bake offs, and cookbook dinners.
Dog Eared Books, sitting very comfortably in a light-filled High Victorian building, is part of a trinity of independent bookstores owned by Kate Rosenberger. A used-bookstore, Dog Eared Books is the largest and most eclectic of the three stores. You’ll find anarchist magazines next to Vanity Fair, Nina Simone CDs beside Patty Smith and books on cowboys sharing a shelf with travel literature. The store hosts special events on Sunday evenings like a reading and in-store beer tasting with Jeremy Cowan.
826 Valencia may not actually be a bookstore but it does have a literary map of San Francisco and it’s bookish pedigree is impeccable. Started by award-winning novelist Dave Eggers as a way to offer free writing programs for under-served kids, the non-profit foundation could only get a commercial lease which required they sell something. So they set up San Francisco’s only pirate supply store, which does a roaring trade in designer eye glasses, pirate flags, belly-of-whale escape kits and mermaid bait. All proceeds go towards the tutoring program which, by the way, is run by writers right at the back of the store.
I know that there are many more wonderful independent bookstores throughout San Francisco. Please leave your favorites in the comments section so I can add them to the list.
A version of this blog post first appeared in Qantas Insider.
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