Best bookstores in San Francisco

Reading an actual paperback these days is like writing with pen and paper, it’s so old school and retro it’s become hipster cool. At least that’s what I hear on the street. Regardless of where I fall on that scale, and even if I eventually get a Kindle, one of my greatest pleasures in life is wiling away a few hours in the nooks and crannies of an old creaky bookshop. Thankfully there’s a few still around. And while they may not be as comprehensive as Amazon, these often quirky, always interesting independent bookstores are part of the soul of our city, and should be cherished as the rare birds they are.

Here’s a few of my favorites:

City Lights Books
Not only is this one of the best and most iconic independent bookstores in the country, it’s also an excellent small press, owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and publishing some of the most important literary works of the last half century, most notably Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. It’s also a direct link to San Francisco’s Beat era, helping define the city as a maverick literary hub. So for a bibliophile like me, walking in the rarefied air of this North Beach haven is like going to church. Besides that, no matter what section I find myself in (nonfiction in basement, fiction main floor, poetry upstairs), the selection is always fascinating. I can spend hours flipping through books, going from one shelf to the next. And no matter what I tell myself when I go in, I always walk out with a book or two (or three) under my arm.

Green Apple Books
If City Lights is a church, Green Apple is a temple—of used and new books on every subject under the sun. It’s old and creaky with a labyrinth of shelves in the back, upstairs, and in a second wing of cds, dvds and used fiction. And it’s obvious this is a store run by dedicated book lovers. (When Carl Jung’s gorgeous, enormous and prohibitively expensive Red Book came out a few years ago, Green Apple had a copy in its window.) You can peruse the used book bins on the sidewalk for great deals, or read through the blurbs of staff members on their ‘favorite books’ to find gems you might have overlooked. And unlike everything else on Clement Street, Green Apple is open late.

Readers Bookstore
Formerly Book Bay Fort Mason, this Friends of the San Francisco Public Library bookstore at the Fort Mason Center Center is sort of the Salvation Army of bookstores. But like a library, it’s very well organized. There’s new used books coming in all the time, so no two visits are the same. And they weed out the pulp and multiple copies of Dan Brown, so it’s all worthwhile stuff, including a collection of first editions. They’re also right by the bay, and have recently added a cafe.

Dog Eared Books
This is exactly the kind of bookstore you’d expect to find in the Mission. The place is indeed a little dog-eared, and smallish, but with a good selection of new and used books that reflects the personality of the neighborhood, from anarchist magazines and high literature to glossier fare. There’s also a communitarian bent to the place, with the artwork of neighborhood school kids taped to the front window. You can also check out sister stores Phoenix Books in Noe Valley and Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights. If I lived in the Mission, this would be my go-to bookstore.

This was my main bookstore when I used to live a block away on Belvedere in the upper Haight, but the place is a little less vibrant and full as it was then. That said, Booksmith has always had great author appearances, and still does, from Ben Ehrenreich to Greil Marcus, and that’s just this month.

Russian Hill Bookstore
I don’t often make it to this used bookstore up the hill on Polk, because I’m rarely in this part of the city, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when I do. Perusing this shop is like shrinking yourself into an encyclopedia; there’s so many fascinating books on a wide range of subjects. It’s a mid-size place, spacious with high ceilings, and well organized with natural light, which invites lingering.

Browser Books
Whenever I’m on Fillmore, I always find myself gravitating to Browser Books. It’s small, so the selection is limited, but what they have is always interesting and relevant, with the latest and greatest literary releases on display near the front. The staff has been there for years, so they know what they have and where to find it, and are very helpful. There’s chairs to sit and leaf through books, and a sale table next to the front door. Browser also publishes books, a couple titles each year.

William Stout Architectural Books
This place is nirvana for designers, and anyone who enjoys great architecture and design. The store is dedicated to and filled with big, gorgeous design and photo books of all types. Located in the neighborhood between the Financial District and North Beach, the place itself is a picture of good design and has the feel of a really good museum bookstore, which makes sense since it was founded by an architect. They also publish a few books a year on architecture and design in the Bay Area.

Books Inc.
A Bay Area chain with clean, well-lighted and small bookstores in neighborhoods that otherwise might not have one. The staff is friendly and attentive and will try and find what you want by checking their other stores.

2 thoughts on “Best bookstores in San Francisco”

  1. I’ve never been to San Fran, but when I go (I’m bound and determined) I will write these down to check them out.

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