The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association defines what it means to be an independent bookstore:
“Independent booksellers talk with our customers directly and enjoy fulfilling—even exceeding—their expectations, whether its recommending a great book we’ve just read, or helping you discover new or little known authors or publishers.
Independent bookstores have an onsite owner—we’re right there answering questions and making decisions, rather than relying on a corporate office, thousands of miles away.
Independent booksellers are leaders in the fight against censorship and other threats to freedom of expression.
Independent bookstores reflect the character of our communities. We support local causes. We participate in and fund community activities. We patronize other local businesses and keep our money in the community.”
There’s something about tall shelves filled with colorfully-bound books that captures the imagination. Having an independent bookstore in your neighborhood creates a sense of community space. Maybe your favorite bookstore has a bell over the door that tinkles every time you pay a visit. Maybe it’s got a resident cat who stalks the shelves and rubs against you in familiar greeting.
For Eleanor Sananman, the appeal was enough to prompt her to get married in Books and Bookshelves on Sanchez Street. The intimate setting provided nostalgia—the independent bookstore (and furniture store) has its own, personal mystique.
San Francisco is a literary city full of storied haunts that have inspired writers for years. We have eighteen literary magazines across the entire Bay Area (examples: ZYZZYVA and McSweeney’s) and a number of independent presses (such as City Lights Publishers and Counterpoint Press), and our writers participate in a multitude of writing workshops. One such workshop, the San Francisco Writers Workshop, has been meeting since 1946. Today, you can find SF writers on Tuesday nights at Alley Cat Books on 24th Street.
“Books are ideas, and ideas are endless and changing and inspiring and funny and scary and tempting an d innovative and damaging and beautiful and appetizing and fill in the blank,” says Tee Minot, owner of Christopher’s Books on Potrero Hill. In a winter’s early darkness or fog, the light of Christopher’s is an alluring invitation to good reads and discovery.
According to a 2011 USA Today article, chain stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble are suffering because of the digital age, and, while smaller independents are suffering as well, many have finagled ways to survive and thrive. That may be due to the fact that independent bookstores foster a sense of community, and they often become neighborhood centers for shared culture and intellectuality.
“It is my mission that whoever comes into the store has a good experience. An experience that you can’t get through online shopping,” Minot says.
“That’s the best part of bookselling for me, the possibilities that arise from human connection. Independent bookstores are a breeding ground for what’s best in this world. I think independent bookstores will always provide another platform for people to share ideas and connect, for folks to find the next book that they can’t put down. Indies will use the good parts of the digital world to engage in commerce and compete with internet only businesses’. Brick and mortar independent stores are here to stay and will reinvent themselves and prosper in this ever-changing world… Because books are ideas and books feel good.”
“I think the future of bookselling is bright,” Minot concludes.
The avid readers in the Paper Tiger newsroom have compiled a list of just some of our favorite places to soak up some words. This is not, by all means, an exhaustive list of Bay Area bookshops—if we wanted to do that, we’d have to dedicate at least another five pages, and that just wouldn’t be very economic, now, would it.
Green Apple Books & Music
I may be somewhat biased when I say Green Apple is my favorite independent bookseller, since they’ve become something of local hero to me. They just added a new location, saving a landmark and a neighborhood. Let me set the scene: throughout the quiet but character-rich Inner Sunset, centered on 9th and Irving, long-time local businesses are being snuffed out, one by one, as the neighborhood evolves.
The restaurants became high-end, the stores became chic and a former funeral home became a titanic La Boulange, complete with patterned awnings and wood of that peculiar gray tint. The bell was tolling for video rental store and neighborhood mainstay Le Video, owner of the best floorboards for walking on I’ve ever set foot on.
But at the last minute, a miracle happened: in swooped Green Apple at 506 Clement St., local favorite independent bookstore, to amalgamate the space into “Books on the Park,” bookstore downstairs, video rental upstairs and absolute pleasure inside and out. The new space is small but charming (and best of all, keeps the original floor) and, while the surviving Le Video space is somewhat relegated, on the whole I could not be happier with the outcome of this situation.
The space as it is offers a cheery atmosphere, a cozy size and a generous selection of new and used books of every sort you could think of. Located at 1231 9th Avenue, Books On The Park seems to be an attempt to miniaturize Green Apple’s main store and its annex into one new location, successfully; BOTP even has a little shelf of vinyls with a respectable selection of music to browse.
Green Apple—at all its locations—is a haven for people who really, really love books, but the atmosphere is a little different at each. BOTP feels well-lit, organized and planned out.
Green Apple proper is a densely-packed book den (60,000 new and 100,000 used) that feels like it grew organically out of a concentrated seed of literature and music.
Intimate but not oppressive, Green Apple feels like a place you could explore for hours, more and more to find around every corner of its deceptively compact space. The annex, two doors down, houses only used fiction, comic books and music on CD and vinyl, as well as the same homegrown, unpretentious attitude associated with the name.
Author Dave Eggers praised Green Apple on their website as “a bookstore, and a world-class bookstore… Green Apple’s floors, most of which are over a hundred years old, creak wherever you go, and when you walk upstairs, there will be small clouds of dust. The place is old, and smells old, in the best sense; it smells like paperbacks and sun and paperbacks faded in the sun.”
Moe Moskowitz started Moe’s Books (2476 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley) in 1959. The store is now run by his daughter Doris Moskowitz. Moe’s features “hundreds of thousands of titles in our ever changing stock,” a great selection of new, used, and rare books. Moe’s buys, sells, and trades books. To get everybody off to a good start, each week at Moe’s begins with a poetry reading.
Dog Eared Books
Dog Eared Books provides a wonderful mish mash of old and new, worn and mint-condition books. Located on the corner of Valencia and 20th, painted with a bright mural of a bookshelf, Dog Eared is a bookstore you can’t help but spend hours in. In addition to a vast array of “regular” books, at Dog Eared one can find limited-print artist zines, pamphlets of winning recipes from the 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off, and a great selection of local literature.
City Lights Bookstore
In the shadow of the TransAmerica building, wander into this word-lover’s wonderland—but be sure to leave ample time to peruse its shelves! Here you’ll find tomes of all genres: obscure French surrealist writing of the 20s (books that you can barely even find on Amazon), Roman classics (Virgil, anyone?), and modern reflections on pop culture. They’ve got events going on all the time, poetry readings and speakers and the like.
City Lights opened its doors on Columbus Avenue in 1953. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin created this three-story “Literary Landmark.” Ferlinghetti published City Lights Publishers’ first project in 1955: the Pocket Poets Series. Since then, they’ve published over 200 titles and show no sign of slowing down. The store is famous; people flock from all over to wander its aisles, yet it feels as if it was just discovered yesterday—cozy and cramped and filled with like-minded, bookish, intellectual people.
The Booksmith, located on Haight between Clayton and Belvedere, offers an extensive range of new books in all subjects, including an entire section of books devoted to the “urban farming” of cannabis cultivation (which feels perfectly suited to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood). The Booksmith is best known, however, for the weekly events it hosts, including author readings, bookswaps and book release parties (when the Harry Potter books were newly published, Booksmith hosted midnight release parties with “Diagon Alley Bowling,” trivia games, and butterbeer).
The store was founded in 1976, but came under new ownership in 2007; the new owners, Christin Evans and Praveen Madan, were also two of the three founders of Berkeley Arts & Letters, the most successful author event series in the East Bay. Evans also directs Kepler’s Books, Roy Kepler’s famous Silicon Valley bookstore.
Black Oak Books
Opened in 1983 on Shattuck in Berkeley, the venerable Black Oak Books was a neighbor to the restaurant Chez Panisse. A year ago Black Oak closed its doors. How can a bookstore pay $18,000 a month rent? Lucky thing for the Bay Area literary world, Black Oak re-opened across town at the corner of San Pablo and Carleton. Black Oak customer Gary Cornell, head of a technology publishing company and a former math professor, had invested in Black Oak to try and save it. When the shop closed, Cornell became the sole owner. He realized a bookstore in this real estate market could only survive if it owned its own building. The new site was a shutter nightclub.
Now Black Oak’s monthly mortgage payment is a far more manageable $5,000. At the new site, Black Oak has 30 percent more space. They have expanded their range of titles to include more children’s literature, mysteries and science fiction and additional notable bestsellers. Cornell’s business plan is for 50% of Black Oak sales to be on the internet. The Shattuck Black Oak had carried mostly fiction, poetry, and scholarly titles, which often had an agenda. The original Black Oak was started by former Moe’s Books employees and Moe Moskowitz was one of the original Black Oak investors.
If you’re willing to make the trek south, Bookbuyers in Mountain View is well worth it. On sunny Castro Street, you’ll find an enclave filled to the brim with used books of all shapes and sizes, as well as notebooks, calendars, and other bookish goodies. They even have a few shelves full of brown paper-wrapped books with vague descriptions listing key characteristics of each story—that way you don’t know exactly what you’re picking up, and you must trust the purveyors of the store in their fantastic knowledge of books.
The best part: the book people who work there (bless those lovely book people) know better than to wander around asking if you’re “finding what you’re looking for alright.” They respect the bookstore pact, the unwritten laws that warrant you to stumbling around the store, without the necessity of speaking a word to any other person, whether they be a book steward or a fellow book peruser.
Borderlands Books, opened 1997 on Laguna Street, is now at 866 Valencia. “We love books. They’re our friends. Good books and bad books, 1st editions and beat up paperbacks. We love how they smell, how they feel, and the way they sound when you open them,” they say on the site. Borderlands only sells science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror.
From “Best Creepy Movie Night in Hayes Valley” and “Best Place to Meet a Kinky Space Cadet” awards from local press to being mentioned in the Washington Post, they’ve blossomed and now carry almost 30,000 titles.
William Stout: Architectural Books
William Stout (804 Montgomery Street) carries titles in art, furniture, graphic and interior design, as well as architecture. Their database is not an inventory tracking system. It is a record of nearly 20,000 titles that have passed through the store within the past six years. Amazing catalogue.
Bird & Beckett
Bird & Beckett opened on Chenery Street in 1999, then moved up the block in 2006. Eric Whittington is the owner, and he works there with three other part-time staff members. They’ve hosted live music gigs every weekend since 2002—mostly jazz. They also host poetry readings and talks, and show gallery art and films. On their agenda for April: Film: Red Poet + Jack Hirschman, Diamond Dave’s Hipstory, and the Josh Workman Quartet.
Aarvark Books, at 227 Church St., sells new and used books. Neighborhood and non-neighborhood residents declare it a favorite bookstore. One reviewer said, “Went in because of curiosity, stayed for the books, and love the cat.”
Builders Booksource at 1817 Fourth St. in Berkeley offers an amazing collection of books on architecture, landscape, urban, green, and interior design, and international and California construction laws and codes. Beautiful books, fascinating books, and the essential nitty gritty. The owners’ kids went to Lick—Scott Kiskaddon ’06 and Erin Kiskaddon ’09.
Christopher’s is a wonderfully intimate Potrero Hill bookshop that has prided itself on its neighborhood appeal since 1991. Owner Tee Minot has extensive and in-depth knowledge of the books she sells—after all, she is, in a way, responsible for selling knowledge and ideas. The shop has a strong connection to Lick: alumna Sabrina Ramos ’04 and current student (and PT reporter) Amelia Levin-Sheffield ’17 work there, and Tee’s son Nicolas Dolce is a freshman.