You’ve heard of a pub crawl, but a bookstore crawl? Admittedly bookstore hopping is the ultimate in high-minded geek-dom, but if you’re a fan, San Francisco boasts dozens of under-the-radar neighborhood reading hangs that will delight the soul and fascinate the mind.
From Green Apple Books in the Richmond, to Booksmith on Haight, to the handful of hipster spots in the Mission, bookstores in our fair city exude the kind of thinking-man-or-woman’s cache that only San Francisco can offer. Our literary history encompasses all that is progressive: Beat poets, activists, anti-war demonstrators, 1960s authors, feminists, gay rights leaders, and every form of progressive, fantasy, and break-the-boundaries fiction spurred by a city that has led the country in all things broad-minded and forward thinking.
So don your hipster walking boots, and toss a beatnik-inspired suede jacket over your shoulders, then head out for a great day of San Francisco’s best neighborhood bookstores.
Start at Green Apple Books (506 Clement Street, www.greenapplebooks.com) in the Richmond. Since it’s the farthest out, you’ll want to begin here and work your way back across the city. A funky vibe with hardwood floors, Green Apple Books is the epitome of an in-my-‘hood, old-school bookstore. It has a great tree-house feel to its children’s section (climb up the stairs in the back), and a whimsical approach to its signage, and you’ll find both used and new titles in this store. Ten short steps west from its front door, another store front houses all of its fiction—a packed to the gills delight of delicious literature. The place has the feel of an old library, full but not cramped, and the staff is groovy and helpful. This spot is a not to be missed.
Make your way to the Haight District, and go straight to Booksmith (1644 Haight, www.booksmith.com). This neatly organized, hip bookstore has a full roster of events and speakers, and it’s pure pleasure to pull up a stool and sit in one of the roomy aisles and just read something. Owned by Christin Evans and her husband, Praveen Madan, the couple has made it their work to ‘re-imagine the role independent bookstores play in their communities,’ and to make Booksmith a ‘genuine cultural institution.’ That vibe is palpable inside the store—a feeling of connection to the community and the neighborhood, and a genuine love of the written word. The couple helped launch Berkeley Arts & Letters, now the East Bay’s most successful author event series.
Head into the middle of the Fillmore and direct your bookstore-loving self to Browser Books (2195 Fillmore Street, www.browserpublishingsf.com). This quintessential small-room bookstore has titles packed into every corner, and the place feels just like home. Tall stacks house walls and walls of fiction, and the simple task of following the alphabetized authors on angled shelves makes sure you dawdle and let your eyes wander over books you never thought to peruse. But then you do: A tabled book catches your eye, a title in the stacks, a non-fiction travel book… and suddenly an hour has passed. Browser also publishes works, so ask to see their home-brewed list of authors and new books. The store sits just next to Peet’s Coffee, so stop for a break and get a snack or a hit of caffeine, and then get ready for your next stop.
Head on over to Fort Mason for the San Francisco Public Library’s bookstore, also known as Readers Bookstore, (Fort Mason Center, Building C, Room 165, www.friendssfpl.org/?Readers_FM). Funded and maintained by Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, this jam-packed spot features ‘a staggering variety of books, media, prints and collectibles, all at incredibly low prices.’ It’s a dream-come-true for the repeat bookstore visitor since the books are donated by patrons, and the stock changes weekly. The low prices are totally worth the jaunt into the Marina, even on a busy weekend day, and the vibe is pure book-lover delight. Wander into Green’s for a treat, and step out over the pier to catch a bit of mist on your face before moving on.
Any bookstore list would be remiss without mentioning the historical landmark, City Lights Books (261 Columbus Avenue, www.citylights.com.) For those of us who’ve lived here forever, City Lights is an old familiar friend—it’s the place we grew up with, and now wander in to check out posters of whatever cool and happening-right-now artistic and activist stuff is going on in town. Of course, it’s a favorite place to look for amazing book titles. ‘Free intellectual inquiry’ is its motto, and has been since the 1970’s when it led the way to a new era of free speech, creating a platform for the city’s first publicly free-thinkers. Always worth a stop, and maybe a wander down the way to Caffé Roma for a quick sweet, this bookstore also has its own publishing imprint, so ask for their professional titles.
Head right over to the Mission and go for a good neighborhood walk. Your first stop is Dog-Eared Books (900 Valencia, www.dogearedbooks.com, a collection of new, used and remaindered books (they also buy books), where you’ll find some great book-buying deals for sure. The place is cool-funky, and specialized in off-beat, small press and local literature. A handful of abstract art pieces grace the upper walls, adding a bit of local color to the store. A great place to just hang and while away the moments.
Wander down the street to Borderlands Books (866 Valencia, www.borderlands-books.com), a fantasy, mystery and horror specialty bookstore, that is as neat and clean as a pin. Jeremy Lassen, one of its booksellers, dresses up in full-suited regalia each Sunday—think 1920’s striped suit and tails—to celebrate Borderlands’ ongoing existence after a near-closing earlier this year. More than 300 community members rallied around the much-loved spot and pledged $100 each for a year’s membership, and within 48 hours the store had raised enough money to save the day. The shelves, though, are the real story here. At Borderlands you’ll find a totally unique array of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, mystery and more—stuff you can’t get anywhere else in town—and it’s worth it to just pull a volume or two off any shelf and let your mind be emblazoned with some new and unlikely imagery. There’s a café next door with the same name, adding an artsy vibe to the whole undertaking.
If you’re not completely spent, and you’re game for a walk or drive into the heart of the not-yet-gentrified Mission District, then head to Alley Cat Books, (3036 24th Street, www.alleycatbookshop.com). The place is small and the collection not vast, but it’s the ambiance that’s the draw here. A couple of chairs and random benches sit in the front foyer, and you’ll find a dozen or more hipster author-types hanging out just chatting with the folks about art and music and the written word. Alley Cat has the feel of someone’s living room, a lively conversation spot for both English and Spanish speaking customers. New, used and remaindered books live here, so you’re sure to find some terrific deals.
After all of that intellectual delight, you’re going to need some real sustenance, so wander back over to Valencia and hang at one of the many cafés and eateries along the street’s long length, and then, over a cocktail, call yourself blessed to be living in a city that loves its literature, stands up for its writers, and shares it all with you.
JoAnneh Nagler writes travel, books, plays, essays and music, and is the author of the new book How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass (2016), and the Amazon Top-100 book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: www.AnArtistryLife.com.