The distinct aroma. The creaking floors. The towering stacks.
So much of a great bookstore isn’t the books. Today’s booksellers personally curate their offerings to match the needs of the community that grows up around each shop, whether those interests translate to a charming children’s corner, a memoir reading by an ex-president or a healthy selection of used punk on vinyl.
“We work really hard to make this a bookstore for the Vallejo community,” says Karen Finlay, co-owner of Alibi Bookshop in the historic North Bay town. “The people here are diverse, passionate and smart, and we definitely try to make sure there's something for everyone who comes in, whether it's a book, event or just running into neighbors on a Saturday afternoon.”
On Independent Bookstore Day, the Bay Area celebrates the wide variety of bookstore owners who work extra hard to provide the right mix of products and programming to their local customers.
“It's a big commitment these days to invest in a book—both time-wise and money-wise—so it's very important to us to have customers walk out with a treasure,” says Finlay, who loves recommending titles to customers of the bookstore she and her husband Jon Burchard took over four years ago and transformed into a Downtown Vallejo destination. “I've had people yell out their car windows or stop me in the grocery store or the vet's office to tell me about how much they loved the book I recommended—it makes my whole day!”
Follow the map below to find the best independent bookstores around the San Francisco Bay and read on for a guide to some standouts—even in our book-blessed region.
Ask anyone within a stone’s throw of Vallejo about their favorite bookstore and you’ll get an earful about Alibi. Located on the historic North Bay town’s classic Marin Street, Alibi keeps its customers happy with a great kid’s section, an informative social media feed, a wide selection of titles by diverse authors and, most of all, its helpful owners, who’ll point you to everything from the latest thriller to the best place to get a sandwich nearby.
Corte Madera and Ferry Building, San Francisco
From its first weeks in 1976 as a tiny bookshop in Central Marin, Book Passage immediately outgrew its charter and expanded to nurture and promote the works of the local creative community. The Corte Madera location now anchors a small strip mall with two large shops filled with new and used titles, gifts and gear for travelers, classrooms and gathering space for speakers. Read more about how Book Passage rose to prominence as the must-stop shop for prominent authors on book tours to the Bay Area.
Eleven locations in the Bay Area
Though its name is decidedly un-neighborhood-y, Books Inc. is the go-to bookstore for nine cities surrounding the bay. The shop can trace its roots to the Gold Rush, hence its billing as the "Oldest Independent Bookstore in the West." Each store does a great job tailoring its offerings for the community it serves, including its two Compass Books locations in Terminals 2 and 3 at the San Francisco International Airport.
North Beach, San Francisco
More institution than bookstore, City Lights was founded by SF’s first poet laureate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and is a must-visit for literary enthusiasts. Read more about North Beach’s beacon for Beat culture and preparations for its 70th birthday celebration.
Nine locations in the North Bay
Another Bay Area-born chain of independent booksellers, Copperfield’s tailors the titles and offerings of each of its branches to the townspeople it serves. The big Petaluma store has a massive kid’s section while the Larkspur store at Marin Country Mart leads with gifts and titles of regional interest and follows with neat rows of bestsellers and the latest nonfiction hits. Take a seat in one of the leather chairs positioned in front of the fireplace to flip through your latest purchase.
Inner Richmond, Pacific Heights and Inner Sunset, San Francisco
If you’re looking for that dense, distinct aroma of old books and old San Francisco, you can find both at the original 1967 Clement Street home of Green Apple. Its endless maze of levels and rooms is a browser’s paradise—and even if you think you’ve seen them all, take another lap because you probably missed a few. Green Apple now owns Browser’s Books on Fillmore, another SF bookselling institution, and has a spot on Ninth Avenue near Golden Gate Park, as well.
A 65-year-old gem that was slated for closure in 2005, Kepler's Books in Menlo Park was saved by an outpouring of community support. Today, Kepler’s has an innovative hybrid business model that includes the community-financed bookstore set up as a social purpose corporation and Kepler's Literary Foundation, a nonprofit events organization. Pop in while you're on the Peninsula for one of its literary events, and stop by Cafe Borrone next door for one of its legendary frosted mochas.
Moe’s has served as Ground Zero for independent thought on Telegraph Avenue since 1959. Located just blocks from the Cal campus, the store offers four floors of floor-to-ceiling books spanning centuries of writing, from anarchist memoirs to new novels to antiquarian treasures. It’s a must-see emporium that delivers the hours of browsing pleasure, local history and unique finds that only a precious few bookstores can still provide, with a bit of old-library smell and feel.
Three locations in Berkeley and Oakland
Pegasus is every town’s dream bookseller: It’s bigger than a book nook-type shop with limited pickings but smaller than the stores that feel like a college library where you’re reluctant to even start browsing. Pegasus makes you feel like your book—or zine or album or DVD—is absolutely inside, and you’re going to have a blast wandering through the stacks to find it.
Like all the great bookstores around the bay, Pegasus’ booksellers are extremely helpful, and they tweak each store’s offerings to match its local shoppers, for example, stocking more children’s offerings in the Rockridge shop and more "witchy books" in the Shattuck location.
Point Reyes Station
Point Reyes Books is a small-town indie bookstore with a compelling selection of nature, history and environmental books for West Marin tourists and page-turners for local shoppers, as well. Browse beneath its elegant chandelier, hand-painted whale mural and floating books that dangle overhead. It’s an all-around lovely stop on your way to Point Reyes, and with Bovine Bakery right next door, it’s delicious, too.
San Jose and Campbell
With aisles and aisles and aisles of used books that tower overhead, Recycle has a vast selection, great prices and helpful staff that's kept bibliophiles happy in Silicon Valley since 1967. Now with two stores on The Alameda and in Campbell, the store buys and trades books, too, and is home to some especially popular bookstore cats.
There’s something Marie Kondo-ish appealing about Spectator Books. From the front, the store appears somewhat compact, but if you move past the artfully arranged shelves toward the rear of the shop, an entire warren of additional rooms appears, each as perfectly organized and tightly curated as the last.
New owners took over the store in 2017 and leverage their superior space utilization skills to create nooks, rooms and shelves where fans of a particular genre can settle in, with a whole room devoted to kids’ titles and a solid science fiction selection, too. And though it lacks the dusty feeling of some great bookstores, Spectator makes up for it with a wide selection of greeting cards, postcards, prints and DVDs.
Grand Lake, Oakland
If Henry David Thoreau were alive today, we don’t think he’d mind that this serene Oakland bookshop pays tribute to Walden—his influential meditation on how to lead a thoughtful life surrounded by nature. With its cleverly penned staff picks and small but mighty collection of vinyl records, Walden Pond is a delightful place to pick up gifts for pretty much anyone or spend an afternoon lost in the stacks.
Sarah Holtz and Julie Makinen contributed additional reporting for this story.
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