Did you know that October is national book month? No? I didn’t either. But it’s very fitting for what I wanted to write about this week.
I have a bit of a book buying problem. Like many writers and devoted readers, I love books. Holding, gazing, and even smelling them brings me great joy. I honestly just feel comforted having books around. I know I’m in a good place if there is a book or two at hand. I’ve moved a lot in my adult life, and every time I do I’m always a bit overwhelmed that at least half of the boxes are filled entirely with books. They aren’t the lightest boxes either.
This problem developed because I’ve never been very good at keeping to my allotted book space. I tried valiantly to pare down the collection when there was only space for one bookshelf: I swapped books in and out, I borrowed, I found other creative storage areas. But not much more than a year later, we had more space. And I quickly claimed it with two more full-sized bookcases. Those new shelves did not take as long to fill as you might guess. A year or two later there were two more half-sized shelves, then another full-sized bookcase, then an old media console.
Those are all long filled and I’ve now taken to discretely, or not so discretely, piling books in different places around the house: the kitchen table, the dresser, my side table, in front of the bookshelves. You get the general picture. It’s in such a state that a friend recently remarked that I would serve as the de-facto bookmobile should an apocalypse strike.
The Independent Bookstores
Unfortunately, it’s not only that I adore reading that has caused me to own so many books. There’s another pernicious factor at play here. I also have a deep love for bookstores. There is something about being in a bookstore that gives me this incredible feeling of excitement, energy, and possibility. So many amazing adventures to slip into, so many voices to discover.
The thing about independent bookstores in particular, is that each has their own unique personality, whether it be grungy, insubordinate, absentminded, dreamy, wild, elegant, dusty, or academic. They each have a different approach to the books they love and how they relate to them. Whenever I’m in a great independent bookstore I always feel as though I am surrounded by like-minded souls.
So, given that I spend so much time in them, I thought I would pay homage to some of my favorite Independent Bookstores. I’ve organized them by general location.
The Bay Area
This is the bookstore I remember the most from my childhood. It is big, but at the time it felt enormous and mysterious. When I was a kid, Moe’s Books was one of the requisite stops on our regular trips into Berkeley. On one of these trips, my friend and regular accomplice threw his plastic dinosaur out the open window of the store onto the building’s roof. It was very exciting, though we had to then leave without the dinosaur.
For years afterward, every time we visited Moe’s we would race to the top of the store, sidle up to the back window, and peer out to check on our dinosaur friend. The dinosaur blended into the grey roof and was tucked next to the air vent. He was so camouflaged we believed we were the only ones who knew of its existence. I’m happy to report it stayed there for many years.
As an adult, I came to recognize Moe’s as having one of the widest and best collections of used books with particularly large collections of non-fiction and academic titles. This bookstore to me has an industrial and intellectually rebellious vibe. Located so close to the UC Berkeley campus and born in the free-speech movement era this bookstore is an integral part of Telegraph Ave. It will always be a part of my history and a go-to place for used and new gems.
So I might be a bit biased as I spent over a year and a half working here, but Mrs. Dalloway’s is a gorgeous and impeccably stocked bookstore. It has a clean, bright, and airy feel, well suited to its College Ave location. They have an amazingly curated selection of books with particular nods to Contemporary Fiction, Poetry, Gardening and Mystery. Oh and let’s not forget Children’s Books, whose backlist was at one time partially stocked by yours truly, under the guidance of the great Laura Leyhe, Anne Whalen, and Freda. It looks like they’ve expanded their YA offerings with Clarissa’s YA blog which I’m excited to check out.
Their Poetry section is small but mighty, curated lovingly by Mary McCulloch Fox. Every Year during National Poetry Month, Mary runs the Pocket Poem event where she selects ten poems and prints them out on elegantly designed folding cards. These cards are then placed around the bookstore for visitors. I still have a treasured set of these that Mary gave me. You can read more about the event in this article from Bookweb.org : http://www.bookweb.org/news/mrs-dalloway%E2%80%99s-celebrates-poetry-month-pocket-poems-33520
Just to gush a bit more, their fiction selection is what drew me to the bookstore in the first place and was filled with the best of contemporary fiction. Michael, Freda, Susan, and Marion introduced me to many of my favorite authors during my time there. There will always be a place in my heart for this bookstore.
If you stop by, make sure to talk to one of the employees to get a recommendation on your next read.
A Word to the wise:
The bookstore’s name “Mrs. Dalloway’s” is in homage to the Virginia Woolf book, and not named after the lovely and knowledgeable owners Ann Leyhe and Marion Abbot. Though I will always think of Freda as Mrs. Dalloway as many customers cheerfully assumed when we worked our evening shifts together.
I didn’t discover this bookstore until late high school, but once I did I was in love. City Light’s is part bookstore part publishing house and is designated as a San Francisco historical landmark. It is probably best known for its association with Beat Poetry, Ferlinghetti, and in particular for publishing the Iconic “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. Full of unusual and countercultural titles, you’ll find things here you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Exploring the three stories of books packed into the unusually shaped building, always makes me feel both inspired and connected to the literary past. This place is truly a cultural landmark, and if you are a book lover and in San Francisco, you’d be crazy to miss it.
Powell’s is amazing. It is the world’s largest independent bookstore. Story after story of this warehouse-like store is filled with wall to wall books. I spent more than a few weekends in college studying in their cafe and then later lost in their many many aisles of books. For sheer immensity and power, you cannot beat Powell’s. If you are ever in Portland, you have to go there. Full Stop.
This might be insane, but I think this store might be my favorite thing about Los Angeles! Pretty much anyone who came to visit me in LA got dragged into spending several hours pouring through this bookstore. I literally bought boxes worth of books from this store.
They don’t look like much from the outside or from their website, but the inside is practically overflowing with incredible books.
They have an amazing mix of titles that seemed curated almost exactly to my tastes. Their fiction section’s selection of obscure literary, classic, and famous contemporary writers always impressed me. Their fiction section is particularly reasonably priced with lots of beautiful $5 hardbacks.
This bookstore employs my book-pile method for overflow, so after you are done looking through the shelves, be sure to duck down to look at the stacks of books tucked around the shop. Recently they’ve also brought in a printseller on weekends who carries some amazing prints taken from old and rare books.
If you are in the Pasadena area, please, please check this place out. You won’t be disappointed.
Vroman’s is the oldest and largest independent bookstore in southern California with two locations in Pasadena. I spent most of my time in the Colorado Blvd location, browsing their Fiction, Science Fiction, and Fantasy shelves, though they also have a large children’s section upstairs. With events almost every day of the week Vroman’s has firmly established itself as part of the local culture of Pasadena.
This bookstore has a warm, almost homelike feel to it that makes you want to spend hours puttering around. Carpeted and inviting with a long list of staff recommendations, it’s a great place to get heady off of that new book smell. They even have a coffee shop inside in case you need to refuel after your long, hard, book-browsing experience.
Well, this is sad. In doing the research for this article I just found out that this bookstore has closed, and according to a newspaper article, it was the last used bookstore in Glendale, CA.
This used bookstore specialized in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery and had a wonderful pulpy vibe. This was another store packed wall to wall with books from all time periods. I spent many a lunch break peering at all the well-worn spines. This was an awesome place for a sci-fi/fantasy nerd like myself, and the owners were always more than happy to talk books and give recommendations.
I will miss them.
What are your favorite places to buy books?
These are some of my favorite places to spend a weekend afternoon with all thoughts of storage far from my mind. The task of shelving is always a problem for later.
What are some of your favorite bookstores? Shoot me a note below and let me know.
And don’t forget to give a little love your local bookstore this week.
Thanks for reading!