Courtesy of Omnivore
26 Independent Bookstores in the U.S. That We Love
By AFAR Editors
Apr 10, 2020
Courtesy of Parnassus Books
Parnassus Books in Nashville was founded by author Ann Patchett and her business partner, Karen Hayes.
From New York to California—and everywhere in between—these are the best bookstores across the country.
In a nod to the transporting power of great stories, we decided to celebrate our love for many of their keepers: independent bookstores across the country. Some, like Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, are stores we always stop by on a visit to the city, while others, like the Strand in New York City and City Lights in San Francisco, we are lucky to call our neighborhood joints. And while we may not be able to physically stop by any of these stores for the foreseeable future, we’re supporting them by shopping online and tuning in to their programming across social media.
In its own words, Parnassus—around since 2011—is truly “more than a bookstore.” It’s a cheery celebration of great writing, down to its gleaming hardwood floors and grinning staff, infused with the same joy as store founder and author Ann Patchett and her business partner, Karen Hayes. Patchett’s blog is the basis of the Parnassus online magazine, Musing, which also features staff reading picks, author interviews, and an extra-charming “shop dog diaries” that feels like an IRL idea from You’ve Got Mail. —Laura Dannen Redman
Second Story Books
On a recent trip to D.C., I carved out an afternoon for Second Story Books, which I’d heard had a fascinating collection of used, rare, and out-of-print books. How can you not want to visit a store run by the guy (Allan Stypeck) who not only repairs books but also loans books for movie sets and helps institutions like the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress build their collections? The Dupont Circle store, one of two locations, lived up to the hype: It took real effort to keep my book-hoarding instincts in check as I explored the maze-like store and hit up the sidewalk-sale shelves, which offer serious deals on the weekends. —Aislyn Greene
Support it by: Visiting one of its two locations, shopping online or buying a gift card, and calling on Allan Stypeck’s services as an appraiser.
Housed in a Victorian home in the center of town, Explore Booksellers is an Aspen institution. Inside, books on business, history, art, travel, and more are crammed into every corner, with an entire room dedicated to children’s literature. The shop also stocks numerous regional titles as well as cards, journals, and gifts and regularly hosts events with local and visiting authors. When you’ve finished shopping, grab lunch on the second floor, where Pyramid Bistro serves healthy, veggie-forward fare. —Natalie Beauregard
Support it by: Placing an order by phone, email, or via its website for shipping or porch pickup.
Birchbark Books & Native Arts
Owned by novelist Louise Erdrich, Birchbark specializes in Native American books, arts, jewelry, and gifts. Some of our favorite touches: All Erdrich titles purchased at Birchbark are signed by the author herself, and there’s even a dedicated children’s loft and a confessional, where visitors are invited to sit for reflection. —Katherine LaGrave
Support it by: Shopping online and tuning in to its Facebook page for author readings.
Brooklyn, New York
Since opening in 2009, Greenlight Bookstore has become a cultural mainstay of the Fort Greene neighborhood (there’s also a second, newer location in Prospect Lefferts Gardens). The oversized windows of the original store face Fulton Street, inviting passersby to come in and browse or join one of the many readings, often featuring Brooklyn writers. —John Newton
Support it by: Ordering books for home delivery, buying a gift card for a friend, or tuning in via Zoom for story time.
San Francisco, California
Located in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, culinary-themed Omnivore Books is a charming community gathering spot for the Bay Area’s many food-obsessed readers. Owner Celia Sack recently launched a special section of her online shop devoted to “Quarantine Quenchers,” a collection of cookbooks that allows home cooks to travel the world (My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz; Tokyo Cult Recipes by Maori Murota; The Karachi Kitchen by Kausar Ahmed). —Julia Cosgrove
Support it by: Shopping online and checking out its list of “Quarantine Quenchers”—books that will help you learn to bake, ferment, and shake a new cocktail.
America’s oldest surviving feminist bookstore (and first 100 percent solar-powered bookstore!) is one of Tucson’s literary havens. Opened in 1973 and now on its second generation of female ownership, Antigone Books features new works with a particular focus on feminism, inclusivity, and issues that affect Tucson, such as the border and immigration, or the desert climate. Funky cards, puzzles, journals, and other fun items (zombie cribbage, anyone?) make it an ideal stop for gift-buying, too. —Sara Button
Support it by: Shopping its online store and joining its mailing list.
Curation is key when your shop’s 500-square-foot size qualifies as “cozy” in real-estate listings and provides serious limitations on inventory. Happily, Greedy Read’s owner, Julia Fleischaker, has some strong bona fides for curation, having worked in book publishing for 20 years before moving home to Maryland in 2018. At the end of 2019, Fleischaker opened a second location in the Remington neighborhood, twice the size of the Fells Point shop, to better accommodate events she has planned for the future. —Ann Shields
Support it by: Buying T-shirts and gift cards from the store’s site, and ordering through the store’s account at bookshop.com. The store is also hosting a weekly virtual bookclub, with Moby Dick as the first pick.
Bookends and Beginnings
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Wander down a partially cobblestoned alley off one of Evanston’s busy shopping streets and you’ll find Bookends and Beginnings, an independent bookshop that’s an oasis for book lovers of all ages. Inside, worn oriental rugs cover the uneven wooden floors, and various velvet covered sofas and divans invite you to sink down when you’ve found that just-right read. The owner (an author herself) and her staff love to talk books with anyone. —Chris Kennelly
The first Books&Books opened in 1982 in a 500-square-foot space in Miami’s Coral Gables neighborhood. Since then, it’s grown, and grown again, and outposts can now be found on buzzy Lincoln Road, the Arsht Center, Bal Harbour, Suniland, and MIA Airport. (You’ll also find stores in Key West and Grand Cayman.) Part of the reason for its success, no doubt? Outdoor cafés at several of the bookstores that serve everything from Cuban sandwiches to local craft beers. —K.L.G.
Support it by: Shopping online and following along on social media for some of its chats.
Every bibliophile should make a pilgrimage to Powell’s at least once in their lifetime. The store earns its “City of Books” moniker with a veritable labyrinth of shelves filled with things to read. Even saying that the store occupies an entire city block and 1.6 acres of retail space isn’t enough to prepare someone for their first visit. No matter how obscure or specific your interests are, Powell’s has something (usually many things) for you. —Nicole Antonio
Support it by: Ordering new and used books from its online store.
Little City Books,
Hoboken, New Jersey
In 2015, two Hoboken women—a musician and a former investment banker–stopped bemoaning the lack of a local bookstore and opened one. They expanded to a children’s annex in a neighboring storefront the next year and have announced plans for a new location just a mile uptown. The colorful and friendly corner shop hosts impressive readings as well as regular story hours, and Little City also schedules enough live music to be listed as a performance venue on regional event calendars. They’ve even organized an annual Hoboken Literary Weekend. —A.S.
Support it by: Buying gift cards and online audiobook memberships from Libro.fm. If you order books via the search function on the store’s website, they can be delivered to your home for $2.
Blue Bicycle Books
Charleston, South Carolina
“Selling books in Charleston is different than selling books in Seattle or the Berkshires,” store co-owner Jonathan Sanchez said on the occasion of Blue Bicycle Books’ 20th anniversary in 2015. “Charleston’s got a lot going on. People bike, fish, garden, play cornhole, do hipster crafts.” To cultivate a community of book lovers, Sanchez and team made their used, local, and rare books store a local hangout, with a summer writing camp for kids, author events, a YA festival called, cheekily, YALLFest!, and well-curated sections dedicated to passions: military history, classics, and modern first editions (signed by William Faulkner and Harper Lee, among them). —L.D.R.
Support it by: Registering for summer camp and buying select titles at its online store.
As the largest independent bookstore in Texas, BookPeople has been serving the Austin community with curated staff selections and a diverse schedule of readings and events since 1970. It’s an idyllic place to escape the scorching summer heat, and you can’t leave without checking out CoffeePeople, which is located inside the bookstore and serves breakfast tacos, pastries, and sandwiches that are made fresh by local businesses. —Ciera Velarde
Support it by: Ordering books through its store on BookShop.
Women and Children First
Open since 1979, Women and Children First is one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country, stocking more than 30,000 books by and about women. Staff are incredibly friendly and knowledgeable without attempting to sway you into buying this, or that—fitting, for a place whose tagline is “Shop as independently as you think.” —K.L.G.
Support it by: Shopping online or donating to its Women’s Voices Fund, which fundraises for program series focused on women’s lives and work.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco’s most iconic bookstore has been catering to readers since 1953, when poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin founded the shop. Though it began as the first all-paperback bookstore in the nation, its collection spans three floors and has since grown to include new hardbacks. Perusing both the selection of titles in stock and those published by City Lights Publishers, readers will find contemporary and classic works about social issues that capture the radical spirit of the Beat poets who once frequented the store—and the city it calls home. —S. Button
Looking for a 19th-century edition of The Art of French Cookery? Or a “delightful survey on the history of oysters”? Rabelais is your spot. Housed in the North Dam Mill about 20 minutes south of Portland, this antiquarian bookshop in Biddeford, Maine, is a cathedral of rare, used, and new books on cooking and culinary history—a supplier to such I’ve-heard-of-them places as the New York Public Library and Harvard University, but also a great spot to find a collection on vintage cocktails. —L.D.R.
Support it by: Ordering online from its website.
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Bozeman’s Country Bookshelf has been a women-owned business since it opened in 1957. Founded by Polly Renne in a small shop just off the town’s central Tracy Avenue, the independent bookstore has since occupied a main street chapel and later a two-story downtown building, which is where the landmark bookshop has been since 1986. Owned today by Ariana Paliobagis, the Country Bookshelf offers everything from graphic novels and literary fiction to cookbooks and historical memoirs. In addition to its diverse reading selections, the store also hosts regular author events and workshops. —Sarah Buder
Support it by: Shopping its online store for e-books and audiobooks.
Left Bank Books
St. Louis, Missouri
Left Bank Books got its start in 1969, thanks to intrepid students from Washington University who wanted a place to find all kinds of literature. Today, it is the oldest and largest independently owned bookstore in the city and hosts not one but seven (!) book clubs as well as more than 300 events throughout the year, most free and open to the public. It also puts on a weekly “Story Time” and partners with libraries, churches, and schools to encourage literacy around St. Louis. —K.L.G.
Support it by: Contributing to the Left Bank Books Foundation, or buying a book, T-shirt, poster, or gift card from its online shop.
The Last Bookstore
Los Angeles, California
This literary playground in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles brings me the utmost joy. My routine starts with ogling painstakingly designed special editions alongside tattered pulp fiction, followed by a lap around the extensive graphic novel collection, far too much time looking at poetry and staff recommendations, and then browsing all the maker spaces on the second floor for artwork, trinkets, and 3D-printed earrings. —N.A.
Support it by: Ordering gifts and new books from its online store.
New York City
This landmark East Village shop is known for its collectibles, souvenirs, records, and proverbial 18 miles of books (spread across multiple floors). Browse the stacks and venture to the rare book room on the third floor to see the $45,000 copy of Ulysses, illustrated and signed by Henri Matisse and James Joyce. —K.L.G.
Tattered Cover has been selling books to Denver readers since 1971. Longtime owner Joyce Meskis, who retired to a consultant role in 2017, is a leading national advocate for independent bookstores and freedom of expression who turned the store into a community institution. The four locations (plus outlets at the airport) host around 600 events a year, some of which the store will be holding online during the crisis. When I worked at New York’s Strand Book Store in the mid 1990s, Tattered Cover was the other bookstore I heard mentioned most often by customers and fellow employees. It’s a national treasure. —Jeremy Saum
Support it by: Shopping online, buying gift cards, and tuning in to its live-streams with authors.
Used bookstores are often relegated to sad and musty storefronts and are crammed with saggy, jury-rigged shelving stocked by a vague organizing system, at best. Chop Suey Books, on the other hand, is located on a buzzy stretch of Cary Street, with two stories of used books (as well as ground-floor tables stacked with new releases), and a roaming resident cat, WonTon. Generous shelves devoted to local authors, as well as literature, social justice, comic books, YA novels, and lots of art may mean that your browsing will result in a teetering stack of purchases. —A.S.
Support it by: Calling to learn about its 45,000-book inventory. The store is offering at-the-door store pickup and free delivery within the city for orders over $20.
Elliott Bay Book Company
Since it opened in 1973, Elliott Bay has been the heart of Seattle’s literary community. That heart survived the move from its Pioneer Square location to its current Capitol Hill location, a former repair shop with wonderfully creaky wood floors and large, latticed windows. As a student living in Seattle, I spent many happy hours perusing the new and used books that line cedar shelves, studying over a pastry or a cocktail in the all-day Oddfellows Café, and attending one of the more than 500 author readings and events Elliott Bay hosts each year. —A.G.
Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts Bookstore
In a college town once full of great bookstores, Mrs. Dalloway’s is an inviting neighborhood hub with a huge collection of children’s books, literature, and gardening, art, and home coffee table books. —J.C.
Support it by: Buying a gift certificate and signing up for the “Little Library” subscription service, a monthly personalized collection of board books, picture books, and chapter books for young readers.
Librería Laberinto Viejo San Juan
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Sure, Puerto Rico isn’t a state, but a U.S. territory, and sure, there are bigger, flashier bookstores in San Juan. But part of the fun of Librería Laberinto is walking its checkerboard floors and sorting through its stacks. You’ll find some books here in English, but the shop is best for its celebration of local authors. (Head to the dedicated “Puerto Rico” section to see what we mean.) —K.L.G.
Support it by: Shopping online and getting books delivered.
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