I had an interesting but sad experience today, a reminder that despite hometown bookstores hanging on and still existing in the major cities, times are ‘a’ changing. In a search for travel books on Iceland, I came up short on a recent hunt in and around San Francisco’s Union Square. After a meeting I had in the center, I asked eight people back-to-back, on the street and in nearby shops, where the closest bookstore was. They all seemed to look at me as if I was asking where I might find a place to buy cassette tapes. One girl in her twenties with a black polka dot dress on and fabulous pink lipstick took the earbuds out of her ears to talk to me, saying that she too was looking for one two weeks ago and the one she knew about had closed, so she wasn’t sure.
I later learned that there is one in the Union Square vicinity but it took a little digging to find it and no one I asked knew about it. And so, I hopped back on the Bart and ended up back in the Mission where I knew of Dog Eared Books at a minimum on Valencia. Although they didn’t have anything on Iceland, they were, like most independent bookstore owners and employees, helpful in trying to explore other possibilities in the area who might. They led me to Books Inc., Modern Times, and Alley Cat. I felt a bit more optimistic when I spoke to people in their twenties who not only believed that books were here to stay, but were going to do whatever they could to make that happen. Hear hear. In my exploration, I dove into some other gems and here they are for your browsing pleasure. In other words, get out and support your local book store and if San Francisco isn’t local for you, support them next time you’re in this fabulous city.
The Green Arcade is a funky and eclectic bookshop based on Market Street in San Francisco. Imagine a delicate style dripping with yellowy atmosphere, welcoming chairs, and incredible books, which don’t seem to be shelved as much as perfectly curated. They say they’ve got it all: everything you’ve wanted to read, or know you should read, is there, and you’ll want to rifle through everything else. Below is a shot of owner Patrick Marks inside the bookstore.
Broadly, the store specializes in environment, politics, food, farming, nature, and sustainability, with niche books that would baffle Borders’ corporate buyers. It also has strong local representation, including Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies and San Francisco Weekly alums Silke Tudor and Jack Boulware’s Gimme Something Better.
The Green Arcade
1680 Market Street @Gough
San Francisco CA 94102
The Dog Eared Bookstore has a line on their website that gives you an idea of their personality right away. They want “us” to know that reports concerning “The Death of The Bookstore” have been greatly exaggerated and that nowhere is this more true than San Francisco, where a relentlessly quirky and curious populace loves nothing more than wandering the aisles of a well-stocked literary emporium. Other stores in their network include: The Phoenix, Alley Cat Books, and Red Hill Books, which are scattered throughout San Francisco and they offer books at rock bottom prices.
They also carry a wide variety of original art, notecards, journals, and magazines. They say, “if you’re looking for a specific book but can’t remember the title and/or author, fear not – we love a challenge. And if you’re looking for something but don’t know what, our staff is always happy to make a recommendation. ” Gotta love it. Obviously great service is part of their motto, so take them up on it.
Phoenix was conceived during a magical time when landlords took chances on people they liked — Kate Rosenberger and George Kirby Desha started the store with $10,000, no previous credit history, and a lease sealed with handshake. The store has relocated twice over the years, but after each move, true to its name, has risen again. Kate hatched the idea for Dog Eared in 1992 at a tea party at the beloved Radio Valencia (R.I.P.). In 1996, it moved it to the larger, sunnier space it currently calls home (formerly a furniture shop called Hocus Pocus) on the corner of 20th in San Francisco.
Like the Mission district it calls home, Dog Eared is wildly eclectic — you’ll find anarchist zines next to Vanity Fair, books on Nina Simone next to books on Joy Division, and the poetry of Michelle Tea next to that of Longfellow. The store has become a destination for visitors from around the world eager to peruse its quirky yet extensive stock, including sections devoted to Beat Literature, Noir mysteries, McSweeneys’, sustainable living, and NYRB Classics.
3957 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Phoenix is located in Noe Valley, on the South side of 24th, between Sanchez and Noe Streets. The nearest bus lines are the 48 (24th Street), the 24 (Castro Street) and the J-Church streetcar.
Dog Eared Books
900 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dog Eared is located at the corner of Valencia and 20th Streets in the Mission District. It’s about a ten minute walk from either the 16th Street or 24th Street BART stops. The nearest bus lines are the 26 (Valencia Street), 14 and 49 (Mission Street), the 33 (18th Street).
Alley Cat Books
3036 24th street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Modern Times has been around since 1971 and has continued to survive the collapse of the New Left from which it emerged, the assault of chain bookselling, the death of independent stores throughout the country, gentrification of the Mission, and the competition from online booksellers. Located in San Francisco’s Mission District, they sell both used and new books and offer wide-ranging literature on globalization, politics and media, as well as an array of graphic novels, fiction, and criticism.
They maintain informed sexuality and gender sections, and feature one of the Bay Area’s most extensive collections of writings on Latina/o history and culture, including a full selection of Spanish language books. In addition to the thousands of titles they have in store, they have an ever growing collection of used books online and are now selling eBooks with over 3 million titles to choose from. A special thanks to Travis at Modern Times for proactively offering to help me identify some local bookstores who would have travel books on Iceland during a recent search.
City Lights was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin. Known as one of the few truly great independent bookstores in the U.S., it attracts “beatniks” anti-authoritarian politic advocates and insurgent thinkers. It is the country’s first all-paperback bookstore that spans three floors of both new-release hardcovers and quality paperbacks from all of the major publishing houses, along with an impressive range of titles from smaller, harder-to-find, specialty publishers. The store features an extensive and in-depth selection of poetry, fiction, translations, politics, history, philosophy, music, spirituality, and more, with a staff whose special book interests in many fields contribute to the hand-picked quality of what you see on the shelves.
The City Lights masthead says A Literary Meetingplace since 1953, and this concept includes publishing books as well as selling them. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with the now-famous Pocket Poets Series; since then the press has gone on to publish a wide range of titles, both poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, international and local authors. Today, City Lights has well over two hundred titles in print, with a dozen new titles being published each year. It’s a truly unique San Francisco experience, and a must visit for anyone who appreciates good books and loves to read…paper that is.
261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway (North Beach)
San Francisco, California 94133
Alexander Book Company has three floors stocked with over 50,000 new books. It is a full-service independent bookstore, conveniently located in Downtown SOMA district of San Francisco near Bart and Muni (Montgomery Street Station) and just a few blocks from Union Square. They tout most categories of books and feature extensive African-American, Children’s, Graphic Design and Literature/Fiction Departments. They also promote the shop locally message: a study conducted in Austin found for every $100 spent at a locally owned bookstore, $45 stayed in the community as opposed to only $13 when compared to a Border’s in the area.
50 2nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Green Apple Books has been around since 1967 and was founded by United Airlines radio technician Richard Savoy. The bookstore today is frequently voted the best used and/or independent bookstore in the Bay Area by local sites and papers. Over the years, as space became available, the store expanded, gradually doubling its width, adding a mezzanine and a second floor, and increasing the inventory of new books. The store’s selling space went from 5,000 to its current 8,000 square feet, allowing the book selection to expand. They have book readings and other activities.
506 Clement Street (@6th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94118
Books Inc. is a locally owned and operated independent bookseller with 12 locations in California. Books Inc.’s origin dates back to the Gold Rush Days of 1851 when Anton Roman struck it rich in Shasta City, California and set himself up in business selling books. That small bookstore was moved, bought, sold, burned, rebuilt, renamed and became Books Inc., as we know it today, in 1946.
Lew Lengfeld, owner since 1946, passed away in 1996 and left Books Inc. to a few trusted employees. The good news was, he left them the business; the bad news was he left them the business just as the national chain stores were discovering and colonizing the West Coast. The impact of this change in climate within the book trade was the closure of ten of the twelve Books Inc. stores and filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy in an effort to restructure and save the company. Today, it has 12 stores and around 200 employees, the store continues to serve as a shining example that independent bookselling can survive and prosper, even if we must dance among the elephants.
They have four locations in the city of San Francisco.
Books Inc. in Laurel Village
This store handles all website orders as well.
3515 California Street, SF
Books Inc. in Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness, SF
Books Inc. in the Castro
2275 Market Street, SF
Books Inc. in the Marina
2251 Chestnut Street, SF