More than retailers, bookstores are cultural anchors—and these are a few of our favorites.
An independent bookstore is more than a retailer; It’s a resource and a refuge for the readerly and the writerly, often doubling as a community space (sometimes tripling as a cat enclave). Local booksellers are cultural anchors, connecting us with information, knowledge, and worlds beyond and it is this cherished institution that we celebrate today, on Independent Bookstore Day. Indies across the country are marking the occasion with great events and special offers and we’re commemorating the day with a list of some of our all-time favorite bookshops.
While in grad school at the University of Texas, I worked at Bookpeople—a store that defines the whole Austin vibe. The unofficial city motto is “Keep Austin Weird” and Bookpeople is the embodiment of this notion. Like its name implies, Bookpeople is very people-oriented. Community is the basis of the whole operation, so employees, customers, and authors are central to the good-feels energy of the place and loving books is what all these people have in common. It was sort of the Empire Records of bookstores for employees when I was there. Customers range from local celebrities to tourists to true Austinites who have loved the place since it opened in 1970. Authors visit regularly to do readings or just to drop in and dig the vibes. Every area of the place is comfy and reflects the personality of the people who have visited and worked there. From sunshiny vine-laced nooks, to the hidden cave in the kids’ section, to the politically-themed and nostalgic gift- and toy-lined stairway, the inside of this place is like a warm hug.
Bird & Beckett Books & Records in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco bill themselves as the city’s southernmost bookstore, but it’s also known as a great place for jazz, both live on weekends, and every day on vinyl. I’ve been going there for years. Eric Whittington, the owner, should really be given some document from the city to hang on the wall. His shop does an oversized part in keeping this neighborhood interesting. There’s a great collection of used and new books, including lots more poetry than I think Eric reads, which really does show commitment to the literary community.
This closet-sized store is easy to miss but immaculately curated: recent finds include Rebecca Gowers’s Horrible Words and items not yet released stateside like the paperback edition of Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. Small shelves contain a surprisingly pithy collection in literature, politics, history, and pop culture. A ten-minute browse often turns much longer if you strike up a chat with the gregarious staff.
I have known and loved many independent bookstores over the years. But one of my favorites is quirky McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan. I have a gaggle of family who live in the area, and when I’m visiting them, I like to steal away and spend time (ideally a whole afternoon) at this small gem. They do everything a top-notch independent bookstore should do—foster a welcoming environment; offer a captivating mix of hot-off-the-presses and bestselling titles as well as works by lesser-known local authors; and host a strong list of events. If you happen to be in Petoskey, stop by!
Book Culture is my go-to indie. It’s tucked right around the corner from the legendary Hungarian Pastry Shop near Columbia, a perfect place to crack the spine on a new read. Not only does Book Culture have a thoughtful roster of events, but also a well-curated selection in which I often stumble upon our books—showing the store’s love of university presses.
My favorite bookstore is my alma mater, Green Apple Books. I think it encapsulates the sort of je ne sais quoi that makes a store more than its component parts—the staff (past and present) are my best friends, and union organized to boot! The used stock is full of things you don't find elsewhere. The new titles are always representative of the small presses and lesser-known authors I love. And the foggy, atmospheric neighborhood, my home, makes it feel like you've stepped into either a Dashiell Hammett mystery or a piece of magical realism, depending on what you're into.
Whether because of its flanneled clientele or its place in the misty side of the city, Green Apple recalls the great bookstores of the Pacific Northwest. You can find anything on the main floor from Rebecca Solnit's latest atlas to used copies of The Joy of Cooking. Their epic remaindered table stretches from the front door to the children's section. Ascend a creaky staircase to peruse lit crit and art books; pop to their nook next door for fiction and media. Green Apple has inspired a paean from Dave Eggers, who observes that "everything, even a cat calendar, seems far more interesting and wantable in their hands."
I first stepped into the Tattered Cover when I was fresh out of college and attending the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. I will never forget those first moments in the store: the plush forest green carpet, the creaky stairs leading up to the event space, the floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with old and new treasures. My classmates and I bought so many books that we had to mail them back to ourselves at the end of our month in Denver! Whenever I find myself in Denver, I always make a point to stop by the LoDo location. I haven’t had to mail books back to myself again, but my suitcase always comes home heavier.
There are so many bookstores I love that it is hard to choose just one. (If I spent as much time reading as I do poking around bookstores, I'd have read everything, but that's another story). But the bookstore with the best bookstore cat by far is Aardvark Books in San Francisco. A classic orange tabby, Aardvark's cat is sweet and friendly and wants lap! Sit down to peruse a book (or squat to check a low shelf) and the cat will be in your lap before you know it. Besides the cat, Aardvark has a terrific selection of used books along with a small sampling of new paperbacks. It almost always has the book I'm looking for.
Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, may as well be the land of 10,000 indie bookstores. The Twin Cities, known for their robust literary culture, boast an extensive (and still growing) coterie of independent booksellers, each with their own distinctive niche. But if pressed to anoint a top pick, I have to go with Magers & Quinn, a bedrock institution of Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood. The staff is incredible and recommendation-ready—and with a huge selection of both new and used titles, it’s easy to while away an hour or two getting lost in the stacks. As for the express shopper, you’re always guaranteed to find buzz-worthy reads at the shop’s front or a surprising treasure on the discount cart outside. Only a few short blocks from Lake Calhoun, it’s a great pit stop if you’re looking for a beach read on a hot summer day. (Note: the beach trip is not advisable during the winter months).