America's Best Bookstores
If you’re looking for the soul of a place, you might start at the local bookstore.
“I think it’s one of the best places to go to find out about where you’re visiting,” says Becky Anderson, president of the American Booksellers Association and owner of Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL.
As transporting as any museum and nourishing as any local dish, America’s best bookstores speak volumes about their respective cities and towns. In New Orleans, visitors can walk the same brick floors used by William Faulkner, when he rented rooms in a building that now sells first editions of his works as well as regional nonfiction. Boulder Bookstore, meanwhile, has subjects ranging from sustainable living to raw food that reflect the Colorado college town’s fondness for alternative lifestyles.
In recent years, however, independent bookstores have famously struggled to compete with big-box and online retailers—which often can afford to sell new books at deep discounts—and with the rise of e-readers. Many independents have been forced to close, but lately, the tide may be turning.
“There’s a renaissance going on among independent bookstores around the country,” Anderson says. From 2011 to 2012, the association added close to 100 members, reaching more than 1,500 nationwide. Anderson attributes the increase partly to independents’ ability to cultivate community: a great indie bookstore isn’t just about selling books—it’s about people.
“They are gathering places,” says Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of longtime Washington, D.C., favorite Politics and Prose. “I think bookstores are a kind of cultural institution.”
A steady diet of author programs, classes, and excursions keeps Politics and Prose customers engaged with the store, and with each other. Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA, even hosts fundraisers and donation drives for local schools, pet shelters, hospitals, and other organizations.
“I’m very optimistic for the survival of independents because they create such a unique experience that nobody else can offer,” says Anderson.
Read on for some of our favorite independent bookstores, from San Francisco’s beatnik icon City Lights to Books & Books, which stocks art titles in a 1920s Mediterranean-style building in Coral Gables, FL.
Square Books, Oxford, MS
This three-in-one bookstore spans a triad of post-Civil War buildings on the town square of a charming southern college town once home to William Faulkner and John Grisham. The 3,500-square-foot Square Books, Jr. is devoted to children’s selections; Off Square Books features lifestyle topics such as cooking and gardening; and the main store celebrates regional history and literature, including that of Mississippi natives like Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty. squarebooks.com
Prairie Lights, Iowa City
Next door to the University of Iowa and its renowned Writers’ Workshop, this store (est. 1978) is a cornerstone of a literature-obsessed town where embossed sidewalks display quotations from workshop alumni including Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor. Owned by a pair of poets, the shop features 40,000 titles leaning heavily toward fiction, travel, children’s, and—no surprise—poetry. prairielights.com
Books & Books, Coral Gables, FL
Shelves soar from wooden floors to timbered ceilings inside this 1920s-era Mediterranean-style building, where an array of art titles dominates about half the inventory. The store is one of a handful of Miami-area outposts of B&B, first opened in 1982 by Mitchell Kaplan, 2011 recipient of the National Book Foundation’s prestigious Literarian Award. booksandbooks.com
Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.
This Northwest D.C. landmark averages 475 author events each year, welcoming wordsmiths from Salman Rushdie and Bob Woodward to Barbara Kingsolver and Calvin Trillin. A husband-and-wife team of former Washington Post writers Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine (most recently a speechwriter and adviser to Hillary Clinton) bought the store in 2011 from the original owner, who opened it in 1984. politics-prose.com
Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO
The eclectic spirit of this shop’s hometown lives among its 100,000 titles; alongside bestsellers and general interest tomes reside Boulder-specific sections such as Buddhism and vegan cooking. Locals and tourists alike can get lost in the three-story maze of rooms, housed in a 19th-century structure on the brick-paved, pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall. boulderbookstore.net
Bookbook, New York City
This cozy Greenwich Village spot is located in New York’s literary heart—everyone from Henry James to Edward Albee has lived nearby. French doors open onto the street, where passersby can browse remainders (discounted overstocks of novels and nonfiction), a solid selection of new fiction, and New York-centric reads. bookbooknyc.com
Powell’s Books, Portland, OR
Chances are good Powell’s has what you’re looking for: more than 1 million books crowd this former car dealership encompassing an entire city block in Portland’s revitalized, post-industrial Pearl District. Since opening in 1971, the bookselling giant specializing in both used and new books has grown to include six Portland-area stores and a bustling online sales site. powells.com
Faulkner House Books, New Orleans
The brick floors lining this treasure trove on Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter are the same that William Faulkner walked when he rented rooms here in the 1920s. Collectors will relish first editions like a well-preserved copy of Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, in addition to new fiction and regional nonfiction. faulknerhouse.net
The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle
In 2010, this nearly 40-year-old landmark moved to its new home in the vibrant Capitol Hill neighborhood, taking over a former truck service center that dates to 1917. Original fir floors, a beamed ceiling dotted with skylights, and an in-house café invite patrons to linger over a cup of the city’s famous joe and browse 120,000 titles. elliottbaybook.com
Crow Bookshop, Burlington, VT
This fixture on bustling Church Street has a penchant for the unexpected: out-of-print titles, academic publications, and lesser-known efforts by big-name authors. Customers wandering its creaky maple floors and ascending its rolling book ladder will also find strong showings in children’s books, cooking and food writing, environmental studies, science, and travel. crowbooks.com
City Lights, San Francisco
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti cofounded this beacon for beatnik culture in 1953, and 60 years on, the three-story North Beach institution retains its alternative edge with subjects ranging from politics and poetry to spirituality and surrealism. Its publishing arm has produced hundreds of titles, including poetry collections by Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti himself. citylights.com
Chapter One Bookstore, Ketchum, ID
A half-block off Main Street in a tiny Sun Valley ski town, this cozy, two-story shop invites patrons to curl into an easy chair among stacks of local and regional titles. A large collection of rare and out-of-print Hemingway works pays homage to the author who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls here and is buried in the local cemetery. chapteronebookstore.com
Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena, CA
Opened in 1894 by photographer and philanthropist Adam Clark Vroman, this airy two-story shop in the historic Pasadena Playhouse District continues his charitable legacy by donating a portion of each purchase to local causes. SoCal’s oldest indie bookstore features both local history and counterculture. vromansbookstore.com
Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver
Housed in a turn-of-the-century distribution warehouse in Lower Downtown, this Mile High City mainstay oozes historic charm, with soaring timbered ceilings and antique furniture nestled into book-lined nooks and crannies. About 80,000 titles include impressive travel, children’s, and fiction departments, as well as an increasing commitment to self-published authors. tatteredcover.com