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Browsing San Francisco's Best Bookstores 

Wednesday, Oct 7 2015
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Not long ago, the double whammies of the Great Recession and the roll-out of e-books had doomsayers predicting the death of neighborhood bookstores. While that hasn't quite come to pass — although corporate behemoths Waldenbooks and Borders went the way of the dodo — the myth remains pervasive. Just last month, according to a post on the website Literary Hub from local bookseller Stephen Sparks, a New York Times columnist attending the 2015 Bay Area Book Festival was under the impression that only two bookstores remained in all of San Francisco.

In fact, there are many more than two.

The store for which Sparks works, Green Apple Books, has two locations alone. And while it's true bookstores have had to weather a shaky economy, technological disruptions, and — in San Francisco, at least — real estate woes, they're proving up to the task. The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association counts no fewer than 39 bookstores currently doing business in San Francisco. That's an average of one store per square mile, although, yes, some neighborhoods still remain relative book deserts.

Here's a roundup of the city's treasured literary heavyweights and some new favorites, with shelves well worth perusing.

Green Apple Books' new location, on 9th Avenue just south of Golden Gate Park, gives the Inner Sunset a much-needed literary destination. Founded in 2014, Green Apple Books on the Park has quickly established itself as a beacon for international writers seeking a place to read in the Bay Area, while also providing a home for U.S.-based indie wordsmiths. This fall, the store will celebrate everyone from Brazilian diva Clarice Lispector and Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, to African-American talent John Keene and conceptual poet Christian Bök, who in November will discuss his efforts to inscribe poetry into the genetic code of a bacterium. The store boasts an excellent selection of new and used books, while cohabiting with the amazing (but potentially soon-to-close) arts cinema rental store Le Video (just go up the stairs). And don't forget, the flagship Green Apple Books in the Richmond has one of the best selections of used books in the entire Bay Area.

Roughly four miles east, thriving on a funky stretch of Market Street near the Octavia Boulevard onramp of U.S. Highway 101, The Green Arcade has an ambience all its own. Voted SF Weekly's Best New Bookstore in 2010 — and founded by a former buyer for legendary, now defunct Cody's Books — The Green Arcade specializes in California history, along with "green" topics such as design, the environment, cooking, and social justice. With airy, high ceilings, lush decor, and dreamy sunlight filtering through its bank of front windows, the store recalls its namesake Parisian arcades. Its events tend toward the socially informed. Last year, for example, the store hosted income-inequality rock star Thomas Piketty, while upcoming fall events include environmental crusader Jason Mark, plus an ongoing partnership with S.F. Public Press.

Farther east, amid the wasteland of overpriced power lunches, astroturfed brewpubs, and nondescript discount business apparel warehouses that mark the edge of the Financial District, you'll find three whole floors of books at Alexander Book Company. The ground floor greets you with a robust, frequently updated selection of literature, including an eclectic array of staff recs and shelf-talkers, while the basement yields a solid mix of poetry, classics, and global interest, all capped by the top floor's rich stock of travel books.

The Mission may be the San Francisco neighborhood losing its soul the fastest these days, but even egregious rent hikes haven't chased out its best bookstores. Borderlands Books, which specializes in science fiction and fantasy, staved off bankruptcy earlier this year by crowdfunding $30,000 in sponsorships (with Margaret Atwood leading the charge). Dog Eared Books distinguishes itself with a monthly reading group dedicated to the brilliant NYRB Classics series, and across the street, you'll find progressive readings at the worker-owned Modern Times Bookstore Collective. Meanwhile, longstanding indie Adobe Bookshop rebooted itself in a new location on 24th Street as a bookstore and arts collective (via $60,000 in crowdfunding in 2013). In addition to the idiosyncratic selection of literature and arts books at Adobe, there's now also a backroom gallery that doubles as an events space. Just a stone's throw away are Alley Cat and PRESS: Works on Paper, both worth a browse.

Although I've tried to shower praise on some of the lesser-trafficked gems San Francisco has to offer, no bookstore roundup would be complete without at least mentioning two juggernauts: The Booksmith and City Lights. With series like the Shipwreck fan fiction competition and the Bookswaps — not to mention spearheading the re-emergence of Kepler's Books on The Peninsula — The Booksmith has proved itself an energetic fount of novel new takes on what a bookstore can be. City Lights, of course, is hallowed literary ground, a colossus whose publishing division has remained edgy for 60 years, an enviable events series with its ear to the ground, and a flat-out fantastic inventory of books, ranging from a roomful of poetry to shelves crowded with world literature, plus keen curation of new books on film, theory, current events, and more.

All that and we've just scratched the surface. There are the many locations of Books, Inc., as well as Bookshop West Portal in the southwest, Browser Books in the Fillmore (now with a publishing arm), Book Passage in the Ferry Building, and the sprawling selection of discounted books at the SF Public Library–run bookstores at Fort Mason and inside the Main Library.

They're there, and they're waiting for you. Go buy something, already.


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Scott Esposito

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