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peterme’s top bookstores

As someone who lives very much in his head, for me, visiting a good bookstore is like wandering a city. I get lost. I lose all track of time. I forget to eat. It’s not about “getting lost in a book,” or some other romantic notion of literature. I tend towards the non-fiction aisles, where I can engage with a world of ideas – political, scientific, social, cultural, experiential, historic.

Inspired by this article in the Guardian, I thought I’d catalog my favorite bookstores. I’m not nearly as worldly as Mr Mercer, but there are a number of places I find myself returning to as I travel (whether in other cities, or just around the Bay Area).

Green Apple Books
San Francisco, Clement St. just off of 6th Avenue.
Quite possibly my favorite bookstore. Green Apple is a remarkable place for getting lost. I can spend hours roaming the Winchester-Mystery-House-Like aisles, skimming spines, loading myself down with tomes. They also have the best “New Arrivals” shelf of any used book store in San Francisco, often with review copies of new books at way-below cover price.

Powell’s City of Books
Portland’s number one tourist destination, and with good reason. You can take a whole day here, and not wander every aisle. Particularly important in the Powell’s-verse are the specialty bookstores offsite — the science and technology bookstore not far from the main site, and the home and garden store on Hawthorn clear across town.

Moe’s Books
Telegraph Ave, Berkeley
I came to love Moe’s as an undergrad at Cal. As a resident of Berkeley, Moe’s provides a reason for trekking to the otherwise undesirable strip known as Telegraph Ave. Four floors of books, I immediately head to the third — physics, engineering, sociology, film, comix, cognitive science. Thanks to the proximity to Cal, you can find smarty-pants used books here that are difficult to come by otherwise.

Quimby’s Bookstore
My one must-visit destination whenever I return to Chicago. Quimby’s is a shrine to alternative media — zines, indie comix, small press books.

Housing Works Used Books Cafe
Crosby Street, New York, NY.
A welcome respite in the hugger-mugger of Manhattan. Though the selection is small, it’s of good quality, so you’re likely to find something worth getting. A cafe in the back encourages lingering, and all proceeds go to an excellent cause.

St Marks Book Shop
Just off Astor Place, New York, NY.
Mmmmm, edgy. Lodged between NYU and the East Village, the St Marks Book Shop bursts with intellectual tomes, with heavy representation from post-modernism, critical theory, Frenchies, and the like. Its thriving existence surrounded by mega-chain book stores proves that Barnes and Noble’s doesn’t put bookstores out of business — it just puts bad bookstores out of business.

Gotham Book Mart
46th Ave, New York, NY.
The most literary of literary bookstores. Also, home to all things Edward Gorey.

MIT Press Book Store
Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA.
The MIT Press publishes a lot of great stuff, and this book store has it all, along with selections from other publishers as well. Always worth a trip to the “hurt books” shelf, where you can get new titles at remarkable discounts.

Other Bookstores I Like, Just Not As Much As Those Above

Hennessey and Ingalls, Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica
William Stout Books, Montgomery Street, San Francisco
Dog Ear Books, Valencia Street, San Francisco

City I’m Surprised Doesn’t Have A Great Bookstore

Minneapolis. Unless I haven’t found it yet. I’ve seen the stores near the U, and there’s that one in Uptown, but really, for such a culturally vibrant city, it’s surprising that there’s no bookstore mecca. Or maybe I just haven’t found it? Or it’s over in St. Paul?

Please Don’t Mention This Bookstore in the Comments

The Strand, in New York City. I hate the Strand and it’s 8 miles of books. I do not go shopping in order to be endlessly bumped and jostled, nor to sift through piles and piles of crap to get at anything good.


  1. I’m very fond of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge Mass (note that it’s not actually affiliated with Harvard). It’s not huge, but they have wonderful variety and one of the best used / remainder sections I’ve yet found.

  2. Awesome list. Thanks.

    Your first two are my all-time favorites.

    I just revisited Oxford, England and found my former favorite Blackwell’s ( had diminished slightly into a very good, but much more commercial bookseller than I remembered. It still has gobs of books, but it does not have the depth I remember (Powell’s has the pure power of nearly everything in a physical bookstore).

    I also made it to QI ( which is a very small bookstore in the round. It is arranged by theme with fiction, non-fiction, reference, etc. all put next to each other. It is utterly brilliant in that one’s mind begins racing at the new connections placed before you. I found my self browsing and turning and looking at an other section and wondering why a book from another section was not included in that theme or why those themes were not next to each other. I really wish it were a local store for me.

    There used to be some good specialty bookstores around, along the lines of mystery, science fiction, etc., but many have drifted off as the internet took a bite.

  3. What are you favorite libraries? And why?

    50 years ago I couldn’t go to downtown Chicago without hanging out for a couple of hours at the Main Library.

    Today, I don’t think the LAPL catalogue can be much beat, but I do most, almost all, of my browsing online.

  4. yep, that one that shouldn’t be named is certainly one of the most overrated bookstores around, its pretty rare that I actually find what I want there, while St. Marks tends to hit spot on.

    One more well worth the visit in NY: Spoonbill and Sugartown in Williamsburg is a gem, a big super well edited table in the center of the room makes for amazing quick browsing and the shelves are equally packed with quality, especially in the art and architecture areas.

  5. Bookpeople (horrible website) in Austin, Tx used to refer to themselves as “the largest independant bookseller in the US.” Now they are merely “the largest bookstore in Texas” which is still something. And they are still independant.

  6. Stanford University Bookstore – the one in the middle of campus. Full of books too “serious” for your local Barnes and Noble.

  7. Peter, Minneapolis (or more correctly, St. Paul) used to have a really great bookstore, the Hungry Mind. It sold its name to the web firm of the same name, and became Ruminators. The Twin Cities, incidentally, have more independent book publishers than anywhere else in the country, and Hungry Mind/Ruminators was a vital player and purveyor in this scene.

    Hungry Mind was right by Macalester College (and in the neighborhood where I grew up, Macalester-Groveland). It opened its doors in 1970 or 71. It was a wonderful, huge place, and I spent many hours there as a kid, looking at books.

    In 1990, the Hungry Mind building also opened Table of Contents, a fantastic restaurant (my favorite in town) — the kind of place that you never have a bad meal. They’d let you bring books to the table, or wine into the bookstore.

    Hungry Mind also had The Hungry Mind Review, a high-quality book review from a midwestern perspective.

    They were approached in 1999 to sell their name, and decided to do so. They also announced plans for an expansion to Minneapolis, where the new Guthrie Theater was to be built (on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota).

    However, the Guthrie’s move didn’t materialize. The economy crashed. Table of Contents closed its doors and opened another restaurant across the street, Red Fish Blue (which closed a few years later).

    Last year, the Hungry Mind shut down. I was devastated. It’s a store as old as I am, and was a requirement for every visit home.

  8. Oh also: Labyrinth in NYC and New Haven. They just opened their doors in New Haven at the beginning of the semester, and we bought a lot of books there. They sell remainders and cutouts, which is great for a starving student like me.

  9. In England there are two towns devoted entirely to hosting bookshops. One is Hay-on-Wye and is known as “Acres of Books”.

    I do not have the address, but on the highway from Toronto to Kirkland Lake there is a huge warehouse of a bookstore, where you can spend many happy hours finding gems that have been overlooked. I got a good set of Macauley there, and a friend found some obscure volumes of Canadian labor history.


  10. I live in Minneapolis and loved your comment that we have no good bookstores. I’m interested in working with a great national or regional bookstore to entice them to come to Minneapolis. I’m not thinking Barnes & Noble or Borders, we have plenty of those. I’m looking for someone smaller who might be good in this city. I’d really appreciate your ideas on potential bookstores that could come here!


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