The best bookstores in San Francisco

Whatever you’re hunting for, you’ll find inspiration among the shelves of San Francisco's best bookstores
City Lights
City Lights
By Lauren Sheber |
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San Francisco has long been known as a literary city, from the famously counterculture City Lights to the arrival of Browser Books in the ‘70s. In the ensuing years, dozens of bookstores have cropped up to serve communities across the city, spanning Potrero Hill to the Outer Sunset. Some specialize in sci-fi and horror; others in hidden-gem cookbooks; still others in rare design tomes. Whatever you’re hunting for, you’ll find inspiration among these shelves.

Bookstores in San Francisco

1
Black Bird Bookstore
Photograph: Yelp/Jess W.
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Black Bird Bookstore

icon-location-pin Outer Sunset

Set in an intimate, 900-square-foot space, this Outer Sunset newcomer opened in 2017. Now you can nab a book alongside a cup of Trouble Coffee while waiting for a table at Outerlands. (The Trouble parklet out front has become a popular spot for reading on sunny days.) Black Bird owner Kathryn Grantham comes with a literary pedigree: She was formerly the founder of New York’s famed feminist collective bookshop, Bluestockings. This airy, uncrowded space is thoughtfully curated, showcasing fewer than 300 titles. Rather than dusty, packed shelves, you’ll find a thoughtful selection of contemporary fiction and nonfiction, most displayed alongside handwritten notes from the staff. In back, a treehouse mural stretches over the sizeable children’s section. Stop by for free kids’ storytime every Saturday at 9:30am.

2
Green Apple Books
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Green Apple Books

icon-location-pin Inner Richmond

Green Apple Books on Clement Street was founded in 1967 as a 750-square-foot used-book nook. Since then, it has steadily upsized, taking over several storefronts on a block of the misty Inner Richmond surrounded by Chinese restaurants and grocers. One bi-level storefront houses all new books, including an excellent section of staff picks and quirky categorizing designations. Two doors down, the used book arm of Green Apple is a little quieter, inviting lingering. The shelves are lined with dusty tomes—hardcover and paperback, popular and rare—and the aisles are moodily lit by overhead skylights. Finds might range from antique classics and rare first editions to sixties-era comic books and graphic novels. In 2014, the mini-chain opened a third location near Golden Gate Park. The newest Green Apple outpost is spacious and modern, known for new fiction and nonfiction releases. The Parkside store hosts regular readings and author events, including heavy-hitters like Jennifer Egan, Lauren Groff, Sloane Crosley, and Dave Eggers.

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3
City Lights
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City Lights

icon-location-pin Chinatown

For over 60 years, City Lights Bookstore has been a mainstay of free-speech and radical ideas. Co-founded in 1953 by poet-artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who, at 98, still keeps the candle dripping over the chianti bottle), it was here that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems was first published, putting the Beat Generation on the map. The creaky wooden bookstore and publishing house is still a center of progressive politics and indie literary voices, which it stocks alongside a huge inventory of new and used fiction and nonfiction. You’ll find the shop on the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley (so named after being renovated and reopened to the public in 2007) and across from the Vesuvio Cafe, the bar where Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat heavyweights once held court.

4
Booksmith
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The Booksmith

icon-location-pin Upper Haight

This cheery bookstore near Golden Gate Park offers a welcome respite from the head shops and tie-dye tourist traps along Haight Street. Owner Christin Evans also runs Arts & Letters, Berkeley’s author event program, and Booksmith is known for hosting a full schedule of readings, signings, and book parties. (In particular, it’s lauded for the Shipwreck series the first Thursday of every month, wherein six writers rewrite cult classic books for comedic effect.) Thoughtful staff recommendations are scattered liberally throughout the shelves. The bookstore that goes above and beyond in a number of categories, whether it’s the expansive kids section, hard-to-find international magazine editions, or the beautiful range of coffee table tomes. But locals swear by the customer service. If for some reason they don’t have what you’re looking for—a rarity—they’ll order it on the spot and call you in a day or two when it arrives.

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5
Dog Eared Books
Photograph: Cammie Toloui
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Dog Eared Books

icon-location-pin Mission

With the storefront splashed in colorful murals, windows lined with pulp paperbacks, and vibrant papel picado banners draped overhead, this 20-year-old bookstore in the heart of the Mission is very much a reflection of its surrounding community. Signs designating the genres are hand-lettered, and the shelves are dotted with stickers left behind by self-promoting browsers. The store sells both used and new books, and the long tables in the center of the store bear deals on both. Though the emphasis here is on local authors, small presses, and the Beats, a little bit of everything is interspersed throughout. (Up front, kids books and journals; in back, art, travel, and design.) The paintings displayed above the bookshelves are for sale, as well—all the work of local artists, of course. Dog-Eared Books’ Castro sister-store is smaller, but similarly community-driven. That location hosts an LGBT book club every month, as well as a Perfectly Queer Reading Series.

6
Alley Cat Books
Photograph: Yelp/Anjelica K
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Alley Cat Books

icon-location-pin Mission

This trove of new and used books opened in the Mission in 2011. Owner Kate Rosenberger got her start working at Half Priced Books in Berkeley; now, in addition to Alley Cat, she owns both Dog Eared Books stores in the Mission and Castro. Rosenberger is also a painter and it shows in the decor: The space is artful and inviting, dotted with art, masks,and hand-lettered signs. You’ll find well-stocked sections for philosophy, music (from jazz to punk), cookbooks, history, politics, queer and feminist issues, and more. A white-walled, sun-flooded gallery takes over the rear of the store, where Rosenberger displays the work of local artists. The area doubles as a gathering space for poetry and lit readings, screenings, writing and art workshops, book clubs, and special events.

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7
Christopher's Books
Photograph: Yelp/Timothy Y.
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Christopher's Books

icon-location-pin Potrero Hill

This store was founded by namesake Christopher Ellison in 1991; Tee Minot started working the register the following year. Minot bought the bookstore outright in 1996 and has been its proprietor for the past 25 years. Though small, it’s well-curated, with an impressive selection of fiction, mysteries, and cookbooks, as well as books on politics, culture, photography, and history. Minot prides herself on having recommendations ready for any request—staff members are happy to make special orders. Bonus: It’s a great place to kill time while in the hours-long brunch queue for Plow.

8
Browser Books
Photograph: Yelp
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Browser Books

icon-location-pin Pacific Heights

This bookstore has been a Fillmore Street mainstay since 1976; owner Stephen Damon started out as assistant manager there in 1978. The vibe is akin to a comfortable home library, with low lighting, a smattering of art, and colorful area rugs underfoot. (The store’s motto: “You’ll not only find the book you want, you’ll enjoy looking for it.”) The spot is known for its fiction and literature sections—new releases and staff picks are displayed on large tables up front. In addition, you’ll find a robust assortment of books on religion, philosophy, and poetry. (Damon is also an ordained Zen priest.) In 2018, Damon was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease and the bookstore faltered financially; luckily, the community rose up around him, raising $75,000 in a Go Fund Me campaign to save (and renovate) their beloved neighborhood bookstore.

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9
Omnivore Books
Photograph: Yelp/Allison S.
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Omnivore Books

icon-location-pin Noe Valley

As the name suggests, Omnivore Books focuses on one subject: food (though it makes certain allowances for drink). Owner Celia Sack is a native San Franciscan who became interested in old cookbooks while working as a rare book specialist at an auction house. (Naturally, her mother was also an avid cook.) Sack’s stash includes new, antique, and collectible cookbooks—all sorted by country and region—as well as fiction and nonfiction books on the growing, raising, and making of food. In particular, Sack specializes in small publishers and cookbooks from far-flung places like Estonia and Kerala. In January 2017, when President Trump imposed a travel ban on citizens from  Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, Sack’s storefront window touted titles like The Aleppo Cookbook and the Iraqi Family Cookbook. The store hosts weekly events and cooking demonstrations, which often include tastings.

10
Book Passage
Photograph: Yelp/Ann L.
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Book Passage

icon-location-pin SoMa

Book Passage originated in Corte Madera in 1976 and launched a sister store across the Bay in 2003. (A third location, in Sausalito, opened in 2017.) The San Francisco outpost is a a stunner, tucked in the Ferry Building with big windows overlooking the bay. On Saturdays, it’s swarmed by shoppers from the Farmer’s Market; on weekdays, it regularly hosts readings by writers like Michael Chabon and Andrew Sean Greer. Between the Corte Madera and San Francisco stores, Book Passage puts on more than 500 writers events every year. Co-owners Bill and Elaine Petrocelli pack the shelves with an assortment of new and used books spanning politics and history to fiction and classic lit.

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11
Borderlands Books
Photograph: Yelp/ Xuwqi H.
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Borderlands Books

icon-location-pin Mission Dolores

While many SF bookstores are generalists, Borderlands fills a much-needed niche: it only carries new and used sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, and horror titles. The longtime space on Valencia Street is moody and atmospheric, its shelves lit by lamps and store cats prowling he aisles. Longtime owner Alan Beatts organizes author readings, a QSF&F Book Club (for sci-fi-loving LGBTQ readers), and a Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club. After a brush with closure in 2015, Borderlands enacted a $100-a-year customer sponsorship program; more than 500 loyal customers signed up. In 2018, Beatts announced that he had crowdfunded $1.9 million to purchase the former Recycled Records storefront at 1377 Haight Street, which will serve as Borderlands Books permanent home when its Valencia Street lease runs out.

12
William Stout Architectural Books
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William Stout Architectural Books

icon-location-pin Jackson Square

For 20 years, William Stout has been the bookstore design junkies go to for their fix. Stout, a former architect himself, started out selling European design books from his apartment. Through the years, his shop has doubled a salon of sorts for the creative community; Stout seems to know every architect in town. The bi-level store offers over 20,000 titles spanning architecture, urban planning, art, and design (industrial, landscape, interior, furniture, graphic, and beyond), dramatically backed by lipstick-red accent walls. Artists and design professionals pour over the art, typography, and graphic design tomes downstairs; design lovers and lay people sigh in envy as they flip through shelter porn on the upper level. The tomes here are pricey—many run $50 and up—but are akin to objets d’ art themselves.

Time Out says
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