San Francisco harbors a specialty bookstore for every literary leaning—the city has almost as many bookstores as bars. There is an entire bookstore devoted to architecture, for example (William Stout). Another one, Omnivore Books, exclusively shelves tomes on food and drink. Nerve centers of the thriving literary scene, some of the best bookstores in San Francisco—including the Booksmith and legendary Beat landmark City Lights—host regular readings. Events like Litquake and Writers with Drinks at venues like the Mission bar Make-Out Room are paired with booze for a party atmosphere. The beloved Adobe Books, which was shuttered then resuscitated as a cooperative in 2013, doubles as a collaborative and performance space for artists and musicians.
San Francisco’s best bookstores
Since 1953, City Lights has been a San Francisco institution. Situated in North Beach, just off the seedy strip of Broadway, the shop feels like a small piece of history. The Beats are the shop's patron saints, and quotes and photos of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg are displayed throughout the store. (Quotes also gleam underfoot in the adjacent alleyway, like a counterculture yellow brick road). It's a beautiful space, with arched doorways, vintage art and light filtering in through large east-facing windows. It's not uncommon for regulars to settle into a sunny corner with a book. Beat literature and poetry is housed upstairs, while current literature, fiction and nonfiction is shelved on the main floor. Many of the staff picks have progressive political leanings, as you might expect from a shop where posters read “Eat, sleep, read, provoke,” and “A literary Habitat for Humanity.” It's not just a bookstore—it's a legacy.
Green Apple Books 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. (“Lowbrow,” reads one.) Head upstairs to browse an assortment of board games, journals, stationery and novelty gifts. Two doors down, the used-book arm of Green Apple is a little quieter, inviting lingering. The well-appointed shelves are lined with dusty tomes—hardcover and paperback, popular and rare—and the aisles are moodily illuminated by skylights. Finds might range from antique classics and rare first editions to 1960s-era comic books and graphic novels. In 1996, Green Apple took over its financially strapped neighbor, Revolver Records, knocked down a wall, and turned the shop room into a section for new and used records, CDs and DVDs.
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, each including a short reader's pitch. This is a 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.
With a 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 offer 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 store's managers are attuned to the neighborhood's desires, whether the well-stocked LGBT section or the glossy design quarterlies. Look up: The paintings displayed above the bookshelves are for sale as well—all the work of local artists, of course.
Former architect William Stout started selling European design books from his apartment in the 1970s. Today, his bi-level store offers more than 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 pore 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 to $50 and up—but are akin to objets d'art themselves.