Note: These are only my opinions and impressions of bookstores, book fairs, book sales, and/or other book-related events I’ve visited. I am not reviewing or ranking them because I’m sure other people will visit these places and have diverging opinions. Everyone has their own ideas and preferences of what a great bookstore should be. If you have a suggestion, feel free to comment on this post and take a look at my bookstore list in progress to make sure your suggestion doesn’t overlap with a place I already know about.
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Readers Bookstore at the Main (30 Grove St, San Francisco, CA) | Website
I really enjoy going to the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library (and anyone with a California address can get a library card, not just in San Francisco!) and one of the perks of this particular library is that they also have a small bookstore here selling some interesting used books. It’s located just inside the Grove Street entrance to the library (and also just a few steps away from the Civic Center BART station), with several shelves and carts of books on all kinds of subjects. These used books are in very good condition, so the prices for them are a little higher, accordingly. If you want to get really cheap books, go to the Donation Book Center sale which occurs monthly.
Zen Center Bookstore (300 Page St, San Francisco, CA) | Website
The San Francisco Zen Center is located in the Fillmore district, a few blocks north of the bus station at the intersection of Gough Street and Market Street. There is extremely limited street parking, but you’ll have to brave it if you are physically unable to walk up a hill—although it goes without saying that if you’re in San Francisco at all, walking and hills are pretty much non-negotiable. The center has a tiny bookstore which mainly consists of an entrance hallway where a few books and greeting cards are displayed near the cashier and then a small alcove-like room decorated with a number of zen and Buddhist knick-knacks. The books on sale are centered on the practice of zen and Buddhism. When I went there, I only took a brief look because it felt extremely crowded and the lady working the register was telling one of the customers that she was going to close early due to the Women’s March and that normally they are only open on Saturdays. That was an interesting bit of news because according to Google, the bookstore is open every day. It could be that the internet got it wrong and conflated the hours of the zen center with the bookstore. At any rate, I felt lucky that I managed to catch it when it was open so I could take a peek.
Isotope – The Comic Book Lounge (326 Fell St, San Francisco, CA) | Website
This comic book store is located in the same neighborhood as the Zen Center, four blocks north. It has a very trendy vibe with a diverse stock of titles ranging from the well-known DC and Marvel to more independent publishers. The store itself felt more like a display room compared to other comic stores I’ve been to which emphasize their inventory more than their curation. However, there is a children’s section in the back (I entered the store at the same time as a hipster dad and his kid did and they made an immediate bee-line to it. They also seemed on good terms with the store proprietor who appeared very trendy himself) and although the upstairs portion of the store was off-limits, I could see that they had superhero decorations on display. Near the front counter was a wall of toilet seat covers illustrated with black Sharpie. I think this place would be great for window shopping (similar to the Amazon store I visited last week in Walnut Creek), but if I had a specific title in mind and wanted instant gratification, I’d look elsewhere.
The Green Arcade (1680 Market St, San Francisco, CA) | Website
If you’re still in the Fillmore neighborhood and got off at the bus stop on Gough and Market, you would have seen that The Green Arcade is right there at the intersection. However, on Saturday when I went there, it was open later at noon so I ended up visiting the other stores above before I made my way back here. Inside the store, there is an enormous vintage sign overhead indicating that the space that the shop now occupies was once a Chinese tailor shop in the early 20th century. It’s an independent with new books, but the inventory is obviously curated—I don’t think the owner is trying to please everyone. The front of the store contains California and San Francisco travel books as well as local history. There are no travel books for any other part of the world that I could find. The rest of the store is dedicated to a seemingly eclectic selection of non-fiction (although there’s a subtle theme going on), a tiny shelf of children’s books in the back, and a back alcove of fiction. I definitely think that if you have a certain reading taste that jives with what’s on offer here (off the beaten path histories, tattoos, beat poetry, noir mysteries, paper mache octopuses), this could easily become your favorite store.
Books Inc. (601 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA) | Website
This particular bookstore is part of several under the same company which bills itself as the oldest independent bookseller in the west. I don’t know when this one was opened since it was not listed on their official timeline on their website, but it is one of several in the Bay Area and the design is modern despite the 1851 start date prominently displayed on the signage. If I had not been actively trying to find this place, however, I could have easily missed it if I were walking by. There’s a lot of construction on the road happening in front of the bookstore and a lot of the foot traffic is also going to the Peet’s Coffee next door. The front of the store mostly displays the new and recent titles as well as stationary and gifts. There is an extensive bargain book section in the back of the store—this was where I also found some Vanity Fair postcards (100 for $10, i.e. 10 cents per card). It’s a good place to go if you want to find a hard copy of a new book or just want to browse. It’s located on the edge of the Fillmore, Laguna Heights, and Civic Center neighborhoods, three blocks north of the Civic Center BART station.
Arkipelago Books (1010 Mission St, San Francisco, CA) | Website
This Filipino bookstore is located South of Market, right between the Civic Center and Powell Street BART stations. Unfortunately, my visit to this bookstore was a fail despite double checking with the hours online AND seeing the list of hours on the door of the Bayanihan Center where the store is located. It was supposed to be open, but despite pressing the button numerous times in an attempt to open the door, the door did not open. Peeking in through the windows, the place appeared dark and closed.
Alexander Book Company (50 2nd St, San Francisco, CA) | Website
This bookstore is located in the Financial District, between the Powell Street and Embarcadero BART stations. This was also a failed visit—but this was not my only failed visit. I’ve tried going to this place several times last year, but it was always closed for some reason or another. This time, they were closed for “inventory” even though their store hours clearly indicated that they were supposed to be open on Saturday. They even had signs recommending other bookstores to visit since they were closed. I may try visiting this place one or two more times before I give up for good.
Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff (2980 Treat Blvd, Concord, CA) | Website
Visiting this place on the same day as the other comic book store (Isotope) is like night and day. I will admit that I like this one a lot more compared to the one I saw earlier in the city. There’s no pretension in being trendy—it’s located in a shopping center next to Trader Joe’s—but there’s plenty of inventory to browse. Along the walls, there are graphic novels organized by well-known authors and the classics. The back wall also includes manga. The shelves on the main floor has graphic novels and comics from a variety of publishers, organized alphabetically by title. The store also sells some collectibles. There’s a lot of variety—I think anyone can find something they like here. Since this store is located in the suburbs of East Bay, I would recommend driving instead of public transportation if you are pressed for time. From I-680, take Exit 48 and drive east for about two miles to the Oak Grove Plaza at the corner of Treat and Oak Grove. If you must take public transportation, get off at the Pleasant Hill BART station and take bus 311 or 15.