Top 10 Bookstores in San Francisco

I thought it was well time that this self-proclaimed San Francisco book blog named the ten best bookstores in San Francisco. This is a work in progress because there’s always more to discover– you don’t really know a city until you know its bookstores.

1. Dog Eared Books, 900 Valencia St, the Mission
My favorite in the city. Located on Valencia Street’s mini bookstore row (even though Modern Times has moved, and there’s really only two bookstores there now, I still think of it that way), Dog Eared stands out as best place to browse. It has a fantastic selection of used literature, philosophy, critical theory, political science, history, and more. The aesthetic is rustic and pleasant—wood slats with block lettering divide each topic, and the floor is a soothingly creaky amassment of planks. Every trip here is a little bit of inspiration in my day.
PAIR WITH: Some Ritual Coffee and a thrift store visit.


2.
City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave, North Beach
One of the most famous bookstores in San Francisco, City Lights is a symbol of the city’s Beat movement, as demonstrated by the black bumper stickers that adorn many Bay Area fenders reading “HOWL if you love City Lights.” It’s a wonderful multi-level experience of crammed bookshelves, including a pin-quiet basement with couches and critical theory. City Lights also has its own independent book press and, of course, holds plenty of interesting literary events commensurate with its hallowed status. If a famous person goes to a bookstore in San Francisco, it’s likely you’ll see them here. Drawback: It’s right in between downtown and North Beach, so it’s not easy to get to by foot or transit.
PAIR WITH: Dinner at a tourist Italian restaurant.

Photo credit: Northbeachshop.com

3. Modern Times Bookstore, 2919 24th St, the Mission
A “progressive resource” bookstore, Modern Times’ offerings lean towards activist, Marxist, and generally political literature, though they offer more mundane things as well. It was once located on Valencia in a nice little row with Dog Eared and Borderlands, but is now further down 24th St in the southern part of the Mission. A good walk from BART, but worth it, especially if you stop at Alley Cat on the way.
PAIR WITH: Philz or something from La Victoria Bakery.


4. Borderlands Books, 866 Valencia St, the Mission
The best (maybe the only) exclusively sci-fi and fantasy bookstore I’ve been to. It’s a gorgeous little hideaway that, without going campy, exudes a kind of antique, musty, period air. Endless rows of paperback series with authors’ names in square-edged neon-colored font, plus the occasional ornate hardcover, makes for perfect browsing if you’re looking for a hard-to-find installment. There’s also two hairless cats that live in back and occasionally wander out, which for me was a really fun WTF moment the first time I was there. Bonus: Borderlands Café is attached, which, alas, has no Wi-Fi—but then I think that’s the point. Take a book.
PAIR WITH: A long leisurely read in the Borderlands Café.


5. Phoenix Books, 3957 24th St, Noe Valley

Owned by the same folks that own Dog Eared, it’s not quite as inspiring as its predecessor but still a nice little place on a nice little street in Noe Valley. Make it a part of your shopping-and-coffee trip on 24th Street—lots of boutiques, flower shops, bakeries, and music stores nearby.
PAIR WITH: A new blouse from Sway or a beer at the Dubliner.

6. Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St, the Mission
Also part of the Dog Eared family, it’s located south of Mission Street near the new Modern Times location. This is the newest addition in the chain and the only time I went it was still under construction, but it’s bigger than the others with the same charming, cavalier-artsy aesthetic.
PAIR WITH: Philz and a visit to Modern Times.

7. Christopher’s Books, 1400 18th St, Potrero Hill
This is a cute little corner store on Potrero Hill’s answer to a main drag. They don’t really deal in used books, which is a major drawback, but it’s nice for browsing and has a sweet neighborhood feel to it. Bonus points for the best branded bookstore bookmark I’ve come across.
PAIR WITH: Some Goat Hill Pizza.

8. BookShop, 80 West Portal Ave, West Portal
Part of a Bay Area chain, the BookShop in West Portal is quaint and cozy but like Christopher’s deals mostly in new books, so doesn’t tend to be cost-effective. It’s worth a stop if you’re ever taking the MUNI from West Portal (a major west side hub) and find yourself wandering the cute little street immediately adjacent to it.
PAIR WITH: Brunch at Squat & Gobble.

Photo credit: 10best.com.

9. Alexander Book Company, 50 2nd St, Downtown
This long and narrow shop just a skip and a jump south of Market Street is a nice little haven from the city outside. On weekdays, you can get a quiet browse in at your lunch hour or as you duck out of the hordes of migrating businesspeople on the sidewalks. On weekends, unfortunately, it tends to be closed, just like all of the lunch places in the immediate vicinity. A busy weekday stop.
PAIR WITH: Your lunch break Starbucks or Sushirrito.

Photo credit: city-data.com.

10. Books Inc, 601 Van Ness Ave, Civic Center
Books Inc is a huge Bay Area chain and there are four locations in San Francisco alone. This is the one I’ve frequented the most, due to its central location near City Hall, not far from Hayes Valley and Japantown, on busy Van Ness Avenue. Note that this isn’t the best area: one time when I was there, the employee who rang me up had just come in from warding off a physically threatening homeless man, not before instructing another employee to call the police. But such is city life. Bonus: There’s a Peet’s attached.
PAIR WITH: A visit to the Asian Art Museum.

Photo credit: Librarything.com.

I haven’t been to every bookstore in the city (though it’s a goal), so yes, there’s probably a couple missing from here (Green Apple and the Booksmith come to mind). Do leave a comment if you feel like I missed something, or if you have your own bookstore recommendations to make! A good bookstore is a priceless discovery.

UPDATE 8/15/13
11. Green Apple Books, 506 Clement St., the Richmond
This was a more recent discovery, and it really deserves to be higher up than #11 (I would put it at #3 or #4 now), so I’ve updated this post to include this venerable city book location. Green Apple is a bit hard to get to– you need to drive or endure far too long on MUNI to get out to this western beachside neighborhood, and shop’s exterior on Clement is pretty unimpressive (a green awning, with two entrances– divided in half, oddly, by a beauty salon), but inside you’ll find a wealth of book treasures. A windy, cramped, exciting first floor gives way via creaky staircase to a library-like second floor, and the second entrance takes you to long walls crammed with fiction titles. Definitely worth a visit.
PAIR WITH: Joe’s Ice Cream and a hike at Land’s End
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18 responses

  1. […] up on my popular (kind of) post of the 10 best bookstores in San Francisco, and as an East Bay resident of almost two years, I’ve decided to tackle the East Bay’s best […]

  2. Bird & Beckett Books – a great little bookstore in Glen Park http://www.bird-beckett.com with live jazz Friday eve and Sunday afternoon. Destination Bakery across the street has excellent desserts and Cheese Boutique a half block down has home-made huummas and halvah.

  3. No SF bookstore list is complete without Bird & Beckett, which, despite its relatively small size, should probably be in any top five given the carefully curated selection, homey feel, and awesome owners.

  4. You should have Bird and Beckett in this list.

  5. Please add Bird and Beckett in Glen Park, the best bookstore in California. Plus, live jazz every Friday from 5:30 to 8 and live jazz or americana every Sunday from 4:30 to 6:30. http://www.birdbeckett.com/

  6. Thank you. This is very helpful.

  7. Sounds like you don’t get around a lot or are a lazy “reporter.” Claiming that things are hard to get to? In SF? And leaving out Green Apple. Hmm…

  8. Green Apple – beachside? Really? It’s in the heart of the city on Clement at 6th – at least two miles from the ocean. And hard to get to? It’s on a major street, and on several major bus lines. Many booklovers consider it to be centrally located.

  9. Bird and Beckett needs to be added but nice list and I also love dog eared. kudos

  10. Green Apple is not “beachside,” but on Clement & 6th Ave. The Annex (that second entrance) also carries CDs, DVDs, and vinyl along with a plethora of magazines.

  11. Thidwick Books on Clement Street is pretty awesome too.

  12. Pickwicks is back on Clement Street and is a great book store.

  13. Readers Bookstore, Fort Mason Center (EXCELLENT, though frankly not as good as the Berkeley Public Library Bookstore just off Telegraph Ave.

    Location

    Building C, Room 165
    Fort Mason Center
    San Francisco, CA, 94123
    415-771-1076
    Open every day 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.*

  14. Great list, Liz. My top two would be the same as yours, and I too love the bookstore in Fort Mason. Sadly, there have been changes since you wrote this to the makeup of one or two of your selections – Phoenix has been replaced with an inferior version in my view and Borderlands has just had a stay of execution.

    Time perhaps for a review of the list?

    I only came across your blog today, but I look forward to reading a lot more of it!

    Tony

  15. Great list! Do any of these stores specifically sell used books? Or a combination of both? Thanks!

  16. Bird and Beckett is happening in Glen Park and Dog Eared I love too..

  17. IT IS SAD THAT STACY’S CLOSED. IT WAS SUCH A GREAT BOOKSTORE AND WAS AROUND FOR ALMOST A CENTURY.

  18. Good list, though glad to see you added Green Apple (and yes I would consider it near the top of the list). Also, as others have mentioned, Bird and Becket deserves to not only be on the list but near the top. Finally a great book store that seems to get neglected too often in lists is The Green Arcade on Market (http://www.thegreenarcade.com).

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