I spent about forty-five minutes at Moe’s the other day, and it reminded me of every single reason that I love being in bookstores (aptly as I just, by the powers vested in me as overseer of this blog, named it the #1 Bookstore in the East Bay). It’s not something I’d maybe put into words before, and it’s more than the fact that they’re filled with books, which one can subsequently purchase. It’s because a good bookstore visit is like a portal to the entire interior world.
As someone who can be kind of introverted, unadventurous, a homebody, the world can sometimes feel small. On especially hermit-y weekends it’s about the size of my apartment. (Again: small.) It’s also the size of my routine: the sidewalks that take me to work, the bus stops I wait at, the lunch spots I go to, the cubicle I somehow spend forty hours a week inside of. It’s no bigger than my regular news sources, and email, and Facebook. It’s the people I deign to see on a regular basis.
So imagine how delightful and how freeing it is to step into a space where tangential un-thought-of worlds open and explode around you, in unexpected ways. You pull a book off a shelf and it’s like you suddenly see, not just what’s on the page but everything that page implies, everything it could potentially lead to—consecutive nights of reading, long philosophical discussions, knowledge of untold unthought-of things. An entire hinted-at world. Opening and exploding.
It’s the next best thing to skydiving. Or seizing the day, the way they do in, like, pharmaceutical commercials.
At Moe’s, we spent forty-five minutes on the basement level and never even made it to the second floor (fiction). And it was still enough to inspire this blog post. Moe’s basement level—which is more like Floor negative-0.5, because it’s just a few steps down from the entrance—has a substantial music section, some children’s literature, critical theory, and a bunch of fiction that for some reason is not on the second floor (fiction).
Where to begin. There were full Wagnerian opera scores. There was loose sheet music from old Hollywood films dating from 1933. There was a two-volume set of Mozart’s letters, PUBLISHED IN 1866. ($65 for the set.) There was a multi-volume collection of Henry James works. There were children’s books from when I was a child (the self-same edition of The Secret Garden that I had/still have). There were children’s books from when my parents were children (or at least youngish: an original printing of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1974). There were children’s books from when really old and/or dead people were children (Folk Tales from the Far East, 1927, with illustrations).
There were compact, modest new paperbacks with stunning artwork of Ray Bradbury’s best-loved novels. There was a full shelf of Vonnegut. There were Beatles guitar fake books.
EVERYTHING ONE COULD WANT. If by “everything” you mean more than one could possibly hope to conceive of in one forty-five-minute period, what with the limitations of the human mind and all that. A finite “everything,” but subjectively, still, everything.
And you leave thinking, buzzing, full of ideas and subjects and fodder for your theories, big and small, grandiose and mundane (I like both kinds). You come away more than you were.
And I could not, conceivably, come away empty-handed in such a situation, even though I’ve been trying to limit my book purchasing in anticipation of a very big upcoming move. I left with the sheet music for “Love Songs of the Nile” from talking picture The Barbarian (for my Orientalist music collection, of course), the aforementioned Folk Tales from the Far East collected by one Charles H. Meeker (who in 1927 was apparently a high school history teacher in Florida, formerly a teacher in the Philippines—for my old book/Orientalist book collection, of course), and The Martian Chronicles.
Here’s pictures of Orientalia and otherness that I encountered on this wonderland-freaking-visit. And The Martian Chronicles.
Following 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 bookstores. To be fair, when I say “East Bay” I’m really only talking Berkeley and Oakland, since those are the only places I go (and, you know, the most interesting parts anyway). If you have suggestions to add from more remote East Bay cities—Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Hayward, et al—please forward. Or if you think I missed any in Berkeley and Oakland, please forward as well! Disclaimer: All best-of list are totally subjective and subject to vehement disagreement.
1. Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley
Legendary bookstore on Berkeley’s equally legendary Telegraph Avenue. (Note: Telegraph Avenue is also the name of a recent Michael Chabon novel, though the release party was a few blocks up and over on College Avenue—see #6.) The first day I went to Moe’s, there was a fire down the street. It was my birthday, November 20th, 2011. I had just moved to Berkeley, and my dad, who went to UC Berkeley in the 1970s and lived right off Telegraph, claimed there were two bookstores you needed to go to in Berkeley, and one of them was gone (Cody’s). Moe’s was the other. I guess my point is, it was a fateful, apocalyptic-y day– and Moe’s did not disappoint. There are four floors of books—and before floor two I was already bowled over by the critical theory and music sections on floor one. Fiction and history reside further up, and on the top floor is an antiquarian bookstore, something I have no use for as a consumer but I love to look around in anyway.
PAIR WITH: Amoeba Records and some low-end college grub (which abounds).
2. Half Price Books, 2036 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Half Price is part of a massive nationwide chain, headquartered in Dallas of all places, so I was hesitant to put it here. But because it’s a used bookstore and because I’ve gotten a whole freaking lot of use out of it, I decided to bestow it with second place recognition. I literally end up here all the time. It’s huge, spacious, utilitarian, unpretty, and full to the brim of cheap and completely serviceable books. Just today I popped in with no intention to buy and was sorely tempted by a $5 Emily Bronte, a $6 Lorrie Moore, and a $7 Henry Miller. (Only left with Lorrie Moore.) If you’re more concerned with quantity of books than quality of space, go here. It’s worth it. Though I hear their buy back rate is pretty abysmal.
PAIR WITH: Phil’s Sliders and a nerd visit to Games of Berkeley.
3. Walden Pond Books, 3316 Grand Ave., Oakland
This used-and-new bookstore is just right. Not too big, not too small. Not too esoteric, not too mainstream. With just the right dash of Oakland-style anarchism. It’s one of those bookstores where, wandering between the stacks into some hushed, dusty back corner, I’ve become quietly enchanted—a bookstore it factor. Walden Pond has it. (That’s no small compliment.) Speaking of Oakland, if you’re one of those folks who thinks Oakland is scary and inaccessible, 1) you’re wrong, and 2) this is one of the dozens of areas you should come to to be proven wrong. The Grand Lake area has a historic theater, charming restaurants, and a good mix of yuppie chains and indie storefronts, plus a big ass lake for your lake-related activities pleasure.
PAIR WITH: A long stroll-slash-hike around Lake Merritt.
4. Pegasus Books, 2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Pegasus is a lovely three-location East Bay chain, though I’ve mostly frequented this one in downtown Berkeley. The Shattuck location feels like a very large room and the outside is electric blue. I always head straight for the raised loft-ish area in the back, which carries fiction, history, social science, and ethnic studies—in addition to my regular reading, I’ve found at least two straight up historical, as in pre-1910, printings here for my collection. One of these was discovered in a bargain box sitting outside of the store. Also, last time I was there, they were selling a complete World Book encyclopedia collection. Bonus points for nostalgic elementary school library flashback.
PAIR WITH: Buttermilk fried chicken and mashed sweet potatoes at Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen (maybe browse here while waiting forever to get seated?)
5. Shakespeare & Co., 2499 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley
Of course this doesn’t come close to its namesake (?) in Paris, which I had the great honor of visiting in January 2012, but it does to an extent replicate French Shakespeare & Co.’s musty old library aesthetic. Maybe that’s why they wouldn’t let me bring my coffee in (but there’s a Peet’s right across the street—bookstores and coffee go together!). This version is also slightly more spacious-feeling, in that it has tall ceilings and you can spread your arms without hitting a bunch of super old books. But there’s just enough of that old timey old book charm to make it worth repeated browsings.
PAIR WITH: Peet’s (after you’re done) and a thrifted sweater from Buffalo Exchange.
6. Diesel Books, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Diesel, located in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, has a hip, urban feel to it, and the space is clean and decidedly unhaphazard. I chalk this up to its SoCal roots (the only other two locations are in LA)—following this logic there must be an aesthetic break between North and South, where NorCal favors things like wood and block letter prints and messiness while SoCal/Diesel favor industrial flooring and tidy arrangements. I prefer the former, but the latter is still nice. I was first introduced to Diesel because they temporarily transformed into “Brokeland Records” for the opening of Berkeley resident Michael Chabon’s new book Telegraph Avenue, so they clearly have some cool author and book events too.
PAIR WITH: Upscale window shopping, wine bars, and Zachary’s Pizza
7. Builders Booksource, 1817 Fourth St., Berkeley
Builders Booksource is an art and architecture bookstore, and I am neither artist nor architect. Yet I enjoy every visit. In one of those visits, I purchased one of the few “art” books I actually own, a photography collection called Paris in Color. Builders recently downsized to half of its original space, but continues to hold strong on Berkeley’s bustlingly adorable Fourth Street. Every time I pop in, I’m inspired by something or other—last time it was a photography collection of Islamic-inspired architecture in America. Road trip idea!
PAIR WITH: Chartreuse and orange furniture browsing at CB2, Crate & Barrel Outlet et. al., a structured/deconstructed top from Anthropologie, and a slice of pizza margherita from Bette’s To Go
8. University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
This long, narrow little bookstore across from the UC Berkeley campus has a great selection of university press (hence!) books, with tall, impressive bookshelves and an academic air. Having once aspired to work at a university press (Stanford or University of California would have sufficed, though Columbia would be a dream), I find their entire premise exciting. The website notes that they aim to stock “an intellectual and literary realm of infinite richness, ever renewing,” which is also pretty exciting. In short, good finds.
PAIR WITH: A walk to and from the Campanile and a classical music-scored coffee at Musical Offering
9. A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland
Besides having a great good adjective-laden proper-English-be-damned name, A Great Good Place for Books also has a sweet little space in Oakland’s tony Montclair neighborhood, a super helpful staff, and an adorable small-town local feel (when I was there, a little girl came in to find a gift for her friend, and the cashier said, “Oh I can tell you what she has, she was in here yesterday”). It’s very small—basically a long room laden with a fiction/nonfiction wall, and then a quaint back area for children’s books—but they make the most of their space. Also, side note, all of the storefronts in this area have thatched-ish European-y Disneyland-esque roofs. Too cute.
PAIR WITH: I haven’t been, but “The Montclair Egg Shop”? A must try. Also several cute ice cream places in the vicinity.
10. Books Inc., 1760 Fourth St., Berkeley
This Bay Area mega-chain was also on my San Francisco list, mostly because they are ubiquitous and reliable and still smaller than Barnes & Noble. My personal Books Inc. is the one on Fourth Street, simply because it’s close to my house. It’s small but inviting, with large glass doors and very helpful clerks who make reasonably good recommendations. And they don’t mind all the (countless) times I’ve come in “just to browse.” Down side: I’ve had a Frequent Buyer card for over a year and still haven’t gotten a free book. Can they lower the “buy ___, get one free” threshold just a bit?
PAIR WITH: Travel luggage ogling/trip fantasizing at Flight 001, then picking up some handmade ravioli to take home from The Pasta Shop
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This past weekend, Diesel Books in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood (the independent chain has two other locations, both in Southern California) “transformed” into a record store to celebrate the debut of Michael Chabon’s new book, Telegraph Avenue, a novel set in a record store on the historic street just a few blocks away. They also held a party with Chabon himself last night, where the entrance fee was the cost of one autographed copy of the book. Conveniently, Chabon, who I read for the first time earlier this year, lives in Berkeley. We’re pretty much neighbors who’ve never met.
My friends and I popped by on Sunday, and I’d hoped to pick up a copy, but they were apparently sold out for the party. Still, it was kind of a treat to see the cute independent bookstore partly decked out in record store logos, complete with some records to sift through when you walk in the door. Mostly jazz. If I had a record player, I would’ve walked out of there with a nice Monk compilation. Thelonious, not Adrian.
Instead of Monk or Telegraph Ave, I walked out with a lovely hardcover Mansfield Park to add to my growing Jane Austen collection. And then– in part because it was $20– I declared a moratorium on book buying for a month. We’ll see how that goes.
My favorite bookstore-themed video by my favorite nerdy Scottish indie band. “Wrapped Up in Books” as found on Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) and the Books EP (2004).
I Still Heart Stuart Murdoch.
I used to treat bookstore bookmarks like glorified receipts. Ironically, I do sometimes use receipts as bookmarks. I also use coupons, tickets, and most recently an Air France in-flight menu, with a pretty red design, that just, you know, works (3 books and counting). But now, I appreciate branded bookstore bookmarks for what they are: relics of a bookstore pilgrimage. Or to be less idolatrous, souvenirs of a bookstore vacation. Each one contains some visual essence of the place it represents. Like these: Modern Times’ bookmark is red-fringed, bold-themed, and has a bulging brain-book-heart logo, apropos of its lefty political leanings. Half Price’s is long, bright, and utilitarian, apropos of its quantity-over-quality business model (but it must be working, ’cause I already have six or seven of these lying around). Dog Eared’s is an unorthodox wide rectangle with a frenetic dog graphic, which suits the overall aesthetic of the place, with its block-letter wood-panel shelf signs and its window full of artistic renderings of the interesting recently deceased.
My favorite in my collection, so far, is the Christopher’s Books bookmark, which in a lovely font invites you to “explore the ancient art of page turning” and, old encyclopedia-style, shows you three fig.s with accompanying illustrations.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not an artist– my best medium is probably collage, and I can throw together some pretty spiffy collages, though saying you’re good at collage is kind of like saying you’re good at alphabetizing… who cares? (I am also good at alphabetizing.)– but I appreciate me some good bookmark design. And now, I’ve come to expect a branded bookmark when I make a purchase at an independent bookstore.
Which is why I was a little disappointed when I made some impulse buys at the Alexander Book Co. in downtown SF yesterday. When I got home, I dug around my bag with anticipation but all I found were the two books I bought (Sense and Sensibility and Jane Eyre, btw) and two wispy receipts. It was like that feeling when you get a gift bag and you pull out the contents but you expected more, so you rummage through every last bunch of tissue paper just in case (surreptitiously, if the person who gave you the bag in question is present). Alexander Book Co. did try to make up for their lack of branded bookmark by having a branded plastic bag, which says “EAT SLEEP READ” in big purple letters and thanks you for shopping independent. But it’s a poor substitute. Plastic bags will never be cute. And you can’t use them in your books.