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
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.