Sometimes the best way to understand a town is to visit its best bookstores. These are communal places that offer ideas in a tangible form and a venue for sharing a love of literature. They add substance to shopping districts and reflect the literary passions and history of their communities, making each unique and worth exploring even while on a tight vacation schedule. Whether the books are new or used, rarities or classics, it's hard to beat the rush of discovering a good book at a great price at these best places for bibliophiles across the country.
An outdoor bookstore could only be feasible in a town such as Ojai, an independent-minded hill-country hamlet in sunny Southern California. Richard Bartinsdale started the store almost as a lark, when he decided to build outdoor bookshelves to hold the tomes he couldn't fit inside his home and encouraged people to take the books home and leave whatever coins they could in old coffee canisters. The honor-system policy survives today, with some shelves with 35-cent specials remain available for patrons to browse and buy even when the store is closed. The agreeable weather and communal trust have helped Bart's grow to its current size, with a collection of books numbering near a million.
The Tattered Cover has five locations throughout Denver (including outposts at the airport and Union Station), but the most impressive is in a turn-of-the-century warehouse in the city's LoDo neighborhood, where the rooms are spacious enough and the ceilings high enough to display 80,000 books without feeling cramped. Sections for travel, fiction, and children's literature are particularly impressive, and the antique furniture and cozy internet cafe on the ground floor make this a wonderful place to thumb through a book before making a purchase.
Faulkner House Books occupies the ground floor of a home on New Orleans' Pirate Alley, where William Faulkner lived when he completed his first novel in 1925. First editions from the famous Southern author and many other local favorites line the walls of this charming bookstore in the heart of the French Quarter, where affordable fun is abundant. Brick floors and antique furniture keep the Old World charm alive, and the friendly staff members offer helpful insights for sifting through the small but expansive selection to find a new favorite book.
The City Lights Bookstore and its founder were at the center of an obscenity trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg's famous 1956 collection "Howl and Other Poems," and today the bookstore is recognized as an official historic landmark for its importance in beat culture. True to its history and the city it calls home, City Lights still specializes in progressive politics and alternative arts. The art-strewn storefront holds three floors of books from major and independent publishers, while the nonprofit City Lights Foundation continues to publish new titles relevant to the culture of San Francisco, that must-see city by the bay.
The Last Bookstore began in a tiny loft in 2005 but has grown along with LA's revitalized downtown area and now holds the title of California's largest used and new bookstore. Its current space in the Spring Arts Tower covers 22,000 square feet on two floors and is home to 250,000 books, as well as thousands of vinyl records and graphic novels. The building also includes the Labyrinth Above the Last Bookstore, which features the gallery shops of local artists and mind-boggling installation art, such as a tunnel made from stacks of old tomes.
Author Henry Miller was instrumental in creating Big Sur's mythic reputation as a bohemian enclave, and his influence is honored at the not-for-profit Henry Miller Memorial Library alongside scenic Highway 1. The store stocks a huge selection of literature, which of course includes Miller's writings and those that inspired him, in a spacious cabin-style building with books hanging from the ceiling like gulls. Save time to relax on the porch with a free cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the same world-class scenery that attracted Miller and other literary legends to Big Sur in the first place. (Here are another 50 amazing libraries that book lovers will want to check out.)
Gorgeous wood accents and antique tile floors characterize this 1920s Mediterranean building just south of Miami, one of three official Books & Books locations in the area. The expansive arts section occupies about half the inventory in this 9,000-square-foot store, which still has plenty of room for a full-service cafe, international newsstand, and open-air courtyard. Books & Books never goes long without a visiting author, hosting about 60 monthly readings.
The progressive spirit of this quintessential liberal college town thrives at Boulder Book Store, its largest independent bookstore, home to more than 100,000 titles on three floors. Named the "Best of Boulder" by local papers every year since 1987, the store is a cultural hub in Boulder's busy Pearl Street Mall for its collection of fiction and special interest topics such as vegan dining and Buddhism, as well as frequent author events hosted in the upstairs ballroom of this 19th-century structure.
Who could have guessed an 1842 gristmill along the Sawmill River would make the perfect place for an independent used bookstore? The Montague Bookmill’s rustic architecture and accompanying scenery are worth the drive. List prices are typically cut in half for nearly the entire inventory, which runs the gamut of genres, with extra emphasis on academic titles. Concerts and performances abound in the warmer months, while the adjacent Turn It Up record store and Lady Killigrew Cafe stay open no matter the season.
The Strand Bookstore in Manhattan's East Village boasts that it fits "18 miles of books" into 3½ generously stocked floors. Opened in 1927 and the only survivor of what was once called the city's "Book Row," the Strand houses more than 2.5 million books and often hosts readings and appearances from famous authors, including New York City art-punk icon Patti Smith, who worked at the store in the 1970s. Those pressed for time can visit the Strand's Central Park or Times Square kiosks, weather permitting, or its bookshop within the Club Monaco clothing store on Fifth Avenue.
Nashville lost its last independent bookstore in 2010, but author Ann Patchett and publisher Karen Hayes helped resurrect the city's literary passions by opening Parnassus Books in the southern part of the city. Visitors come to see the lively shop dogs scurrying between shelves as well as the extensive selection of international and local literature and frequent readings from acclaimed authors, proving a big market for books still exists in Nashville.
The Elliott Bay Book Co. moved from its original location in Pioneer Square to a sprawling loft in the Seattle's ever-hip Capitol Hill, where the enormous collection of more than 150,000 books has plenty of room to breathe. Staff recommendations help customers navigate the labyrinth of literature, while a cafe downstairs helps fuel hourslong browsing with rich Seattle roasts and vegan-friendly treats.
A center of culture in a historic university town, Square Books is actually three niche bookstores rolled into one, each occupying its own post-Civil War building just beside the county courthouse and town square. Off Square Books focuses on lifestyle and how-to topics, Square Books Jr. boasts a vast selection of kid-lit, and the flagship pays tribute to local authors and a literary culture that extends at least as far back as 1902, when a young William Faulkner first moved to the town he would call home for most of his life.
Seventeen Chicago book lovers each invested $10 to open a bookstore in 1961. From those humble beginnings, the Seminary Co-op Bookstore has become one of the world's most acclaimed academic bookstores, with 53,000 shareholders helping the university-adjacent store stay open. The store boasts a maze of fully stocked shelves on many disciplines and modern, clean decor that makes even the basement areas feel homey and welcoming.
Likely the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world, Powell's is the crown jewel of literary culture in the hip northwest city of Portland. The flagship store, called Powell's City of Books, occupies a full city block on the border between downtown and the Pearl District. It's easy to get lost in the sprawling multi-level store's 6,800 square feet of retail space, so snag a map on the way in for help navigating the extraordinarily diverse sections. There's no shortage of Powell's-centric merchandise either -- fitting, since the store is surely one of Portland's most prominent landmarks.
The giant glove painted outside John K. King Used & Rare Books on West Lafayette Boulevard shows how hard it was to find space for a collection of books that has been growing since John K. King was a teen: The space was once a glove factory, which closed in the 1970s. King bought it in 1983, and now it hosts more than a million volumes over four stories (each floor with its own manager), including the archival books and papers of the people who turned Detroit into Motor City. Keep an eye out for the store's dogs and canaries.
Dubuque Street is not the first Prairie Lights Books address -- the store started in a much smaller location in 1978 -- but the building it's been in since 1982 (big enough for 3.5-floors of books and an 1,100-square-foot coffee house) is the perfect home: It's where a local literary society met throughout the 1930s, bringing in such writers as Sherwood Anderson, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg. It's also near the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the store carries on the practice of bringing in writers new and famous, now for a live-broadcast reading series.
Cambridge may no longer deserve its reputation as having "more independent bookstores per square inch," but the Harvard Book Store continues thriving in Harvard Square as it has since its founding in 1932, with thousands of volumes at ground level, a used-book store below ground, and frequent sales at its offsite warehouse. Though bookstores suffered when chains moved in on its territory, and again when online sales took off, savvy owners and managers changed with the times, bringing in a print-on-demand machine that can produce bound editions of even the most obscure titles, and a thriving reading series with everyone from Al Gore and Salman Rushdie to John Updike and Stephen King.