20 of the Coolest Bookstores in America

Bart's Books

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Bart's Books
Johana M/Yelp


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.

Note: While some bookstores are closed for indoor shopping or are operating at limited capacity due to the pandemic, most are offering curbside pickup or, in some cases, delivery options. Be sure to call ahead to confirm.

Faulkner House Books
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Faulkner House Books

New Orleans
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 friendly staff members offer helpful insights for sifting through the small but expansive selection to find a new favorite book. In addition to wearing a mask, customers are required to sign in to a contact-tracing book so they can be reached if health workers need to track down a coronavirus outbreak.

Bart's Books, Ojai, California
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Bart's Books

Ojai, California
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 Montague Bookmill, Montague, Massachusetts
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The Montague Bookmill

Montague, Massachusetts
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. Usually, 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) and the place hops with people playing games, studying, meeting or dating. But now only 12 people are allowed inside at any time, and only to shop for up to 45 minutes.

The Tattered Cover
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The Tattered Cover

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. Coronavirus concerns limit the number of people allowed inside at once, the stores aren't accepting cash — and of course, masks are required.

Related: Fun Facts About Author J.K.Rowling

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco

City Lights Bookstore

San Francisco
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 only thing that looks different here: All the shoppers wearing their required masks.

Related: 20 Clever and Creative Gifts for Book Lovers

Books & Books

Books & Books

Coral Gables, Florida
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 an open-air courtyard, international newsstand (now closed for the duration), and  full-service cafe (now doing takeout). Books & Books, which never went long without a visiting author and was known to host about 60 monthly readings, still has a full calendar of events (now held online only).

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Seminary Co-op Bookstore, Chicago

Seminary Co-op Bookstore

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 — none of which customers get to appreciate currently, as the store is online-only until the coronavirus gets sorted out.

Parnassus Books
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Parnassus Books

Nashville, Tennessee
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. Unlike many other bookstores, Parnassus is still doing only online sales as summer winds down.

Related: 18 Ways to Help Small Businesses Survive Right Now

Strand Book Store

Strand Bookstore

New York
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. The store reopened June 22 after a coronavirus shutdown, but only for half-capacity, and its buying desk and rare books room remain closed.

Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi

Square Books

Oxford, Mississippi
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. Under coronavirus rules, only six people (in masks) are allowed in per half-hour browsing shift.

Related: The Oldest Building in Each State

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles
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The Last Bookstore

Los Angeles
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. In addition to social distancing needs that have cut the number of people allowed in the store at one time, and the need for masks to be worn, the coronavirus has changed one more thing: The store isn't buying customer book collections at the moment. (Though people can still donate.)

John K. King Used & Rare Books, Detroit, Michigan
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John K. King Used & Rare Books

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 dogs and canaries that populate the store, which reopened June 5 — but still requires shoppers to wear masks.

Related: Small Businesses to Support in Every State

Boulder Book Store
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Boulder Book Store

Boulder, Colorado
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" consistently by local papers 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. Its frequent author events are online instead of hosted in the upstairs ballroom of this 19th-century structure, and there are other now-standard changes because of coronavirus as well. Shoppers are let in through one set of doors and leave through another; curbside pickup is still available; and people in high-risk groups can schedule an appointment to come in and shop without other people around.

Prarie Lights
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Prairie Lights

Iowa City, Iowa
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 3½ -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. The store is closed temporarily for in store shopping, but offers curbside pickup and even local home delivery of books.

Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur, California
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Henry Miller Memorial Library

Big Sur, California
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.) Coronavirus isn't keeping the library closed these days — but California's rampant wildfires have caused some dark days.

Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Harvard Book Store

Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cambridge may no longer deserve its reputation as having "more independent bookstores per square inch" than any other place on the planet, 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 Susan Orlean and Busy Philipps. Coronavirus has forced the store to limit the number of shoppers inside, cancel its gift-wrapping service, and, for some reason, bar dogs (except for service dogs).

Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle

Elliott Bay Book Co.

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 has helped fuel hourslong browsing with rich Seattle roasts and vegan-friendly treats — and will again, someday. For now, in-store browsing is limited to 10 customers at a time who get a half-hour inside, whether they walk in or schedule an appointment. Some customers still opt for curbside pickup.

Powell's Books, Portland, Oregon

Powell's Books

Portland, Oregon
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. Only certain parts of Powell's are open during the lingering coronavirus crisis, and only Wednesday through Sunday, but in ordinary times it's easy to get lost in the sprawling multi-level store's 6,800 square feet of retail space. (Maps are offered 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.

Pennsylvania: Baldwin’s Book Barn
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Baldwin’s Book Barn

West Chester, Pennsylvania
Baldwin’s Book Barn has taken over an actual 1822 barn, packing four stories with hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, maps, antiques, and art. You can spend hours navigating this stone-walled, steep-staired maze of mostly rare books grown over the past eight decades, then return with some purchases to the front room and its wood-burning stove. Coronavirus hasn't had much of an effect on Baldwin's business as usual.

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This new space isn't just half art gallery — Semicolon also treats its several hundred books like art as well, with their fronts exposed instead of their spine, highlighting the care with which owner DL Mullen chose them. Even how the books are gathered for browsing is unique, with Mullen grouping them by topic such as “Books That Make You Think” instead of by "biography," "fiction," or "art." She boosts self-published authors and expands her shelves virtually through use of an Espresso Book Machine. Fortunately for shoppers who want to experience the vibrant West Town shop, they can still come in (if they promise to browse safely).