City Lights, in the North Beach section of San Francisco, is arguably one of the most famous and storied bookstores in America. Its origin is a perfect bookstore romance, founded by a poet and a haven for Beats, Hippies and any and all outcasts for the last 40 or so years. But forget all that for a moment. Yes, you can find nearly every book and pamphlet ever published on the idea of revolution & the wisdom of peyote, but you'll also find three floors of deeply intelligent & beautiful books on nearly everything else, including all the Capuchins. The place is steeped in a calm, sunny, and readerly atmosphere that speaks of a time not that long ago when you might actually think of reading all afternoon. However, the clerk on duty informed me that after 7pm the scene changes dramatically into a haunt for Kerouac impersonators, Cassidy wannabes, and "every freak in San Francisco". He meant it as a selling point.
Flooded with light and spilling over with books, pamphlets, letters and prints, this tiny little bookshop is huge on charm. Located in the green and pleasant Elmwood section of Berkeley, Turtle Island Book Shop carries an incredibly discerning selection of art, literature and history in all kinds of forms. It's also a pocket-sized museum of mid-century California counter-culture, with original manuscript letters by Jack Kerouac, a wide-ranging collection of ephemera printed by Zephyrus Image, and old hippie magazines galore. But lest any would-be visitor think they'll be walking into incense-vapor and sitar music, note that Turtle Island is a light and airy shop whose selection seems primarily informed by three criteria: beauty, rarity, and an ability to fascinate.
Book Zoo seems like part wonderful used book store, part dare. Located nowhere near a college campus, far from any foot traffic, and with hours that ensure any trip there is a gamble, the shop seems to run on pure faith that a bookstore, no matter where it's put or when it's open, is always a good idea. Well, this one certainly is. The selection is smart & well chosen, the space is cozy and invitingly overrun with books and LP's, and the prices are very, very good. Plus, it serves as a center for a welcome array of events on an otherwise uninspired stretch of Telegraph Ave. May it live forever.
Many bookstores carry a few gifts and cards, but Russian Hill Bookstore boasts the largest selection in the Russian Hill area. Owner Carol Spencer scours hard to find sources for the unique and inspiring. She looks as this section of her store as a "visual inspiration" center, where potential writers and artists can get their own creativity kick-started. This hardly means a loss of focus on the books, though. Floor to ceiling shelves (with helpful accompanying ladders)abound, with a wide selection of just about everything. Really. Old sheet music, ephemera, rare book sets, and gifts are just some of the additions to the deeply browseable inventory.
Tucked into a residential street in leafy, hilly Montclair Village, the Montclair Branch library owes its beginnings to Chauncey W. Gibson, who donated the house-like building to the city in 1930. A small, sunny courtyard out front and tables facing large windows inside provide a welcome spot to pore over the branch's surprisingly good art book selection. The library also houses two large later additions to the original building: a young adult room and spacious children's area.