25 Independent Bookstores We Love
Today's independent bookstores aren’t just places of commerce. They’re destinations unto themselves. They have also taken on many of the roles that used to be reserved for civic and religious institutions. Bookstores are community gathering places, hubs for conversation between like-minded souls, lecture halls hosting inspiring and thought-provoking speeches, and vital lyceums for citizens to discuss the important issues of the day.
Due to economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, many independent bookstores face big challenges—now more than ever. So to keep them alive, we all need to support them. Let's go!
Pictured above: Powell's bookstore in Portland, Oregon
The Strand’s famous red awning trumpets that the store (located at 828 Broadway) holds “18 miles” worth of books across its three and a half floors—a bibliophilic bonanza in keeping with the wealth of culture abounding in New York City. A Greenwich Village mainstay since 1927, the Strand may be the city's defining independent bookstore. The late, great David Bowie and his cohorts could often be seen browsing here, and singer-songwriter Patti Smith was an employee. Visitors will find well-priced old, new, and out-of-print editions. The Rare Book Room, crammed with leather-bound volumes and other handsome hardcovers, is sometimes rented out for literary-themed weddings. There was a time when locals, many of them academics associated with nearby New York University, could maintain a tidy side hustle by selling used books (often packed into entire shopping carts) here. The line would stretch all the way out the back door. Currently, used books are only purchased by the store on Saturdays.
Powell’s is the largest independent bookstore in the world—the flagship location (1005 W. Burnside St.) in Portland covers an entire city block. Its massive size and buzzy atmosphere have long made Powell's one of the city's most popular tourist attractions; poet and Reed College professor Samiya Bashir has dubbed the store "Portland’s Eiffel Tower." Selling new and used volumes side-by-side (one of the first businesses to do that), this self-proclaimed City of Books also hosts over 500 author events and gatherings each year, ranging from poetry readings to activist literature circles.
Life in the nation’s capital revolves around politics, so it's no surprise that Washington, D.C.'s preeminent independent bookstore is a hub for the politically minded. In addition to an impressive array of daily author events with dignitaries, politicians (like Congressman Joe Kennedy, pictured above), and even former presidents, Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW) organizes walking tours and bus trips along with book groups and literature classes. The in-house cafe and wine bar is a fine spot for a first date or an impromptu campaign strategy session. Bookstore-restaurant hybrids are popular in D.C. The competition includes Busboys and Poets as well as Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, which offer fiction-writing workshops and poetry slams of their own. Oh, and all these businesses sell books, too.
Downtown L.A. has undergone a cultural renaissance in recent years, and The Last Bookstore (453 S. Spring St.) is one of the local institutions that paved the way. Opened in 2005, a time when too many independent bookshops were closing, it is now California’s largest bookstore with some 250,000 new and used tomes. It also sells records and is justly famous for a massive array of graphic novels. But what makes the place such a pleasure to visit is the whimsy the owners have brought to the enterprise. Set in a marble-clad former bank building, the store is filled with oddball book sculptures, mazelike rows of books, and hidden rooms such as a repurposed bank vault that now holds rare volumes.
Miami is a melting pot of cultures, and Books & Books highlights the works of diverse authors, bringing them to new audiences. Owner Mitchell Kaplan does that not only through his stores (now numbering four), but as one of the founders of the annual Miami Book Fair—an event that attracts hundreds of authors, including many Spanish-language writers. Each bright and cheery Books & Books location has an onsite cafe featuring tasty casual fare.
Of the bookstore she founded in 1982, Emoke B'Racz wrote on the business's website: "I wanted Malaprop’s to be a place where poetry mattered, where a woman’s words were as important as a man’s, where excellence was customary, where good writing had a home, where I could nurture my addiction to literature, and play, enjoy, and entertain people drawn to quality books." Though ownership of the store (55 Haywood St.) was transferred to longtime employee Gretchen Horn in January 2019, that same passion for progressive ideas is evident today in the selection of books. Weekend author appearances, poetry readings, and writers’ circles are all cherished recurring events on the Malaprop's calendar.
Open since 1964, Rizzoli is the bookstore equivalent of an art-house cinema. Set in the St. James Building (1133 Broadway), a Gilded Age townhouse in the upscale Flatiron District, this boutique has soaring ceilings, burnished wood bookcases, elegant murals behind the cash register, and other touches that set the stage for specialty books that are works of art in themselves. We’re talking handsome, image-rich hardbacks that cover the worlds of painting, architecture, fashion, cooking, design, and photography. In addition to selling individual volumes, the store has created lots of “custom libraries” for interior designers looking to class up book-free homes and corporate offices. The Rizzoli Music Aperitivo concert series showcases jazz combos chosen by the experts at Radio Free Brooklyn.
Boston is a city so infatuated with reading that Trident Booksellers (338 Newbury St.) stays open until midnight many nights of the week (when there's not a pandemic on, of course). Located on bustling Newbury Street in the Back Bay neighborhood, the two-story shop attracts students from the city’s many universities as well as book lovers from all walks of life. After you're done browsing, a café, trivia nights, film screenings, poetry readings, and a host of other unapologetically intellectual events will induce you to linger. After a 2018 fire closed this four-decade-old institution for months, it reopened with an expanded children’s area, more café seating, and the same vast array of books.
Every bookstore on this list is beloved, but for many in Northern California and beyond, Book Passage feels like a second home. Its two outposts—one in the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the other in nearby Corte Madera (51 Tamal Vista Blvd.)—always seem to be filled with people who are either engaged in deep, deep conversation or joyously exploring shelves packed with just the right picks. At the San Francisco location, Book Passage takes a page from its foodie surroundings with literary luncheons and "Cooks with Books” culinary events. The Corte Madera store is home to superb writing workshops and author events.
In coffee-crazed Seattle, the Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 Tenth Ave.) made its mark as the home of the city’s first bookstore café. Today, the espresso at Little Oddfellows (an offshoot of Oddfellows Bar + Café) remains a source of caffeinated joy. But it's Elliott Bay’s cultural contributions—including 500 author events a year along with active book groups on global issues, young adult literature, and science fiction—that really impress. One final, ahem, perk: The mingled aromas of the coffee shop and the store's cedar shelving make the place smell great.
Great bookstores can connect a community’s past to its present. Sandmeyer’s Bookstore (714 S. Dearborn St.) does just that: It's located in Chicago's landmark Printer's Row neighborhood—historically the site of the city's book-publishing industry. The annual Lit Fest that takes place in June along Dearborn St., where Sandmeyer's is situated, is the largest outdoor literary festival in the Midwest.
Tattered Cover fits right in with Denver's balance of ruggedness and cosmopolitanism. "We want customers, no matter who they are, to feel they can come into Tattered Cover and browse for books and content without fear of being judged," former co-owner Len Vlahos told the Denver Post. "Whether you want to come in for a book on gender identity or a book on gun ownership, you’re welcome here." (In December of 2020, David Black and Kwame Spearman took ownership.)
And you’ll probably want to linger. Tattered Cover does cozy nooks just right—all five locations have plenty of quiet corners for curling up in an armchair with something from the shelves. And when you're ready to get more social, the store's hundreds of big-name author events often draw large crowds. Original owner Joyce Meskis, who founded Tattered Cover in 1971, won the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award for promoting free expression through literature.
This store's namesake is Southern-lit icon William Faulkner, who in 1925 rented rooms in the building where the shop is now housed. Tucked into an alley in the French Quarter, Faulkner House (624 Pirate's Alley) is a self-described "sanctuary for fine literature" selling rare editions (including of Faulkner's novels) and out-of-print books. It's a deserving stop on the New Orleans Historical Society’s Writer’s Block tour of the neighborhood's literary landmarks.
A labor of love, this charming indie (3900 Hillsboro Pike) was opened by best-selling author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty) and publishing veteran Karen Hayes. Patchett is often on hand to give customers book recommendations—a role she relishes. “Reading a book can be like dropping down into another world," she told the Washington Post, "and when we stumble out again, like Shackleton from the Pole or Darwin off the Beagle, there is a tremendous desire to grab the first person we bump into and say, 'Let me tell you what I’ve seen.'"
Staffed with similarly passionate book lovers, Parnassus—named for the mountain that was the mythical seat of the arts in ancient Greece—is the kind of store that Nashville, the “Athens of the South,” deserves. In addition to authors, speakers at Parnassus are often country recording artists and other music industry pros.
"Books you don't need in a place you can't find": That's the motto at the Montague Bookmill, located inside a converted gristmill (440 Greenfield Rd.) in a tiny town in western Massachusetts. Constructed in 1842, the mill has three levels crammed with more than 25,000 volumes. Somehow, there's room left over for the occasional overstuffed armchair and old wooden bench. Also on the grounds: a music store, an art gallery, and two dining options—The Lady Killigrew for cafe and pub fare, and The Alvah Stone for finer cuisine. Trees surround the mill, and the little outdoor deck is one of the country's most pleasant places to get some reading done. Autumn visitors can enjoy peak fall foliage from that spot or through any of the store's oversized windows.
Square Books (pictured) is located in William Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Regular customer John Grisham leaves his book recommendations for the staff to pass along. Visit the website to buy books online; follow the store on Instagram to catch live events with authors.
Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, is a real community center where political meetups have frequently been held. Browse its smartly curated selection of books online.
Atomic Books of Baltimore has an unusually good selection of graphic novels (as well as other books) and serves as the personal post office for camp filmmaker—and hometown hero—John Waters. No joke: If you want to send Waters a fan letter, you must address it to the store. Shop for books at the website.
Trident Booksellers in Boulder, Colorado, has Buddhist roots, but sells all types of fiction and nonfiction. During the lockdown, you can order a mystery package of books. Tell the store what type of literature you like, and you'll get a grab bag in that genre.
The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City has been, according to its tagline, "Matching Books to Readers Since 1977." It’s a friendly, homey place with a great selection of books, all of which can be ordered online. As a service to harried parents, King's English is hosting a virtual storytime on Facebook and Instagram every day at 11am MT.
Rediscovered Bookshop in Boise, Idaho (pictured), also known as Rediscovered Books, may be most famous—or infamous—for its Book & Booze nights, but it also hosts at least two dozen book groups along with many other literary events. If you can't find the book you're looking for in online store, call to see if that title is among the many “gently used” books that are in stock (but not listed on the website). You can also buy specialized journals (birding books, nature walk journals, and more), games, and other tools for making the most of your time.
Books Are Magic in Brooklyn was started by the novelist Emma Straub and her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub, in 2017. In better times it's a top place to go for author events. Today, the store is taking book orders online.
Bookworks in Albuquerque is, in addition to a very good bookstore, a hub of philanthropy, with owners donating space, connections, and resources to support many important programs. Along with selling books online, Bookworks has a packed calendar of virtual literary events.
Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City posted on its website, “Like that wise British philosopher Thomas the Tank Engine we want to be very, very useful." And the store definitely is, offering book deliveries, lunches from the café, and the kind of good cheer that has made Full Circle a local treasure.
McNally Jackson is another stellar New York City shop. The website has been revamped to help those in isolation find and order the right book for this odd time. Categories include "Books to Make You Laugh," "The Literature of Pandemic," and "The Literature of Solitude."