In today’s internet-centric world, the role of the bookshop is dwindling. E-Readers are ever-popular, and even when we do opt to purchase a hard copy — for required reading in class, or as a gift, perhaps — larger chains and supermarkets or online retailers are dominating the literary market. However, especially when we’re travelling, a bookstore can be more than just somewhere to buy books. Independent shops are often at the heart of a local community, offering an insight into the culture and landscape of an area in a way that a quick stop at Walmart or an Amazon order never could. So, read on for what I consider to be the best independent bookstores in the USA.
- Full Circle Bookstore: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Packed with books from floor to ceiling — that’s thirteen feet of books, so even if you aren’t a die-hard bibliophile you have to be impressed — Full Circle Bookstore is the largest independent bookshop in Oklahoma, carrying over sixty thousand new titles. They also stock a large selection of books by Oklahoman authors as well as Native American books, allowing for a real taste of the history and culture of the state. Plus, with wood-burning fires and rolling ladders, you can live out your Beauty and the Beast library dreams.
- The Elliot Bay Book Company: Seattle, Washington
With high ceilings and wooden floors, Elliot Bay is the perfect bookstore for a rain-soaked city like Seattle. The family-owned store was opened in 1973 and became instantly popular with the city folk, growing in size and stock since then. What’s more, true to Pacific Northwest culture, it’s home to a popular café, where you can hide from the rain and read a book, all while enjoying a delicious vegan treat.
- Grolier Poetry Book Shop: Cambridge, Massachusetts
I get it — poetry isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. However, a list of the best bookstores in the US would be remiss without a mention of the oldest continuously-run poetry store in America. Home to over fifteen thousand volumes, the Grolier aims to advance the cause of poetry, working to popularise poetry (and prose), while also acting as a hub for students and locals in Cambridge drawn to the numerous readings and events, coupled with the cosy, family-friendly atmosphere it exudes.
- Books & Books: Coral Gables, Florida
Set in one of the most Instagram-worthy locations, Books & Books was founded in 1982 and has become a local landmark. Located in a beautiful building from 1927, the Mediterranean-style building still has most of its original features, making it not only a perfect reading spot, but also a hub of local history.
- City Lights: San Francisco, California
City Lights was the USA’s first all-paperback bookstore, and has become a literary landmark of alternative culture — in true San Francisco style, it supports its legacy of anti-authoritarianism. It was famously put on trial for obscenity after publishing Allen Ginsberg, historically acting as a means to publicise the work of Beat poets and writers. From its founding in 1953 the selection of titles still reflects this liberal politics and insurgent thinking.
5. Faulkner House Books: New Orleans, Louisiana
Any book lover will agree, a bookstore which occupies the space where William Faulkner used to live can’t come any lower than the top five. Faulkner House is known for its charm, featuring not only works by and about Faulkner, but also describing itself as “a sanctuary for fine literature and rare editions.” Moreover, it sits in the heart of the New Orleans French Quarter, next to the St. Louis Cathedral, making it the perfect place to discover the history and culture of Louisiana.
- Prairie Lights Bookstore: Iowa City, Iowa
Prairie Lights is next door to the infamous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is located in a 1930s building which was once home to a local literary society frequented by hugely famous names in the literary world, such as EE Cummings, Robert Frost and Sherwood Anderson. It is also the location of ‘Live from Prairie Lights’, a literary reading series which has become extremely well-known over the internet and represents the merge of the newly internet-centric world and the classic independent stores.
- Housing Works Bookstore: New York City, New York
Whilst the Housing Works Bookstore has a wonderful selection of books that would make any bibliophile happy, it earns this place because of the institution it has become in downtown New York. Its café serves delicious food (try the mac’ and cheese, you won’t regret it), as well as coffee and beer, and all for an excellent cause: all of the staff are volunteers, and the profit from the shop goes entirely to Housing Works, a charity that works to end homelessness and AIDS. This is why we love New York.
- The Last Bookstore: Los Angeles, California
Just walking into this bookstore will elicit an enthusiastic response from any book-lover. Set in a beautiful space in downtown LA, not only does it stock a huge selection of both new and classic titles, but it’s also home to a vinyl LP shop, graphic novel shop, and the Spring Arts Collective, hosting the exhibitions of local contemporary artists. However, it is the second floor of the Last Bookstore which really sets it apart — leave your bags at the cloakroom and step upstairs into ‘the labyrinth above the Last Bookstore’: over one hundred thousand remastered books, for only one dollar a piece, fill the space, making up a fantastic maze. The highlight? An enormous book tunnel, which you can walk through and use to make your Instagram look both pretty and cultured — win-win.
- Powell’s City of Books: Portland, Oregon
I’m a little biased, because I am such a fan of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, but for me there is no bookstore quite like Powell’s. It’s word-renowned for a reason; housing over one million books, it is one of the most famous bookshops in America and one of the largest in the world. Founded in 1971 it has become firmly entrenched in the city’s culture, and taking up an entire city block it oozes the character which is so distinct to Portland.
The best way to discover a city’s culture is to experience it first hand, and discovering the unique quirks and institutions which make up a place is the best way to do this. Is it easier to download a book from Amazon onto your e-reader? Maybe. But if you want to interact with the people, familiarise yourself with the culture and walk in the history of a city, there’s no better way than to pay a visit to the local bookstore.