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The Top Ten Independent Bookstores in the US

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

The shop is even built on a slope, in true San Franciscan style! Wikimedia Commons © By Caroline Culler

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Housing Works Bookstore: all for a great cause! Wikimedia Commons © Marginalmonkeys


  1. 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.

  1. 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.


An Armchair Explorer’s Guide to England

Four years of student living and several periods of fruitless job searching have taught me that sometimes travel, even local travel, can be pretty darn expensive. In these situations, I choose to explore a new place from the comfort of an armchair in my bedroom by turning to books. In my experience, the setting of a novel can play such an important role that it feels as if it is a character in itself. A landscape, a city or even a single building can become so intrinsic to the atmosphere of a novel that it feels as if I am actually there and consequently the book becomes a window into a new place. It also has the advantage of being considerably cheaper than a train ticket. In this spirit, I have trawled the literary landscape and I begin my journey with a partial and completely biased overview of some of my favourite and most evocative English novels.

The Wild and Windswept North

If you are looking for beaches and breezy romance then Yorkshire’s most famous literary exports, the Brontë sisters, are probably not for you. Their tragic lives and enclosed rural upbringing are reflected in their stories and Wuthering Heights by middle sister Emily is arguably the novel most rooted in the landscape. It relies heavily on the ‘perfect misanthropist’s Heaven’ of the exposed, turbulent North York Moors to provide a fitting backdrop for Cathy and Heathcliff. Children of the moors, they are just as untameable and destructive as the land they inhabit. As I sit in my cosy bedroom reading Brontë’s description of the ‘bleak winds and bitter, northern skies,’ I imagine the characters at the mercy of their emotions on the desolate heath below, screaming insults, throwing punches and hurling crockery.

Yorkshire, the land of 'bleak winds and bitter, northern skies...' (Photographer: Lefteris Heretakis; Flickr)

Yorkshire, the land of ‘bleak winds and bitter, northern skies…’ (Photographer: Lefteris Heretakis; Flickr)

Meanwhile the remote settings in eldest sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre are not quite the same as the jungles of South America or the food markets of Asia, but they perfectly reflect the young governess’s coming of age. The depressing Lowood school squats on a frozen hill and emphasises her physical and spiritual deprivation. I can picture her: a drab, friendless little sparrow, yet she refuses to be cowed and eventually becomes as resolute and unyielding as the ‘grey and battlemented’ Thornfield Hall. After developing a crush on her rather morose employer, she proves to be more than a match for him and after some stirring prose, a big misunderstanding and the death of a conveniently rich relative, everything works out for the best.

Alternatively, for a more cheerful view of the pastoral north, try Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s classic children’s story The Secret Garden, where the spoilt Mary Lennox discovers the hidden beauty in a severe landscape and learns some manners along the way. Then there’s the James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small, the true tales of a country vet who spent years wandering over hill and dale, meeting strange folk and spending far too much time with his hand up a cow’s backside. More recently, in 2012, Andy Seed produced All Teachers Great and Small, which has a similar premise and records his first year at a rural primary school and the various mishaps he encounters trying to assimilate into the local village. These books explore a placid way of life, perhaps more meaningful to me because they portray a landscape I am familiar with. They may not depict the most glamorous or adrenaline-fuelled side of travel, but the dry stone walls, unpredictable weather and hordes of marauding sheep are spot on.

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San Francisco, A Tale of Two Feet

Unlike a lot of cities in America, San Francisco is destined to remain the same size, as the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean hug it tightly on three sides. The only place the city can grow is upward: which makes for a lot of expensive real estate. The city covers an area of just seven square miles, and so the wonderful consequence of having sprouted on a peninsula is that it is one of the most easily explored cities in the world. You don’t need a bus pass or a private plane to get around, just a ready-to-go map and several pancakes, or whatever keeps you going. It’s almost always cool but sunny, so light clothing is perfect with some comfortable shoes.

My mother is native to the bay area, so it has that “home-away-from-home” feel to it, but it still feels like a frontier to be explored every time I visit. On my last trip I went alone – but I was forgiven, and the city treated me to several day-long treks from pier to park, just like when I was a kid. This is not a guide to the 50 best trails in San Francisco, but instead a detailed account of some of the best places to visit and suggestions on how to make the trip your own. The best parts involve only a few dollars, unless you’re hungry – don’t underestimate how much you’ll spend on food. Don’t be the person that buys a fridge magnet containing a percentage of Californian sand to put on your fridge. Not only does it belong in California, you should also be saving your money for the conveyor belt of exciting new restaurants offering never-before eaten dishes.

Before I begin, you might be relieved to hear that besides your two feet, there are plenty of other easy ways to get around in the city whilst still taking everything in. Situated around Golden Gate Park are rent-a-bike stations and roller blades for hire, and although the hype about the Segway never transformed into popular use, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of finding a place to take one of these for a spin. I am telling you to avoid bus tours at all costs, as this is a horribly mechanic way to see this city. You’d be forgiven for booking a boat tour of the bay, as it is a wonderful way to get a detailed look at the underbelly of the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course you can ride the famous cable cars that run downtown, but this is more for the experience than the travel. I really recommend walking to take in everything, but beware: you’ll need a free hand to take pictures, because I find there to be a new way to see an extraordinarily beautiful view of the city at every interval. I will try to avoid using the word ‘favourite’, but I think it will be impossible while talking about San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge- source Wikimedia

Golden Gate Bridge- source Wikimedia

Golden Gate Park

I always make sure to leave two days open for the Golden Gate Park. Walking among the three miles of lakes and trees is my favourite way to absorb the cool Californian sun. You would have no idea that it is surrounded by cityscape. The biggest problem is picking a place to start –  it depends on where you’re walking from. You’d be wise to start from the east, as that’s where everything is concentrated. Just about the only things on the west side of the park are the surviving bison, chewing the grass in the Buffalo Paddock.

Fans of horticulture and Ikebana, pay attention now. East of the Centre of the Park nestles the Japanese Tea Gardens, and the most spectacular flower and plant arrangements I have ever seen are  confined to this modestly sized garden. Historians have argued over this as the tide came and went, but the creation of the Fortune Cookie is often accredited to the owners of the gardens. You can nibble one with your pot of tea, which you can sip as you gaze at the bright pink blooms of the Hinodegiri (Azalea). My earliest memory of this eastern haven is running over the carefully crafted wooden bridges, climbing the magnificent moon bridge and chasing the koi carp that swam beneath me. Then, without appreciating the wealth of beauty around me, I fell straight into a pond.

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park- source tripadvisor

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park- source tripadvisor

If this is not enough for you, as it is quite small, then the Conservatory of Flowers is a short walk away. Another neighbour of the gardens is the de Young Museum of Fine Arts, easily locatable thanks to the recent erection of the new building that literally twists into the sky. You don’t need to enter the museum itself in order to climb to the top of this building which, if you do, will reveal a view of the entire park. From here you can see Stow Lake, which is perfect for a morning walk. You can hire a paddle boat if you want to get close to the turtle inhabitants, although best not to disturb them. Instead you could paddle your way to the enchanting Pagoda, hiding amongst the trees on the edge of the lake.

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