Coast to coast, America is filled with pilgrimage-worthy independent bookshops, and they’re anything but one-size-fits-all. From a birthplace of the Beat movement in San Francisco to a Black-owned community hub in D.C., a used-book behemoth in Detroit to a Native-owned shop in Minneapolis, these 10 bookstores should be on every literature lover’s must-visit list.
Strand Bookstore, New York City
First opened in 1927 by Lithuanian immigrant Benjamin Bass, the Strand moved to its current location near Union Square in 1957, and now houses more than 2.5 million used, new and rare books on every topic imaginable. You can easily get lost perusing the labyrinthine shelves, with their more than 18 miles of books (as the slogan goes), but save time to shop for their cult-favorite canvas tote bags. Former employees include Patti Smith, Sam Shepherd and Mary Gaitskill, and the cavernous space has been featured in Six Degrees of Separation, Sex and the City and Julie & Julia.
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Also check out: Books Are Magic, owned by novelist Emma Straub; McNally Jackson, an indie shop with four locations around the city; Café con Libros, an intersectional feminist bookstore and coffee shop in Crown Heights; and The Lit. Bar, an Afro-Latina-owned shop that’s currently the only indie bookshop in the Bronx.
Visit: 828 Broadway, strandbooks.com
City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and college professor Peter D. Martin opened this indie bookstore and publisher in San Francisco’s North Beach in 1953, and it’s been a haven for progressive politics and world literature for nearly 70 years (explore its fascinating history on its website). City Lights had a hand in kick-starting the Beat movement when they published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, which resulted in a widely publicized obscenity trial. During your visit, don’t miss the Zapatista mural on neighboring Kerouac Alley.
Also check out: Omnivore Books on Food, the only culinary bookshop in the Bay Area; Green Apple Books, celebrating its 55th anniversary this year; and Borderlands Books, dedicated to fantasy, sci-fi, horror and mystery.
Visit: 261 Columbus Avenue, citylights.com
Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Oregon
So just how big is the world’s largest independent bookstore? Its headquarters occupy an entire city block in Portland’s Pearl District, with 3,500 sections spread across nine color-coded rooms. While much of the rest of the store is brightly lit and industrial-feeling, there’s a hidden gem of a Rare Book Room tucked upstairs, complete with antique furniture, dark-wood shelving and once-in-a-lifetime treasures like a two-volume set of Lewis and Clark’s published journals from 1814 that are priced at a cool $350,000.
Also check out: Floating World Comics, a bookstore that doubles as an indie publisher; Green Bean Books, specializing in kids’ literature and featuring whimsical dioramas; and Annie Bloom’s Books, which runs a bicycle-based mobile library for the city’s unhoused population.
Visit: 1005 West Burnside Street, powells.com
MahoganyBooks, Washington, D.C.
Founded in 2007 by husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Derrick and Ramunda Young, MahoganyBooks is dedicated to books written for, by or about people of the African Diaspora. They were online-only for their first decade, before opening this brick-and-mortar spot in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, just a half-mile walk from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. During the height of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, they launched a National Harbor outpost nearby in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Also check out: Capitol Hill Books, a three-story used bookstore in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol; the locally beloved Politics and Prose, which has three locations and is now owned by former Washington Post reporter Bradley Graham and Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter, Lissa Muscatine; and Kramers, a Dupont Circle mainstay with an attached café and bar and special events like Sunday-night jazz, trivia and comedy open mic.
Visit: 1231 Good Hope Road SE, mahoganybooks.com
The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles
A major part of downtown L.A.’s revitalization in the last two decades, this ultra-popular shop opened in a loft in 2005 as a defiant stand against the closure of bookstore chains and the rise of e-books. In 2011, it moved into its grand current home, the 1915 former Citizens National Bank, which is marked by 25-foot-tall marble pillars, vaulted ceilings and quirky installations, like an Instagram-famous tunnel made of books. This being Tinseltown, you might not be shocked to hear it’s appeared in films like Gone Girl and Under the Silver Lake.