As a local who actually reads books, I wanted to throw my own list of the best bookstores into the mix, a long overdue paean to the literary lights piercing SF’s legendary fog (which is back with a vengeance this morning).
The Green Arcade
Market @ Gough
Top prize for the best curation of books goes to Green Arcade. Dipping in there week after week, I always discover new treasures. Their interests mesh well with mine, plenty of pro-bicycling, anti-tech, pro-labor, local SF/California, nature, poetry, and art books. A bit lean on the fiction side and very rare to find a used book on the shelves, but otherwise a stellar shop staffed by friendly older dudes.
@ Fort Mason
A hidden gem at Fort Mason, Readers is operated by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, diverting all profits to help fund our seriously amazing library system. Books that get donated to the Friends are curated to end up here (I think the ones that don’t make the cut are saved up for the Big Book Sale, also operated by Friends). Which means all sorts of oddities are in store for you. My first stop is the table by the front where the latest stock of weird books are displayed, followed by a quick scan of the back shelves. Then I check out what’s been added to the Essays section, peep into the fiction shelves, the walking/nature section, poetry, philosophy, and art books.
Bird & Beckett
Chenery @ Diamond in Glen Park
It took me forever to start exploring this section of the city but once I found Bird & Beckett I had a reason to hike over to Glen Park. Great collection of used and new books, usually with someone playing music to accompany your browsing. I beeline to the back room where I once found a fabulous book on color theory, so I head there always hoping to discover more art book treasure. Lots of poetry, essays, fiction, local guides, cookbooks.
Dog Eared Books
Valencia @ 20th
A must-stop whenever strolling through the Mission, Dog Eared is packed with great used fiction, plus excellent recommendations via the staff picks shelves right across from the register. You can also get great deals on new books that were over-ordered(?). They do a good job curating and marketing the books so you can breeze through to see if anything catches your eye. Don’t miss the small zine section or the carousel of pulp books near the front.
Dog Eared Books (Castro)
Castro @ 18th
I also really like the Castro version of Dog Eared, with a heavier focus on LGBTQ books and a different selection of magazines. A smaller store than the Valencia branch but sometimes contains nice surprises on the shelves. And I love their postcard station where you can write to various local, state, national politicians to give ’em hell or shower them with praise. They collect the postcards then mail them in large batches to the various representatives, so you can peruse other people’s rants and thoughts in addition to leaving your own.
Clement @ 6th
No surprise to find this perennial favorite on the list. The original location is teeming with amazing used books to discover either in the Fiction Annex or in the main store’s labyrinthine layout. Staff picks on the shelf in the main store right when you walk in always has good recs, in addition to the Must Read shelf near the stairs that lead to a warren of philosophy, history, nature, poetry. For years this has been my go-to for selling books that I weed from my shelf.
Green Apple Books on the Park
9th @ Irving
I appreciate this location for taking over the space that was once the beloved Le Video, an extensive movie rental place that went out of business. The Park location also hosts author events where I’ve seen a myriad of writers, Anne Boyer most recently. Everything is a little too fresh and new here, not as many used items, not dusty enough like a bookstore should be, but still a great shop.
24th @ Folsom
I’m really glad that Adobe Books survived the move from 16th street, saved by a group of regulars who turned it into a co-op. There’s a tiny art gallery tucked away toward the back and this has proven to be hands-down the best bookshop to eavesdrop in throughout the city. Here is where I learned that a mayor of SF, Frank Jordan, hopped naked into a shower with 2 DJs on a live radio show in 1995. In the old location, I loved the art project where they arranged the books by color.
Haight @ Masonic
Anarchist bookstore Bound Together is run by volunteers and thus frequently closed, but when you luck out and the door is open, there are always treats inside. Large zine section, lots of books on labor and feminism and technology, plus a program that sends books to prisoners. Features lots of books from the AK Press, a collective now run out of Chico after a fire burned down their Oakland warehouse.
Fillmore @ Sacramento
Cozy bookstore Browser Books also worth breezing through when walking past. Good selection and I’ve previously seen someone getting their Tarot cards read in the back section. Now has a new lease on life since Green Apple purchased it.
Columbus @ Broadway
Of course I had to put City Lights on here—there’s a reason it’s on everyone’s list. It’s a historical gem that has an incredible, huge section of poetry in the upstairs room. Push past the tourists and head to the basement for history, labor, philosophy, women’s studies, and the classics—plus the basement dates from pre-1906 fire days! I’ve gotten many a recommendation from the staff picks section—unfortunately placed in a high traffic area that you’ll clog as you scan the shelves.
Buchanan @ Post
Forest Books is an oasis in Japantown. Am I correctly remembering the sound of an indoor fountain, peaceful water soothing the shoppers? Also a great location for used fiction and nonfiction, plus amazing eavesdropping to be had.
Russian Hill Bookstore
Polk @ Broadway
I like the new location’s layout, much more user-friendly than the maze of the last store down the street. When you come into the shop, a ton of local-interest books is on your left while first editions are under glass to your right. Always interesting characters shopping in here, and I occasionally find a used book I’ve been looking for.