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Our Favorite Independent Bookstores in California

By AFAR Editors

Apr 16, 2020

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City Lights in San Francisco started as the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S.

Photo by Jeffery Cross

City Lights in San Francisco started as the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S.

From iconic venues like City Lights in San Francisco to community gathering spots for food-obsessed readers, this list covers some of our top bookstores in the state.

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The Golden State has a long tradition of literary excellence, and everyone from Mark Twain to Maya Angelou has found inspiration in California’s soaring redwoods, rugged coastline, cafés, culture, and art. It’s no surprise, then, that the state also has some of the country’s best bookstores. Here are some of our favorites in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Manhattan Beach.

City Lights
San Francisco

San Francisco’s most iconic bookstore has been catering to readers since 1953, when poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin founded the shop. Though it began as the first all-paperback bookstore in the nation, its collection spans three floors and has since grown to include new hardbacks. Perusing both the selection of titles in stock and those published by City Lights Publishers, readers will find contemporary and classic works about social issues that capture the radical spirit of the Beat poets who once frequented the store—and the city it calls home. —Sara Button

Support it by: Donating to its GoFundMe campaign, signing up for its newsletter, and visiting its virtual storefront on Bookshop.

Moe’s Books
Berkeley

This four-floor bookstore in the heart of Berkeley is my go-to for used books. The walls of the bottom floor are lined with half-priced titles in good condition. The middle two floors house fiction and heavily academic nonfiction (it’s down the street from UC Berkeley, after all), but the real treasure lives on the top floor, where delicate, antique tomes are available for your browsing. —Nicole Antonio

Support it by: Ordering gifts and books at moesbooks.com.

Skylight Books
Los Angeles

This 24-year-old indie bookshop in cool Los Feliz is a destination itself—in addition to devoted regulars who come for the author readings and book discussions held several times a week, the skylit space (with a tree growing inside!) attracts a lot of walk-in traffic. The store is on Vermont Avenue, on a stretch with lots of appeal—it’s around the corner from the vintage Los Feliz movie theater with neighboring cafés, boutiques, coffee shops, and diners. Be sure to look up from your book to scan for recognizable faces among the other people browsing: The surrounding blocks are where lots of actors, artists, musicians, and writers live. —Ann Shields

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Support it by: Placing orders on the Skylightbook.com website (they’re fulfilled by a wholesaler, but still benefit the shop). You can also buy gift cards, and join some of their clubs, like Imaginary Friends Reading Club, which sends you a new recently released work of fiction every month with a blurb from one of the staff members about why it was selected.

Green Apple Books
San Francisco

Green Apple Books opened for the first time in 1967 on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Clement Street, and for the past 53 years, it has been a milestone in the Inner Richmond neighborhood. It hasn’t changed much over time, and this is probably why it is one of the most-loved bookstores in San Francisco. I particularly love the small corridors in the back of the shop, with their charming, Old-World atmosphere. Once I start walking along them, surrounded by creaking wood, dust and paper, time doesn’t exist anymore. —Claudia Cardia

Support it by: Buying books and gift cards from its online store. Check out its “Shelter-in-Place” recommendations to see what to read, now. 

All things culinary can be found at Omnivore in San Francisco.

Omnivore Books
San Francisco

Located in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, culinary-themed Omnivore Books is a charming community gathering spot for the Bay Area’s many food-obsessed readers. Owner Celia Sack recently launched a special section of her online shop devoted to “Quarantine Quenchers,” a collection of cookbooks that allows home cooks to travel the world (My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz; Tokyo Cult Recipes by Maori Murota; The Karachi Kitchen by Kausar Ahmed). —Julia Cosgrove

Support it by: Shopping online and checking out its list of “Quarantine Quenchers”—books that will help you learn to bake, ferment, and shake a new cocktail. 

Kepler’s Books & Magazines
Menlo Park

Kepler’s Books & Magazines in Menlo Park sells new books in basically every genre, and it has been an integral part of the Menlo Park community for more than 60 years. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, ever ready to recommend the right YA title or the latest memoir; timely displays of curated titles rotate on shelves near the entrance, and there are always discounted books on carts outside. Its nonprofit literary foundation also hosts frequent live events with authors. —S.B.

Support it by: Placing an order through its online store.

The California Road Trip All Book Lovers Should Take

Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts Bookstore
Berkeley

In a college town once full of great bookstores, Mrs. Dalloway’s is an inviting neighborhood hub with a huge collection of children’s books, literature, and gardening, art, and home coffee table books. —J.C.

Support it by: Buying a gift certificate and signing up for the “Little Library” subscription service, a monthly personalized collection of board books, picture books, and chapter books for young readers.

The multi-level Last Bookstore has records, too.

The Last Bookstore
Los Angeles

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This literary playground in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles brings me the utmost joy. My routine starts with ogling painstakingly designed special editions alongside tattered pulp fiction, followed by a lap around the extensive graphic novel collection, far too much time looking at poetry and staff recommendations, and then browsing all the maker spaces on the second floor for artwork, trinkets, and 3D-printed earrings. —N.A.

Support it by: Ordering gifts and new books from its online store.

Black Bird Bookstore
San Francisco

This small community shop in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood has a lot of love for its city. Black Bird’s shelves are stocked with books written or illustrated by locals, especially in its excellent children’s section. On weekends, it’s a gathering place for folks in the neighborhood, who like to stroll through with a cup of coffee, browse the cookbooks, and sit in the store’s backyard, which doubles as a plant and succulent shop. —Maggie Fuller

Support it by: Purchasing a gift card or one of its curated boxes of books and merchandise—think a “This Is the Time for Poetry” box or the “Cooking Is a Must” box.

Dark Carnival
Berkeley

A large inflatable dragon on the sidewalk greets customers and passersby of Dark Carnival in Berkeley’s Claremont neighborhood. Enter the shop—which has been serving readers of sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy for more than 40 years—and you will find the latest in those genres, as well as a treasure trove of obscure and hard-to-find gems. Get recommendations from owner Jack Rems (you’ll find him stationed near the front of the store) and savor exploring the stacks upon stacks of books that populate the surprisingly large shop; as the Doctor Who saying goes, “It’s bigger on the inside.” —S.B.

Support it by: Following it on social media and checking for updates on reopening.

Pages: A Bookstore
Manhattan Beach, California

Three passionate bibliophiles opened Pages: A Bookstore in 2010. Since then, the intimate shop has gained a loyal following among locals and visitors for its carefully curated selection and frequent author appearances. The shop’s welcoming staff and great location—just a minute's walk from Manhattan Beach’s Strand, the town’s iconic beachside sidewalk—have cinched its place in the community. — Onnalee MacDonald

Support it by: Ordering books, puzzles, or giftcards online for curbside pickup, free local delivery, or regular shipping. Proceeds from audio books purchased through libro.fm will benefit the store.

Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. We may earn a commission if you buy through our links.

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