A good one can tell you a lot about a place and the books inside can reveal much about its people. So here is a section dedicated to the interesting and quirky establishments we find along the way…
This charming little bookshop in Hilo opened in 2010 after the closure of the local Borders store (its owner even bought some of the old Borders furniture and book shelves). The bookshop has since been more than filling its shoes with its cozy vibe, small cafe/meeting space and interesting selection of titles. There is an emphasis on the local with a ‘Keiki’s corner’ full of books in native Hawaiian or about Hawaiian folk stories and legends. It also has a moderate range of new books and series’ too, so with its relaxed atmosphere, comfy sofas and steaming cups of tea, it was the perfect place to while away a rainy afternoon.
Small World Books (407 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, CA 90291)
The entrance to this great little bookshop is almost hidden among the jumble of restaurants and stalls which line the busy Venice Beach boardwalk. Its shop front is entirely obscured by the seating area of the next door Sidewalk café and people sometimes mistakenly go in thinking that they have found the toilets for the Sidewalk, only to be greeted by mountains of books, lazily guarded by the store cat ‘Conan the Librarian’. There is now a large sign with an arrow running along the front of the Sidewalk’s canopy, which is luckily also owned and run by the bookshop owners themselves, and is reported to be the financial crutch of the bookstore.
This bookshop is literally an oasis of quiet from the bustling crowds and noisy buskers outside and is a fierce supporter of independent enterprise. It hosts tables of books from independent publishers throughout the store and the influence of individual shop staffers can been seen all over (for example ‘Bonnie’s summer reading list’). The close knit staff here all have excellent taste, though taste is a subjective thing and their ultimate aim is to provide as wide a selection as possible so that they are offering rather than dictating choice. The politics, music and poetry sections are particularly good. SWB is well known for its curveball recommendations, which keep people coming back but they are also sadly not immune to the iron fist of Amazon. All too often, the bookshop is treated as an information centre, where people come for free advice or just to take photos of the book displays on their phones so they can order them online later. Even though we all seem to have less time as a society to spend ‘browsing’, I can’t help but feel that the death of independent bookshops such as this would be a sad loss. We tend to cling to the idea that the good ones will just keep going, but often it is a case of luck or money from other income streams which enables this and not all of them can rely on it. The bookshops we have visited so far are resourceful and do adapt but they still need people to buy books from them. If you think the world is a nicer place with them in it, give Amazon the push every once in a while and support them, and you’ll get a decent book out of it too (we were directed to Paul Theroux’s Great Train Bazaar, which has been a godsend on subsequent long train journeys, so thanks SWB!).
Book Soup (Sunset Strip, LA)
The infamous Book Soup deserves the level of notoriety it enjoys among LA locals and drop ins alike because it is a truly excellent bookshop. Their innovative and fun shop windows manage to mix attention grabbing fashion/headlines with subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, educational chastisement aimed to induce reading-neglect guilt in those whose side tables are currently piled with the latest gossip magazines; but it works and nearly everyone who is paused by the window is eventually drawn through the doors – which more often than not, they will return through clutching a Book Soup bag. Once inside, they’ll have you hooked with an impressive range of titles which would never get featured on Oprah. In their own words, through ‘our commitment to university, International, and small presses, customers will continue to be surprised by the rare gems found on our shelves’, and they’re not wrong there. Their staff picks section is known to have an almost reverential following and several well known ‘celebs’ who are far too busy/important to leave the comfort of their hotel rooms/chauffeur driven cars have been known to phone the store personally to arrange for a selection of the latest recommended titles to be sent asap to their local palace of residence. A bookshop which isn’t afraid to recommend good books, now there’s a novel idea.
Mystery Pier Bookshop ( Sunset Strip, LA)
A stones throw away from Book Soup but hidden down a narrow, darkened alley way is the Mystery Pier Bookshop which specialises in first editions, signed copies and rare books. It doesn’t get more LA than this, from the film director style chairs which grace the outside to the pictures of the owner with Johnny Depp, Daniel Craig and the like on the wall, you cannot escape the fact that you are in Hollywoodland. The owner himself is an actor, married to an actor (he having featured in films such as Jurassic Park: the Lost World, she as one of the girls in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with Maggie Smith). Harvey is more than happy to chat and is clearly enthusiastic about his collection, showing us everything from a book inscribed by Queen Victoria to a nice collection of signed film scripts (the jewel in the crown currently being an annotated Charlie Chaplin manuscript). Harvey and his son Louis’s finds are museum quality and just being able to touch as carefully leave through the pages feels like something of an honour. Most of the stuff was way out of my price range but it is well worth a visit for Harvey’s stories alone.
The Phoenix at Nepenthe, Big Sur (48510 Highway One, CA)
Though technically not a bookshop in its own right, an interesting books section has been created at the The Phoenix store which is attached to the (once) bohemian restaurant Nepenthe. The majority of books on offer are either: by locals, both past and present (e.g. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch by Miller, Plum Gorgeous and My Nepenthe by Romney Steele, granddaughter of the original owners and many other titles by John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, and Robert Louis Stevenson); on local subject matter (e.g. Big Sur Women, Esalen, Big Sur Inn – The Deetjen’s Legacy) or on topics which are of local interest or inspired by the ‘magic’ of the place itself (e.g. The Esalen Cookbook). The view at the back of the shop is worth a visit in itself – looking out over the mountains, partially clad in sea mist, it is easy to see why Big Sur has inspired so many people.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library (Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, a quarter of a mile south from Nepenthe)The HMML is not actually a library at all but a bookshop and quiet oasis which takes you a million miles away from Highway One just outside. This is my favourite bookshop of the trip so far, not least because it is hidden in an old shack (actually Miller’s friend Emil White’s old home) set in a glade among Redwood trees. On the porch, people are reading and drinking tea and coffee (which is paid for by whatever donation you choose to give) or looking at the ride board, which lists people wanting or offering to carpool up and down the coast. The shady garden space is grass covered and lit by lanterns and candles. A big screen was set up while we there, ready for a musical concert and movie night in the evening (the library/bookshop serves as a cultural resource centre for artists, writers and musicians who put on a whole host of events throughout the year).
The bookshop itself is charming – fairy lights and books are suspended from the ceiling; poetry and philosophy titles are strewn across a piano; old festival and event posters and records (all for sale) hang from the walls and old typewriters and musical instruments, which I like to think are not just decorative, are dotted around various alcoves. The people manning the shop were extremely nice (not pretentious in the slightest) and were happy to talk – someone who had been sleeping in their car along the route wasbeing given advice on the best camp-sites to sneak into to get a free shower while I was in there. Even if you don’t buy anything, you are still encouraged to sit down or lie on the grass and talk to other people over a cup of tea, which is how I think all bookshops should be in an ideal world. If you’re a Miller fan, the place is full of paintings, newspaper excerpts, literary posters and writings which are blu-tacked or pinned to the wall in an impermanent way. Miller himself was not a fan of memorials, famously having said that they ‘defeated the purpose of a man’s life’, so perhaps this temporality is in fact a little nod to him. Lucky then that the Henry Miller Library is neither library nor memorial, but one of the best bookshops and cultural spaces on the west coast.
Bookshop Santa Cruz (1520 Pacific Avenue Santa Cruz, CA 95060)
The future looks bright for this great, not so little, independent bookshop in Santa Cruz which has been going since 1966. Earlier this year, the Santa Cruz branch of Borders shut its doors, deservedly leaving the BSC to reclaim its title of the Santa Cruz community bookstore. Borders was never popular here by most accounts (Santa Cruz, like most Californian towns and cities, is fiercely local-centric). The Bookshop doesn’t seem to be resting on its laurels though – the continuing shift to digital is eyed with caution if attempts around the store to enforce the idea that ‘you can go digital but still shop local’ are anything to go by. As is the case with most independents, the Bookshop is highly innovative, hosting regular events, writers competitions, book recommendations from ‘trusted book store sources’, an indie best-sellers list and a reader’s club which apparently has over 14,000 members. The shop was full of people when we popped in – both locals and tourists – so it certainly seems to be a great community asset. Long may it continue!
City Lights (261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway, CA 9413)
This independent book shop/publisher needs little introduction being one of the more famous names in independent book selling across the world. It was started back in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who was famously charged under the obscenity act for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl), quickly becoming a home for beat poetry and a legendary rendezvous spot for musical and literary greats. It was started as ‘a place where booklovers from across the country and around the world (could) come to browse, read, and just soak in the ambiance of alternative culture’s only Literary Landmark’ and although you are now stopped at the door and asked to remove all backpacks/large bags before entering in case you steal something, you are at least still allowed to sit (or rock) and read any books from the shelves at your leisure.
The selection on offer is rather eclectic with an emphasis on quality publishing which aims to promote critical thought and stimulate debate. While we were there, a lecturer had brought his international summer class students to the shop and was encouraging them to choose a book by an author from a nationality other than their own, who they had never heard of before. Other browsers were there purely for the beat generation connection but as this is cleverly housed on the top floor, which is almost entirely dedicated to poetry, it is difficult not to move away from the Kerouacs and the Ginsbergs to the other wonderful works on offer. Poetry is still very much the jewel in the crown here and there are even plans afoot (pioneered by Ferlinghetti) to create a ‘Poets Plaza’ on nearby Vallejo Street, which given the general lack of appreciation for poetry in bookshops/mainstream publishing and media, sounds like an interesting project. They are currently looking for volunteers/donations/support for the project, information for which can be found here.
Reader’s Café (Building C, South End, Fort Mason Center, 94123)
We stumbled upon this bookshop café after walking for 45 minutes out of down town San Francisco in search of the vegetarian restaurant Greens. We are really glad we did because this place, along with the other art/drama spaces housed at Fort Mason, were something quite special. The motto here is ‘drink coffee support libraries’ as proceeds from the café and book bay bookshop go towards supporting San Francisco’s public libraries (an interesting scheme given the cuts to libraries currently going on back in the UK). The food/beverages on offer such as the Blue Bottle coffee and the Red Blossom tea are all from Bay area businesses making this another locally focussed enterprise but what really capped it off for us were the lovely people manning the café – Kristina and Hanna. Not only did they have great music playing (Tom Waits, The Smiths and Joni Mitchell records were strewn across the counter) while kindly plying us with coffees and pastries but they were really interesting to talk with too.
The adjoining bay bookshop is a treasure trove, housing everything from vintage folk magazines and multiple copies of all seven Harry Potter books to what is reported to be ‘the best (uncurated) selection of used cookbooks in the city’. The mish-mash of books only adds to the quirkiness – in what other bookshop would you find Jeremy Clarkson and Howard Zinn housed next to each other (a proximity which could not be more ironic). Would be great to see something similar get up and running back home – only perhaps with less Jeremy Clarkson.
Housing Works Bookstore and Café (126 Crosby Street New York, NY 10012)
This is a great second hand bookshop/café where all proceeds go to Housing Works, Inc (the largest Aids activist group in the U.S. and a general ‘lifesaving’ service provider for people going through a tough time). It has a fantastic selection of books (particularly poetry and cult novels) and a buzzing atmosphere, the café being both a social hub and serious work space.
Strand Bookstore (828 Broadway New York, NY 10003-4805)
Strand is one of those bookshops whose reputation precedes it, purportedly housing seventeen miles of books – though whether anyone has ever tried laying them out mile by mile is a good question. There are a lot of books in the place and the crowds of people who cram into the store seem almost insignificant in comparison to the towering bookshelves.
If you can get to the tables, they have some great book-selling schemes going. These include the ‘Strand Curated Collections’ where an author/artist selects six books which have inspired them; the staff picks section which actually included some interesting titles rather than just the typical bestseller/marketing-spend driven selection you see at other bookshops and a table of rare books which include some signed first editions. It’s claimed today that people are buying more books but reading less than ever which may be reflected in the fact that Strand now have an in-store designer who can help you build your ‘ideal collection’. Suggested categories including award winners, french wrappers and Vintage (for those who love the smell of old books apparently). Thoughts on books as interior design objects aside, Strand is definitely worth a visit.
Bryant Park Reading Room (between 40th and 42nd Streets & Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
This is my favourite small park in New York. Not only is it behind New York Public Library, with fantastic views of the Empire State Building and gothic style Radiator Building but it looks completely different every season.
This year the Reading Room returned to the park. The original idea was coined back in 1935 when the depression meant that many people had lost their jobs and had nowhere to go. The ‘Open Air Library’ was created to give ‘out-of-work businessmen and intellectuals a place to go where they did not need money, a valid address, a library card, or any identification to enjoy the reading materials’ (source: http://www.bryantpark.org/things-to-do/reading_room.html).
The current reading park-side reading room has an impressive selection of magazines and books donated by publishers such as Oxford University Press which are free to enjoy and a schedule of discussions and events planned themed around some of the books on offer. Having arrived in NY by boat at dawn and being unable to check into our accommodation for five hours, the reading room was a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the city who didn’t appreciate us taking up all the ‘sidewalk’ with our oversized bags.