Now, Britain likes to think of itself as the calm, sensible and intelligent uncle to the over-excitable, dumb-downed ADD child that is America and if you spend your time in the U.S. sat in gaudy motels watching cable TV, you would continue to have this same self-satisfied view of our across the pond neighbour, but unfortunately you could not be more wrong. Take a few steps away from any commercial centre in an American city and it seems as though you are literally falling over exciting, independently run stores, including those shops that are near-mythical on the UK high street, the independent book shop.
Working as a children’s bookseller, I have long suspected that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the US might actually love its books. Most American children’s books are neigh on works of art and the range of subject matter puts the UK publishing industry to shame.
Of course, it isn’t all perfect and I’m not claiming that the US doesn’t have all the problems that the UK book market does (of which there is a great summary here). Amazon is ubiquitous and Kindles are everywhere, I watched bemused as a teen girl in the airport spent an entire 2 hour delay browsing the kindle store, lamenting to her mother that there was nothing good to read.
On my travels along the East and West coast of America, I visited many bookstores, and I’ll grant you not all of them were great, but the fact remained that they were there. Unless you are very lucky, you don’t have any independent or second-hand bookshops in your local British town, much less a Barter Books or a Toppings, but if you ever find yourself in the land of the free, here are a few of my favourites:
Powell’s City of Books 1005 W Burnside, Portland, OR 97209
I’ll start with the big one, this place is the granddaddy of bookshops, it isn’t the prettiest, but by jove it’s the biggest. There are millions of second hand books just waiting to be discovered in its warehouse style setting, amongst the seemingly endless floor to ceiling shelves. Powell’s is open until 11pm every night (including Sundays!) and picking up a floor plan is the best way to navigate its many subject sections. During my visit I spent most of my time in their jaw-droppingly extensive Gender and Sexuality section, as well as Philosophy, Culture and of course their exhaustive Literary Fiction section, but I’m sure you could find something to match every taste, and if not, you could try their 5 other locations dotted around Portland.
Eureka Books 426 Second Street, Eureka CA95501
We visited Eureka because of the great name, and I’m so glad we did, it’s a medium sized town on the northern coast of California, the old town was as adorable as could be and with three independent bookstores on a single road, Eureka books stood out as one of the most pleasurable book shop experiences I had in the States. It’s somehow managed to mix old-style ambiance with modern clean lines and, as a result, has created a store interior that is cosy and calming. If that isn’t enough, they had beautiful secondhand prints, a clothes rail of T-shirts from my favourite company, Out of Print and a first edition copy of ‘The Favourite Game’ by Leonard Cohen, which I wanted so desperately but, as so often happened during the trip, my boyfriend reminded me that any hardbacks I wanted to buy, I must also carry home, so I left empty-handed and defeated by the logic of a non-book lover.
City Lights Books 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway, San Francisco, California 94133
A classic. Being the spiritual home of the Beat Generation, it was, as you’d imagine, as hip as can be. As we entered, a laconic hipster murmured that we must leave our bags at the desk and then continued to communicate only in grunts. But get past the overly fashionable staff and the store is fantastic. It’s not scared to be pretentious or highbrow and therefore has an impressive non-fiction section and, surprisingly, a small but perfectly chosen hardback picture book section. The upstairs is entirely dedicated to poetry with a Poet’s chair to read it in and an open window which allows you to hear the shouts of San Fran’s less-than-desirable residents from an alley down below- just to ensure a truly authentic Kerouacian atmosphere.
A few other great places for book lovers:
Barnes and Noble, Seattle- I know this isn’t an independent (and there were some great indie bookshops in Seattle) but their Children’s section was enchanting and incredibly well done, however I couldn’t say this for every Barnes and Noble I visited.
The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco- A great shop on an iconic road, super friendly staff and an impressive events program.
Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th St, New York- An amazing kid’s bookstore, unfortunately I only ever saw it from the outside- it was closed when I got there!
New York Public Library (Main Branch), 5th Ave (between 40th& 42nd St), New York-There didn’t seem to be many books here or, at the very least, they were kept behind slightly intimidating closed doors, but the interior of the building is definitely worthy of a look.