Thomas Jefferson declared, “I cannot live without books,” and San Franciscans seem to agree.
Maybe it’s the cool, damp weather, which often keeps people indoors and prompted Mark Twain’s famous quip that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Or perhaps it’s the Bay Area’s emphasis on public transportation, which leaves commuters free to crack open a book while somebody else sits at the wheel.
Or perhaps it’s the general culture of tolerance, which over the years has helped attract a large population of resident writers including Twain, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Irving Stone, Oscar Wilde, William Saroyan, Sam Shepard, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Ken Kesey, Wallace Stegner, Eugene O’Neill, Anne Rice, Alice Adams and Hunter S. Thompson.
For whatever reason, this is a region that reads. The San Francisco metropolitan area (what’s broadly considered the Bay Area, including Oakland, Marin, San Francisco and several other counties) boasts more bookstores per household (one for every 4,115 homes) than any other metropolitan area in the United States, according to 1987 U.S. Census figures, the most recent available. (Los Angeles County has one bookstore for every 7,518 households.) The average Bay Area resident spends $132.09 on books each year, compared with $85.76 for residents of Los Angeles-Long Beach. Total book sales in 1987 for the Bay Area were $338.9 million; for Los Angeles-Long Beach, $265.6 million, according to the Census.
Unlike many parts of the country where the big chains have taken over, the San Francisco area is one place where independent, locally owned bookstores still thrive. Some of the stores are historical icons, others are community gathering places. All offer a selection of books you just won’t find in a chain store.
There’s no better way to get a feel for the true character of the Bay Area than by visiting its bookstores. The stores listed here include some of the most popular, the most renowned and most unusual, starting in San Francisco, heading south to Menlo Park, crossing over the bay to Berkeley and then west to Marin County.
And those visiting between May 7 and 14 can take part in more than 40 events that are part of the area’s fifth annual Mystery Week, which this year commemorates the 100th birthday of Hammett, who lived and wrote here in the 1920s and set about half of his books, including “The Maltese Falcon,” here. Mystery Week events include an interactive murder mystery dinner, book signings by local mystery writers, a crime-fighters-and-writers forum and a panel in which mystery writers compose a modern-day “Maltese Falcon” on stage with help from an audience.
A good place to start the tour is at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books at Opera Plaza on busy Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place (two other branches are in Cupertino, in the Silicon Valley, and Larkspur Landing, in Marin County) has an interior as polished as that of the most upscale chain bookstore, with warm lighting, blond bookshelves, benches and forest-green carpet throughout. But the store’s appeal is more than surface deep--it’s stocked with 70,000 titles on everything from parenting to politics to holistic health. Strengths are new fiction and nonfiction, travel and cooking, and an entire room devoted to mystery, suspense and sci-fi.
Local writers are displayed in several areas: One table offers works by Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, Nguyen Qui Duc, Anne Lamott, Theodore Roszak, Paul Theroux. Another highlights books by local mystery writers, including Jacqueline Girdner’s novel “Adjusted to Death,” which follows the story of Marin County’s “only vegetarian divorcee detective” as she investigates a murder on a chiropractor’s table.
As in a good wine shop, reviews are taped up next to books on shelves around the store, and staff picks are posted at the front door.
The store is known for its frequent author events; most recently for appearances by novelist Carlos Fuentes (“The Orange Tree”), performance artist Laurie Anderson (“Stories From the Nerve Bible”), British author Will Self (“My Idea of Fun”), thrill-meister James W. Hall (“Mean High Tide”) and San Francisco poet Kim Addonizio (“The Philosopher’s Club”).
If a Clean, Well-Lighted Place manages to gracefully combine good business with a love of books, City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in North Beach appears to shun commercialism entirely. The store is as much a cultural landmark as it is a place of business.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a partner, Peter D. Martin, founded City Lights in 1953 as the first bookstore in the nation to specialize in quality paperbacks. Pocket books, as they were then called, had previously been limited to pulp fiction. Now people were able to purchase a work of serious fiction, nonfiction or poetry for as little as 35 cents.
From the start, Ferlinghetti used the bookstore to finance his publishing business, which featured his own poetry and work by writers such as Pauline Kael, Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. Other Beat writers orbiting the establishment soon included Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman and Philip Lamantia. In 1956, City Lights Books published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” and gained worldwide attention when U.S. Customs seized the book, calling it obscene.
Although City Lights no longer vibrates with the same intensity as it did during the Beat era, the store remains both true to that time and a home for new authors and ideas. One window displays a memorial to late Los Angeles poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, who gave his first poetry reading for the City Lights Poets Theatre in 1973. Another highlights new works from City Lights Books: “Light From a Nearby Window: Contemporary Mexican Poetry,” edited by Juvenol Acosta; “Critical Condition: Women on the Edge of Violence,” an anthology of works; and “The Secret Meaning of Things,” new poetry from Ferlinghetti.
The street-level floor is filled with fiction from authors along the lines of D. H. Lawrence, Anne Rice and Jean Genet. The Beat room upstairs pulls together all the important works that made history in the store’s early days, along with general poetry. The musty basement holds nonfiction books, including music (especially blues, R&B; and jazz), religion, philosophy, politics and healing. Decor throughout the store is minimal (eight-foot-high paintings of the Statue of Liberty and a James Joyce “Ulysses” quote are the exceptions). A lone saxophone blows over the sound system.
Open until midnight, City Lights is a neighborhood haunt where people don’t just buy books, they attend readings, meet friends before dinner in North Beach and hang out in the stacks on sleepless nights or windy Sunday afternoons.
San Francisco Mystery Books--a shoe box of a store at 24th Street and Diamond--fits well in a neighborhood where mom-and-pop stores still thrive and errands can be done on foot. Owner Bruce Taylor offers collections of vintage mysteries, new releases (“Torch” by John Lutz), travel books (“Mystery Reader’s Walking Guide to London”), magazines (“Murder & Mayhem,” “The Gay & Lesbian Detective”) as well as first editions and special printings. Upstairs, book serials are organized by category (anthropologist detective, female sleuth, Bay Area setting) and author (Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler).
A few blocks away at Small Press Traffic on Guerrero Street, manager John McNally describes the nonprofit store’s offerings as “things McWalden’s wouldn’t touch"--books from small presses and self-published works, particularly poetry, journals and literary anthologies. Founded in 1974, the store has survived for two decades with foundation grants and fund-raisers. Writing classes and readings are numerous and sometimes offbeat: Dodie Bellamy’s prose workshop is advertised as being “for writers whose work is weird/fringy in form or content and who want to make it more so.”
Old Wives’ Tales is situated amid a cluster of women’s businesses and social services in the heavily Latino Mission District. The bookstore focuses on women’s literature and feminist texts, but there’s enough room in the definition to allow Roseanne Arnold’s “My Lives” (Ballantine Books) to sit on a table of new releases with “Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts” by Anne Llewellyn Barstow (Pandora) and “The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White” by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip (Simon & Schuster).
There’s nothing glamorous about Green Apple Books on Clement Street in the Richmond District, but the store is a favorite among browsers looking for a large selection of inexpensive used books and new books at used prices. (At press time, Green Apple employees were passing out leaflets asking customers to boycott the store in support of contract negotiations, but they were still reporting to work.)
Thirty miles south of San Francisco in suburban Menlo Park is Kepler’s Books & Magazines. Roy and Patricia Kepler founded the store in 1955, and like Ferlinghetti at City Lights, specialized in quality paperbacks. The store reflected Roy Kepler’s political views; he was a pacifist and social activist who paid a price for his activism in the 1960s when his store became the target of violence.
Today son Clark Kepler operates an expanded version of the store, which stocks more than 100,000 titles in an airy concrete-and-glass building on El Camino Real, just a stone’s throw from the Stanford University campus. The 1990s store has less of a political agenda than the original store, but politics and culture, nonetheless, are still represented.
Works of new fiction and nonfiction include all the best-sellers, but also esoteric and small press offerings, such as Ian Hamilton’s “International Oxford Companion to Thirteenth Century Poetry,” and “Cigarettes Are Sublime: A Literary, Philosophical, Cultural History of Smoking” by Richard Klein (Duke University Press). Befitting its location near Silicon Valley, there are ample displays of books on computers, electronics and science.
Aside from all the serious reading, Kepler’s is also just a pleasant place in which to spend time. The store is spacious and filled with light. A large children’s section is colorfully decorated. Jazz (Billie Holiday on the morning last month when I was there) plays softly in the background. Cafe Borone next door serves good coffee and cafe fare, and customers can comfortably sit and browse through their new purchases without being rushed along.
Those tempted to romanticize 1960s Berkeley should pick up a copy of “Cody’s Books: The Life and Times of a Berkeley Bookstore, 1956-1977" by Pat and Fred Cody (Chronicle Books). Cody’s was in the middle of it all--the Free Speech Movement, civil rights protests, anti-war demonstrations, People’s Park. Although the Codys were liberals and active supporters of the young, they nevertheless describe those years as tremendously burdensome, and they have observed that it is hard to keep a business afloat when riots and tear-gassing are common occurrences on the street in front of your store.
The Codys sold the store in 1977, but the intellectual spirit of their establishment remains. Crown Books it ain’t: A table near the front door displays “Scattered Hegemonies,” edited by Indertal Grewal (University of Minnesota Press) and “Up Against Foucault” by Caroline Ramazanoglu (Routledge).
The store has more than 100,000 titles in both popular and academic areas, and most people will be able to find what they’re looking for here or can order what they don’t. The store also carries about 700 periodicals--everything from the Yale Review to Unsolved UFO Sightings.
A few doors down from Cody’s is Moe’s, which stocks primarily used books--four floors of them--as well as rare books and signed first editions of such volumes as Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” ($125) and “The Collected Plays of Eugene O’Neill” from 1924 ($350). The store seems very tuned into its Generation X student clientele with its suggestion that customers send in their wish lists or pick up book catalogues by electronic mail through the store’s Internet computer address.
Gaia, which opened in 1987 to offer “spiritual, feminist, ecological and cross-cultural religious perspectives,” reflects a different face of Berkeley culture. It has a New Age feel--self-help books, drums, fetishes, Tarot cards and music--and skeptics might be tempted to dismiss the enterprise as just so much pseudo-spiritual nonsense. But that would be missing what the store has to offer. After all, what chain bookstore would showcase a large display of books on menopause, midlife and aging near its front door? Though the store has a strong feminist orientation, men and women seem to frequent it in nearly equal numbers.
Around the corner on Shattuck is a neighborhood bookstore whose sophisticated contents appeal to its clientele of university professors and intellectuals. Writers visiting Black Oak Books in April included University of Pennsylvania professor and former Justice Department nominee C. Lani Guinier, discussing her book, “The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness and Representative Democracy,” and novelist Whitney Otto (“How to Make an American Quilt,” “Now You See Her”). With its hearty assortment of regional cuisine cookbooks, the otherwise general-interest bookstore also reflects its location just one block from the restaurant Chez Panisse in the heart of Berkeley’s so-called “gourmet ghetto.”
Travel enthusiasts make the trip across the bay to Marin County to visit Book Passage in Corte Madera. Although strong in general-interest books and mysteries, the Marin County store also claims to have the largest selection of travel books on the West Coast. (There are 18 shelves devoted to Great Britain alone.) Staff members are trained to help shoppers find just the travel books they need. The store offers a relaxed setting, with a coffee bar and sitting areas throughout.
The store sponsors a number of workshops for aspiring travel writers, as well as an annual weekend conference scheduled this year in August.
Chain stores may be able to recreate the ambience of an independent bookstore, but not the passion and personality behind them.
“I am a bookseller--the owner and operator of a personal bookstore,” wrote Fred Cody before his death in 1983. “We are, I’m afraid, members of a fast-vanishing tribe. I agree with those who say that the small personal bookstore is a somewhat picturesque carry-over from the beginning of the 19th Century. Yet there are still people who are so badly adjusted to reality that they insist on either writing books or selling them.”
Many of us are glad they do.
Bay Area Bookstores
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Ave. (Opera Plaza), San Francisco; telephone (415) 441-6670.
Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; tel. (510) 486-0698.
Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera; tel. (415) 927-0960.
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco; tel (415) 362-8193.
Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; tel. (510) 845-7852.
Gaia Bookstore, 1400 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; tel. (510) 548-4172.
Green Apple Books, 506 Clement St., San Francisco; tel. (415) 387-2272.
Kepler’s, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; tel. (415) 324-4321.
Moe’s, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; tel. (510) 849-2087.
Old Wives’ Tales Bookstore, 1009 Valencia St., San Francisco; tel. (415) 821-4675.
San Francisco Mystery Books, 746 Diamond St., San Francisco; tel. (415) 282-7444.
Shakespeare & Co., 2499 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; tel. (510) 841-8916.
Sierra Club Books, 730 Polk St., San Francisco; tel. (415) 923-5600.
Small Press Traffic, 3599 24th St., San Francisco; tel. (415) 285-8394.
Mystery Week events: tel. (707) 545-4699.