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10 Great Independent Bookstores

10 Great Independent Bookstores

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Updated on Apr 3, 2014

Remember the rich experience of perusing the shelves for that perfect novel or sipping coffee while devouring the first few pages in a comfy chair by the window? Today, with a new book just a few mouse-clicks away, children and adults alike are in danger of losing the connection to the bookstore experience.

According to independent bookstores everywhere, the shift away from local bookstores means more than the loss of that book-loving ambiance: it also means you miss the one-on-one customer relationship with bookstore staffers, who are there because they have a vested interest in making sure you take home the perfect book. Robin Agnew of independent mystery bookseller Aunt Agatha's of Ann Arbor, Michigan, said, “I had one customer knit me a scarf as a thank you for introducing her to a favorite new author.” Kate Ferguson, Events Coordinator at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, says, “The hearts and souls of our booksellers are evident from the moment you enter the store. These are true book lovers, who are just bursting with the desire to help each and every customer find the right book, and taking sheer pleasure in being able to share their own beloved favorites with the general public.”

Many great independent bookstores have stood the test of time and big bookstore chains. You just have to know where to look. Here is just a small handful of the best, as well as tidbits on what makes each special:

  1. City Lights Books, San Francisco, California. Founded in 1953, City Lights is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher specializing in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. Its popularity as a beatnik hotspot continues to be a strong influence in the store. City Lights has become world-famous, but has retained an intimate, casual charm.
  2. Books & Books, Coral Gables, Florida, hosts roughly 70 author events a month, and the stores' specialties include art, architecture and regional literature. Its Coral Gables and Miami Beach locations also offer full-service restaurants (they have four locations).
  3. Prairie Lights, Iowa City, Iowa, started in 1978 and gradually spread to three and a half floors (the half being an 1100 square foot coffee house where the local literary society met throughout the 1930's and hosted writers Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, and e e cummings). But Prairie Lights says none of that could have been possible without a loyal customer base and a dedicated staff. 
  4. That Bookstore in Blytheville, Blytheville, Arkansas, of John Grisham fame, offers 2,400 square feet with more than 25,000 titles in stock. The store invites visitors to browse their selection while sipping a cup of the store's own blend of coffee, Special Edition. Or simply relax in a rocking chair next to a wood stove, engage in conversation about the book you've just read or enjoy a spontaneous reading of the new favorite children's book of the day.
  5. Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle, Washington, is located in Seattle's historic Pioneer Square district, once the city's business district. The bookstore, with its exposed brick walls, is home to over 150,000 titles set on cedar shelves, and offers a selection of both new and used books, including a number of antique and signed or limited editions. The Elliott Bay Café, which opened in 1979, is considered a reader's haven, with delicious foods, tempting desserts and beverages, and seating that encourages lively discussions.
  6. The Strand, near Union Square in Manhattan, is a New York legend, and is still owned by the Bass family, who founded it in 1927. Named after the famous publishing street in London, the Strand was one of 48 bookstores on Book Row, which started in the 1890s and ran from Union Square to Astor Place. Today, the Strand is the sole survivor. It offers 18 miles of books, including more than 2.5 million used, new and rare books. They have author events and offer a library services as well.
  7. Powell's City of Books, Portland, Oregon, claims to be the world's largest independent used and new bookstore. This unique indie is home to the Gold Room, the Rose Room, the Purple Room, and a color-coded map so patrons won’t get lost. At first viewed as unorthodox, Powell’s placed used and new, hardcover and paperback, all on the same shelf. But it worked for them. They are open 365 days a year and now have their full inventory available on the web www.powells.com.
  8. Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colorado. Amidst the mile-long outdoor mall through the heart of LoDo, historic Lower Denver, booklovers can visit Tattered Cover, which offers cozy nooks, overstuffed chairs and a gas fireplace.
  9. All for Kids Books & Music, Seattle, Washington’s oldest surviving children's bookstore, carries 65,000 titles and more than 2,500 children's recordings – one of the largest music inventories in the nation. The store features treasure hunts for kids, author signings, invitation-only banquets, kids' craft workshops and more. It was even called upon to rent a wall of their books for a little Tom Hanks film called “Sleepless in Seattle.”  
  10. Linden Tree Children’s Recordings and Books Los Altos, California, which opened in 1984, was the first to bring Raffi to Northern California. They offer children's recordings, a broad inventory of books, as well as a selection of other "treasures": puppets and book-related dolls, tea sets, science and math games, toys, art materials, origami paper, water toys, paper dolls, infant and toddler toys, puzzles, gifts and toys from other countries.

Independent bookstores meet and exceed their customers’ needs by getting to know them on a personal level, not by logging a cookie after they visit a website. Danny Givens, owner of Givens Books-Little Dickens in Lynchburg, Virginia, explains that at his store, buying decisions are made “at the counter, on our sales floor listening to customers chat and talk about book clubs, great books they have just finished reading, etc.-- not off in some cubicle a thousand miles away looking over trends and reports on their screens. Customers notice this and love it.”

So check out your local independent bookstores and take in the sights and smells. See what makes them special. Then take a minute to see why, despite this Internet age, these bookstores are still standing, still thriving and still giving patrons a fulfilling literary experience.

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