Best of the Best
The Best Independent Bookstores in America
Independent bookstores are not only surviving but thriving—their savvy service and welcoming environs (especially at this time of year) securing a place in our book loving hearts.
For the past decade, literary fear-mongers have been proclaiming the end of print—Amazon is killing the local bookstore, readers would rather swipe a screen than flip a page, and don’t even get started on newspapers and magazines. But, thankfully, these predictions are proving false. Indie bookstores are enjoying a resurgence that continues to affirm that their place in communities around the U.S. is sacrosanct.
“The indies now find that readers are looking for life beyond their computer screens. They want to embrace books in all three dimensions and to select them in a tactile, less anonymous marketplace,” Francis X. Clines wrote in February in The New York Times.
While browsing shelf after shelf of interesting finds is the foundation of an inspiring bookstore experience, it takes a secret sauce of qualities to make the best of the indies: a charming ambience complete with homey touches—think cool and comfy seating plus resident four-legged friends; a welcoming and shockingly knowledgeable staff, the quirkier the better; and a dedication to cultivating a community of book lovers, whether of the local or traveling variety.
With these ingredients, indie bookstores around the world have gained a passionate and loyal following. Whether they’re the wise veterans who have survived for decades or the brand new shops on the scene, their place is so ingrained in our society that The New York Times recently dedicated an entire issue of their travel section to the humble bookstore and the passion of the literary traveler. And the heartbreaking announcement that a fan favorite is closing can make national news.
Whether you’re looking for a fun stop on your next trip or a local gem that will help you find the perfect gift this holiday season, here are some of the best indie bookstores to explore in the U.S.
Parnassus BooksNashville, TN
What do you do when you are a famous author and you hear that the only remaining indie bookstore in your town is closing its doors? If you’re Ann Patchett and her co-owner-cum-publisher Karen Hayes, you open one of your own. The result is Parnassus Books, which debuted in 2011 and has been serving the book-loving community of Nashville ever since. With a commitment to spotlighting local authors among its extensive collection of titles, Parnassus has become a neighborhood haven and a destination for literary pilgrims, so much so that the duo recently expanded into the space next door.
Powell’s BooksPortland, OR
Not all bookshops need to be small and quaint to be considered an indie. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon claims to be “the world’s largest independent bookstore,” and confronted with over a million books filling an entire city block, it’s hard to argue with that title. Along with supplying all the readers of the area and beyond (Powell’s has a thriving online retail presence), the store is a permanent entry on the list of must-see destinations in the hipster haven.
Square BooksOxford, MS
The heart and soul of this Mississippi city’s historic town center, Square Books has expanded since its opening in 1979 to include two additional spaces nearby, one dedicated to children’s books and another to lifestyle titles. Located in the same town that writers such as William Faulkner and John Grisham have called home, this bookstore has garnered many fans over the years who flock to the shop for the impeccable recommendations of owners Richard and Lisa Howorth (editor’s note: their daughter Claire Howorth formerly served as the art editor at The Daily Beast) and to see the impressive line-up of writers who stop by for readings and events.
The Last BookstoreLos Angeles, CA
The best way to prove your dedication to books? Use them as the creative decor in your shop. That’s the approach The Last Bookstore in L.A. takes, pairing their impressive selection of new and used reads and records with tomes repurposed to form art installations and a giant tunnel of books that runs through the store. If you dare, make sure to visit to the top floor, aptly named The Labyrinth, where a chaotic mess of books all sell for a dollar and hide secret reading rooms and more treasures to explore.
BookbookNew York, New York
Greenwich Village has historically been the heart of New York City’s artistic community, and Bookbook keeps that legacy alive with its intimate space on Bleecker Street that turns into an open-air market during the warmer months. Offering a wide variety of genres and titles, Bookbook is also the perfect place to find some steals, with plenty of used bestsellers going for bargain prices.
Sag Harbor, New York
Harbor Books isn’t just a charming shop to discover your new favorite author, it’s a cultural destination that begs for you to plop down in an overstuffed chair and stay awhile. The store hits all the high notes that make the quintessential indie: decor made from antique and reclaimed materials, two resident fur balls, a cafe serving up plenty of caffeine, and a crew of booksellers ready to inspire. Want to take your literary love a little further? Join the Harbor Books Readers’ Society or check out one of the many author events that take place in this shop just off the water.
Books & BooksCoral Gables & Miami Beach, FL
Owner Mitchell Kaplan has been the don of Miami’s literary community since opening his first Books & Books in 1982. With the warm and chic ambience of dark wood fixtures and volumes lining the walls and stacked high on tables, this bookshop and its outposts have become a refuge and a gathering place for not only literary lovers, but also the writers and authors who make the magic happen. Ann Patchett recently wrote that “just walking in the door of either the Coral Gables or South Beach location makes me feel like an automatic hipster, a book hipster.” And many writers have had the pleasure of following in her footsteps. In addition to a vast selection of books and a cozy cafe, Books & Books hosts an award-winning Reading Series that welcomes 60 authors every month for events covering a wide range of genres.
Politics & ProseWashington, D.C.
Forget the impressive offerings on the shelves at Politics & Prose, the bookstore has an even more impressive roster of power players who call themselves customers (we’ll give you one hint: one of them currently lists the White House as his address). Politics & Prose excels at the thing that defines many of the indies—it offers an exceptional line-up of speakers and author readings, as well as events like writing classes, that help build an intellectual community inside the Beltway. In a more introspective mood? Grab a new book and head to the cafe for a leisurely afternoon of tasty treats and reads.
Wild DetectivesDallas, TX
Located in the trendiest new neighborhood in Dallas, the Bishop Arts District, Wild Detectives offers books, brews, and more all packaged in one charming bungalow. Named for a Roberto Bolaño novel, this eclectic spot has a stated mission “to curate all those things that matter, those serious pleasures which turn life into experience.” In one building, you can grab your morning cuppa and a bite to eat, browse through racks of the latest fiction and poetry—as well as a hefty selection of untranslated Spanish offerings—and then partake in some vino while enjoying whatever entertainment is on tap that evening, from book readings to backyard bands.
City LightsSan Francisco, CA
City Lights has a hefty history that’s worth a tome of its own. Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and serving as a gathering place for the beatniks in the ’50s and ’60s, this bookstore has drawn in some of the best counterculture artists and thinkers in the U.S. Present-day Kerouacs and Ginsbergs can browse through three-stories worth of books that cover pretty much every topic your intellectual heart could desire. In addition to serving up the day’s bestsellers, City Lights also has a publishing arm of its own that has shepherded nearly 200 books into the world.
Faulkner House BooksNew Orleans, LA
There is perhaps no better location for a bookstore than in the ground floor space of a famous author’s former abode. Faulkner House Books has taken up residence in the building in former Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter where William Faulkner once rented a room. In addition to the usual literary suspects, this bookshop also offers a selection of rare books and first editions, including several by the store’s literary forefather.