Barry Lancet is the author Pacific Burn, out now from sister company Simon & Schuster, the latest entry in the international thriller series featuring Jim Brodie. The first book, Japantown, won the Barry Award Winner for “Best Debut Novel” and the second, Tokyo Kill, was a Shamus Award finalist for “Best Hardcover PI Novel.” Lancet divides his time between Japan and United States, but no matter where he is you can always find him on Facebook and Twitter, or learn more about Lancet, Japan, and Pacific Burn on his website.
As an expat Californian living in Tokyo, I find Japan’s megacity a vital, thriving urban center with culture, color, diversity, and character. Few cities in the world resonate for me like Tokyo, but there is one place with the same verve, excitement, and loyal citizenry that also make it one of the greatest cities in the world: San Francisco.
You can tell a lot about a city by its neighborhood bookstores. And that’s certainly the case with San Francisco. Below, in no particular order, is a tour of ten superb neighborhood stores—each independent, unique, and worthy of a visit,
2225 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Open daily, 10 a.m–10 p.m.
Nestled comfortably on the Fillmore slope in Pacific Heights, Browser Books is intent on being the neighborhood’s “leading literary bookseller.” They have a tasteful selection of contemporary and classic fiction, poetry, memoir, and nonfiction, mysteries and cookbooks. Owner Stephen Damon is an ordained Soto-sect Zen priest and studied philosophy as well, so he maintains a carefully curated selection of philosophical books and spiritual titles. Running a bookstore is satisfying and Damon feels very much a part of the neighborhood. “We get thanked all the time for being a part of the community.”
Green Apple Books
506 Clement Street
San Francisco, CA 94118
Open daily, 10 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
A big presence in the Richmond district, Green Apple is a book lover’s paradise, and has a loyal and enthusiastic following. A comfortable and creaky place, it dangles the same promise as a high-end swap meet: around the next corner there just might be a new find. And there are a lot of corners. Green Apple is a warren of linked rooms, cubbyholes, the proverbial nooks and crannies, and seemingly endless staircases spread out over 8,000 square feet in two storefronts.
There are books of all stripes, from new to rare and collectable, as well as music, magazines, graphic novels, and more. New and used books are selected with a keen eye, and curated with a refreshing perspective. Co-owner Pete Mulvihill, who along with his partner was handpicked by the previous owner to carry on this local treasure, estimates there are a quarter of a million items in the store.
80 West Portal Avenue,
San Francisco, CA 94127
Open daily, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Neal Sofman opened a bookshop in West Portal 9 years ago to fill a void. Sofman took a look at the location and was impressed. Homey and welcoming with a range of well-chosen reads, Bookshop West Portal is frequented by both locals and book lovers who pop over from another part of town.
Carefully chosen fiction, mysteries and thrillers, general and literary nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, and plenty more line the shelves. The staff is passionate, and books are carefully vetted. “We get to know our customers’ reading preferences,” says Susan Tunis the store’s fiction and mystery specialist. At times the store becomes a hangout—a local yoga club used the space and so did a knitting class. When classes ended, the group stuck around and continued as a “knit-and-chat” gathering.
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
Open daily, 9 a.m.–9 p.m.
Book Passage is a book lover’s paradise with a view—a stunning floor-to-ceiling panorama looking out over the San Francisco Bay to the west. It is located in the old Ferry Building on Pier 1, a classic bayside structure renovated to house a pleasing collection of independent eateries, coffeehouses, and local artisan food producers. Go for coffee, a book, and a meal, then ice cream and tea and make an afternoon of it.
Book Passage, along with its sister store across the Golden Gate Bridge in Corte Madera, is a Bay Area institution. They hold several annual writing conferences, literary dinners with name authors, and numerous other events, and approximately 800 author talks a year. “We have limited space in the San Francisco store,” enthuses co-owner Elaine Petrocelli, “but we use every square inch. We want to have every possible book a customer might ask for.” And amazingly, they seem to meet that goal—with fiction, literary nonfiction, quality food books, an array of children’s offerings, travel books, and much more.
866 Valencia Street
(btwn 20th Street & Cunningham Place)
San Francisco, CA 94110
Open daily, 12 p.m.–8 p.m.
Borderlands specializes in mystery, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. “All of the books we sell are on the borderlands of literature,” owner Alan Beatts adds. “None of the titles have the ‘pretenses’ of being literary. They have to deliver a good story.”
The 2,000 square-foot store carries more than 14,000 titles, with used books making up about 30 percent of the stock, and Beatts is always on the lookout for rare out-of-print books for his customers. He sees his store as an organic part of the neighborhood, and this is nowhere more apparent than the adjoining coffeehouse at which readers, writers, and locals like to hang out.
2251 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
Open Mon-Sat, 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun, 9 a.m.–9 p.m.
The California Gold Rush Days of 1851—that’s how far back this Bay Area independent bookstore chain can trace its roots. Today the local chain boasts 11 locations.
I have a fondness for the Marina branch in San Francisco because my character, Jim Brodie, has located his fictitious antiques shop only a few blocks away on Lombard Street, and a unique chase scene in Japantown unfolded in these streets. When I point out that the selection of books seems different than other branches, manager Brian Pettus nods and smiles. “Every one of our bookstores is tailored to the neighborhood. Our Laurel Village store is only thirteen blocks away and has a very different focus because the makeup of the area is different.” He and his staff are attentive. They know what the locals want and that has earned loyalty. Aside from carrying a healthy range of fiction, general nonfiction, business/finance, and YA/children’s books among others, they also host the engagingly titled, “Classics I Forgot to Read” Book Club and provide a home for others clubs to meet, including those focused on travel, cookbooks, and business. What more could you ask of a local shop?
50 Second Street (a block and a half from Market Street)
San Francisco, CA 94105
Open M-F 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Sat 10a.m.–5p.m.
A refreshing oasis in the downtown area, Alexander Book Company has persevered and flourished as skyrocketing rents drove out many centrally located bookshops. A quick jaunt from the Montgomery Street Bart Station, the store offers some 50,000 curated books on three floors.
Alexander’s has a helpful and friendly staff, offers an array of special discounts, and stocks a high volume of quality books. “We get many repeat customers,” says co-owner Bonnie Stuppin. “They are still extremely interested in ‘paper books.’ The store has an excellent backlist as well as current books in just about every category. Their mystery buyer loves distinctive mysteries, including French works in translation. Alexander’s sponsors a plant-a-tree program keyed to purchases to replace the paper used and have racked up a staggering 300,000 trees.
Japan Center – Kinokuniya Mall
1581 Webster Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Open daily, 10:30 a.m.–8 p.m.
A long-time cultural anchor in San Francisco’s Japantown, where the “perfect murder” in the first Jim Brodie book takes place, Kinokuniya stocks books about every aspect on Japan, from art to Zen Buddhism, plus a number of books from or about other Far East countries. From martial arts to Japanese food and drink to antiques to anime, the selection is vast.
Plus, the store offers the largest selection of imported publications from Japan—books, magazines, and manga the mainstays among them. For those interested in visual elements, the illustrated imports—rich in graphics—have been a secret source of inspiration and ideas.
1644 Haight Street
San Francisco, Calif. 94117
Open Mon-Sat, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.
Literary fiction, mystery, poetry, and counterculture books (street art, tattoos, Hippie and Beat subjects, and so on) are some of the few highlights the store that SF Weekly called “the city’s living room” has to offer. Muted chartreuse walls—a color fitting for a store embedded in the Haight—are nicely balanced with a sobering black band of chalk board playfully, and sometimes flamboyantly, decorated with chalk art by the employees, and no doubt another nod to the history of the neighborhood. The Booksmith also has an impressively curated sociology section that features books on black life, alternative life choices, and contemporary sexual issues, as wells as, currently, titles that examine police actions, poverty in America, and the blue-collar life.
Events are also a major feature at the Booksmith. “We do 200 events a year and have 3 full-time events coordinators to handle the workload,” co-owner Christin Evans says. Excellent selection, inventive calendar, and enthusiastic staff.
866 Valencia Street
(btwn 20th Street & Cunningham Place)
San Francisco, CA 94110
Open daily, 10 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
A short walk from the earlier-mentioned, genre-focused Borderlands Books, Dog Eared Books offers lovers of the written word the perfect counterbalance. Current and classic fiction, literary nonfiction, Beats, counterculture, local writers, antiquarian, poetry, and, as senior manager Alvin Orloff puts it, “small presses doing really interesting stuff” line their shelves. On the popular side, they carry books for foodies, especially those from such local favorites, also carry a selection of Spanish and French books. As the name implies, Dog Eared houses an ample supply of used books and a handful of antiquarian volumes, which together comprise about sixty percent of the store’s stock.
Their curated sections include “creative nonfiction” and local writers. Hip, idiosyncratic, alluring, and appealing, Dog Eared is, like its companions above, not to be missed.