The Top 10 Bookstores in the US


[Editor’s note: For the next two Fridays, Flavorwire will be counting down our 20 most popular features of 2010. This post, which originally ran on September 2, 2010, comes in at position number 11.] Bookstores are dying. They’re dying because of jerks who are too cheap to buy a hardcover, or even a paperback, and too lazy to get a library card. Guys like the one from Julie Bosman‘s NY Times article, and this guy, and this guy. Even before we break into the eBooks discussion, think about everything else that reading is supposed to contend with these days — movies, video games, television, and the internet. And now that there’s competition even within the “book” medium, it’s no wonder that Barnes and Noble is closing a four-level shop (for those of you in New York, the Union Square Megastore is safe) and Borders agonizes through round after round of layoffs and store closings.

After the jump, please shed a tear, observe a moment of silence, then head to one of the top bookstores in the United States, and buy something fer chrissakes.

First, a memorial of sorts. The Gotham Book Mart closed in 2007, ending a storied role in literary culture. You can read more about it here, but please support your local bookstore (and our favorites below) so smart, creative people don’t run out of places to hang out and find dates.

Powell’s in Portland, OR opened in 1971. Since then, they’ve managed to open several locations city-wide (including two specialty shops) and, more importantly, build an independent online marketplace to rival Amazon’s book selection. The building itself is built like a casino — a complicated web of rooms that trap you in front of merchandise. It’s not that bad though; their color-coded map makes it easy to find what you want.

With arguably the best website name (, Partners & Crime Mystery in New York City pays homage to every mystery novel. Ever. They have an astounding collection of rare, out-of-print, and first edition books to choose from, as well as the most popular mysteries of today. Because they occupy such a niche market (niche in the sense that it’s one subject, not so in that mysteries are an huge part of book sales) P&C’s services are tailored to each customer. Said awesome website boasts that more than 85 percent of their sales are to repeat or referral customers.

Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles, CA holds the widest selection of comics you’re likely to find in a bookstore — from weekly superhero rags to rare graphic novels. But this is not your Jeff Albertson comic store. The staff is known for being some of the friendliest comics nerdz around. SHQ is such a great place that it was the only US location allowed on The Guardian‘s list of the Top Ten Bookshop(pe?)s in the world. With all the writers & artists, inkers and colorists making appearances, it’s little wonder.

Celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC was initially worried about alienating potential customers with their name. It obviously wasn’t a problem. It’s very much a political business though — C-SPAN and BookTV frequently air readings and lectures from the bookstore’s author corner. When they acquired the Cheshire Cat (a children’s bookstore from down the block) they added the final piece to their collection. Though the shop is for sale, if you need of a book in Washington, DC this will hopefully remain your one-stop shop.

The awning says it all: “Old. Rare. New. Libraries Bought.” If you want it, they have it; if you have it, they want it. There’s really no other way to amass the 18 miles of books housed in The Strand in New York City. This is not the place to go looking for something specific — it is browsing Mecca. To wit, there are stacks of books pouring out the front doors and onto the sidewalk. From their website: “Named after the famous publishing street in London, the Strand was one of 48 bookstores on Book Row, which started in the 1890’s and ran from Union Square to Astor Place. Today, the Strand is the sole survivor.” God bless these brave souls.

Started by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco, CA offers the best in classic and newly-released literature. Their claim to fame is publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems then suffering through the resulting obscenity trial. After all that, the store was designated a San Francisco landmark. Supplementing their in-store performances and promotion is their delightful podcast with news on releases and upcoming events.

The Tattered Cover in Denver, CO is a staple on almost every author’s book tour — from President Barack Obama to David Sedaris. How else could a small mountain shop stay open and active for over 35 years? Owner Joyce Meskis, that’s how. She’s been a fierce defender of the freedom of expression and the right to education and literacy. Her dedication to the world of books has been rewarded with multiple awards and the respect of an American literary institution.

Ahhh, Iowa. Lush fields of corn, flowing hills of grazing land, and the country’s most-famous writing program. The Prairie Lights Bookstore, though not associated with the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, seems to have benefited from its reputation. The store is filled with over 30 years of history and has hosted internationally bestselling authors, Nobel Prize winners, and nearly every presidential candidate of the past 20 years.

The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, WA looks (and delightfully is!) a warehouse of literature typical of the aesthetic that makes the area unique. They’ve recently expanded into a new store and all signs indicate that it too will be a success. Whatever model this independent new and used bookseller has found is working, and customers have noticed. Elliott Bay’s mission to connect readers with writers is such that they host one, if not two, events each day.