Despite the towering pile of books next to my bed, I stopped in at my favorite bookstore, Shelf Life , yesterday to order an out of print book (I’ll wait until it arrives to divulge the name) and of course picked up a couple other titles while I was there. Walking around SL makes me so happy. I could spend hours in there and I am constantly finding titles I’ve never even heard of that sound right up my alley – The Beats: A Graphic History, anyone?? So I thought I’d dedicate a post to the independent bookstore – may they never go the way of HMV (which now carries more books than CDs it seems???).
My earliest memory of a bookstore is from when I was about four or five years old. My family had a cottage near Kingston, Ontario so we used to go into town to visit the Novel Bookstore every once and awhile. According to my mom, as soon as we got into the store I would tear off my coat and run to the back where the children’s section is always located and dive into a pile of books. Honestly, if my husband’s at a bookstore today, the scene doesn’t look all that different.
People – generally those who are not “Readers” – sometimes ask me what makes a bookstore “good”. I know they’re thinking, “Wouldn’t Chapters or Amazon just be easier, wouldn’t they have the most inventory?”. They are right. And wrong. Amazon, of course, is an amazing resource: books at your fingertips, often they are available in used condition and you can find out of print titles there too. However, the selection at Chapters is terrible when you compare it to their square footage. Not to mention, I’m kind of over “Heather’s picks”. I’d rather read a book recommended by “Steve” the kind-of-nerdy-hipster in the back who spends most of his time knee-deep in the Sci-Fi or graphic novel sections but wades out every once in awhile to put something like Maus in the Staff Picks (if you haven’t read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, go get it NOW). I don’t usually entertain these non-Readers when they ask me why a bookstore is good because I figure they won’t get it. Maybe I should start using some analogies: it’s like getting your coffee at Beano instead of Tim Hortons, or like buying a bike at Pedalhead instead of Sport Chek or buying your vegetables at the Farmer’s Market instead of Safeway. The people who work at independent bookstores love to read. They love books so this naturally translates into higher quality products. Pedalhead may carry fewer bikes than Sportchek but they’re higher quality and the salespeople actually know what they’re talking about.
Here’s a top-ten of my favorite independent bookstores from around the globe:
1. Audrey’s Bookstore – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
- Weekend visits to Audrey’s bookstore was about the closest I got to a routine as a kid. I was dying to be acknowledged as an adult so I loved that the young adult’s section was positioned just outside the children’s area. Audrey’s is THE place to go in Edmonton for hard to find or rare prints. Try the Commodore next door for breakfast and make an outing of it – full breakfast plus coffee for under $5!
2. Greenwoods – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
- I think Greenwoods was having a rough go financially when I was a kid – the stores kept moving and splitting off then changing ownership – so they weren’t high on my stalwart-bookstore list but when the Harry Potter books hit the scene in the 90’s (yes, 90’s, can you believe it!) Greenwoods offered to buy back these books at 50% of the list price. This is pretty unheard of for a trade-in so I became a fast friend.
3. Wee Book Inn – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
- The Wee Book Inn was my first exposure to a used bookstore. When I was about 8 or 9 years old I used to ride my bike down to the Stony Plain Road location to load up on Archie comics for $0.25-$0.50 a copy. When I got a little older, I would stuff my knap-sac full of books from around the house (probably not all belonging to me) in an effort to finance my blooming book addiction.
4. Shelf Life – Calgary, Alberta, Canada
- For the longest time I thought this bookstore was a Christian Bookstore. I don’t know why, something to do with the unassuming signage but when I walked by one day and saw a veritable homage to Kerouac in the window I popped in and have been a loyal customer ever since. Every time I go in there I feel like the selection has been handpicked just for me.
5. Pages – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- I haven’t been here in years but every time I make a visit back to T-dot I pop in. Located on Queenstreet W the trip there is part of the experience: there’s so much energy in that area and it definitely carries over into the bookstore. I believe I bought my first Moleskin at Pages way back before they were EVERYWHERE.
6. The Strand – New York, New York, USA
- OMG what can I say about the Strand?!?! My heart beat quickens just thinking about it. I actually stumbled upon the Strand the first time I was there, perhaps making the experience more magical. It’s huge, filled with effortlessly cool people, there are tons of cheap books for sale out front and they even have a little satellite shop in Central Park just in case you’re stuck in Midtown. Oh yeah, and Patti Smith worked there once upon a time – NBD!
7. Elliot Bay Book Co – Seattle, Washington, USA
- Of course there are amazing bookstores in Seattle. With that much rain you have to provide safe havens for people. I visited (and blogged about) my experience at this bookshop a couple years ago. We were there right before it moved out of the original location but, should I return to Seattle, I would make the pilgrimage again simply for the solid “Staff Picks” section.
8. City Lights Bookstore – San Francisco, California, USA
- Maybe it’s the three cups of coffee I’ve already had this morning but, I mean, come on! The history surrounding this bookstore is awesome. In case anyone out there doesn’t know – this is the famed bookstore that published Allen Ginsberg’s controversial Howl and other Poems as part of the Pocket Book Series in 1956. Shortly after publication, the store manager was arrested and the store owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was put on trial on charges of obscenity. After a long trial, City Lights was exonerated and the doors were opened for American publication of previously censored Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer (Shades of Grey what?). If you’re in the area, you should also check out the nearby Vesuvio where Kerouac himself used to imbibe.
City Lights bookstore San Francisco, CA
9. Shakespeare and Co. – Paris, France
- Shakespeare and Co. is so much more than a bookstore. It’s a live music venue, prominent literary event scene, tourist magnet and friendly ex-pat employer. When I was last in Paris, I visited this shop no less than three times in five days. Twice to buy books (once with a glass of wine in hand, no questions asked) and once to watch Lisa Hannigan put on a free show. IN A BOOKSTORE!
The crowd waiting to see Irish singer Lisa Hannigan perform.
10. Bookworm – Hanoi, Vietnam
- My husband and I spent almost as much time searching for this bookstore in Hanoi as we did looking for the Russian Circus which is also, allegedly in Hanoi. Important lesson here: things change quickly in Vietnam – a restaurant/bookstore/circus that was there last week may be relocated or gone entirely the next. I found three different addresses for the Bookworm before finding the right one. Traipsing around the city was exhausting and the new location is pretty far off the beaten track but it was worth it. First of all it’s located off a little courtyard behind a cooking school and when you walk in you are immediately enveloped by quiet – a much-needed/refreshing change in the bustling city of Hanoi. The shop is two stories with a mix of new and used books, mostly in English. It’s tough to compare the Bookworm to bookstores in the rest of the world but in Vietnam where English books are hard to find and the government still keeps one eye on everything it was certainly a diamond in the rough. I love the bookstore’s logo too: two Asian/Russian looking men holding a flag declaring “Bookworm”. It’s an obvious Communist reference but ironic since it’s kind of proclaiming freedom of speech/press etc…
Well that’s my top ten. I know I’m forgetting some/haven’t visited them all yet. What are your favorite bookstores?
On the nightstand: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn