The USA's 10 Most Beautiful Bookshops

Photo of A. J. Samuels
9 February 2017

While online retailers and e-readers have taken their toll on bookstore business across the country, these 10 independent venues demonstrate that a bookstore is not only a place to find books – new, used, rare or otherwise – but also an important community gathering where you can hear great author lectures, get recommendations from a knowledgeable employee or simply talk literature with friends over a good cup of coffee.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of his City Lights Booksellers and Publishers | © Stacey Lewis, City Lights

City Lights (San Francisco, CA)

Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights is not only one of the nation’s greatest independent bookshops, but it also has a literary history equalled by few others. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers in order to present the work of Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and was famously put on trial for obscenity after publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other Poems. The publishing arm continues to publish new works and translations of important international authors to this day, and at its historic North Beach location, you can find an extensive collection of political works as well.

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA, USA, +1 415 362-8193

John K. King Used & Rare Books (Detroit, MI)

With a lifelong passion for books, John K. King eventually had to find a space large enough to hold his collection, which necessitated a gigantic four-story former glove factory in downtown Detroit. Now containing over a million volumes, John K. King Used & Rare Books specializes in out-of-print, rare, and out-of-the-ordinary books, and even includes archival materials like ‘the books and papers of the auto barons (from Dodge to DeLorean)’. Twenty employees help customers navigate the uncomputerized collection that is divided into 900 categories and presided over by two dogs and two canaries.

John K. King Used & Rare Books, 901 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, MI, USA, +1 313 961 0622

The Last Bookstore (Los Angeles, CA)

Despite its rather apocalyptic moniker, The Last Bookstore is a large and beautiful space located among the pillars of the historic Crocker Bank Building in downtown Los Angeles. Located in an area that has undergone major revitalization in recent years, the bookstore holds regular literary and musical events, contributing to the vibrancy of the community. It also houses a vinyl LP shop and a graphic novel shop, and shares a space with the Spring Arts Collective, which hosts changing exhibitions of local contemporary artists in the adjoining galleries. For those who venture upstairs into what is called the ‘Labyrinth Above the Last Bookstore’, over 100,000 books await in the bookshop’s newest mezzanine space, all priced at $1 each.

The Last Bookstore, 435 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA, USA, +1 213 488 0599

Powell's City of Books (Portland, OR)

Bookstore, Park, Store
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Powell's City of Books is the largest independent bookstore in the world | © Chuck Taylor / Flickr
Founded in 1971 in an unassuming spot in northwest Portland, Powell’s Books has become one of the largest independent bookstores in the world, and it definitely remains one of the most famous bookstores in the United States. Now with four locations – the City of Books being its main location – Powell’s created an online site before the behemoth Amazon came into the picture, thereby securing its continued longevity. If you are looking for a book, there is a very high likelihood that you can find it here, along with a never-ending supply of passionate book-lovers who wander happily through the aisles looking for their next discovery.

Parnassus Books (Nashville, TN)

Store, Bookstore
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books | (c) Shawn Nystrand / Flickr
After the last major bookstore closed in Nashville, author Ann Patchett took on the responsibility of opening one herself with partner Karen Hayes, seizing the opportunity to create, in place of the usual Borders-type monolith, a bookstore like those she frequented in her youth, where ‘the people who worked there remembered who you were and what you read, even if you were 10.’ In an intimate space equipped with a piano for monthly concerts, with Parnassus Patchett has realized that one of the most rewarding benefits of being in personal contact with readers is being able to recommend books she loves. Her writer friends often come by to read and sign books too.

McNally Jackson Books (New York, NY)

Bookstore, Library
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Located in the NoLITa neighbourhood of Manhattan, this independent bookstore possesses a secret weapon to compensate for a lack of space, apparently the only one of its kind in New York City: the Espresso Book Machine. This bookmaker can spit out a paperback chosen from a library of seven million titles in minutes, not to mention printing out hundreds of self-published works every month. McNally Jackson also boasts a large collection of literature that is organized geographically, and houses an extremely popular cafe in which to while the hours away with your latest acquisition.

Prairie Lights (Iowa City, IA)

Located in a building that once housed a 1930s local literary society frequented by writers such as Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, and E.E. cummings, Prairie Lights enjoys a particular literary pedigree not easily found elsewhere. It also is home to ‘Live from Prairie Lights’, a long running literary reading series presented live and then streamed over the Internet. Originally conceived by founder Jim Harris as a bookstore in which to find newer voices and established writers of fiction, being close to the home of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, the bookshop got special attention when President Obama made a surprise visit.

Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City, IA, USA, +1 319 337-2681

Tattered Cover Book Store (Denver, CO)

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Tattered Cover Book Store
Tattered Cover Book Store | courtesy of Tattered Cover Book Store
Tattered Cover now has four branches in the metro area, and three satellite stores at Denver International Airport. The stores have hosted most of the major authors of the world, with community events nearly every night. The location in Denver’s historic Lower Downtown (‘LoDo’) district is an intimate and welcoming spot with comfy couches and armchairs, a large newsstand, and cafe.

Bart’s Books (Ojai, CA)

What began as one book lover named Richard Bartinsdale selling books on the sidewalk using coffee cans in lieu of cash registers has turned into what is now claimed to be ‘the largest independently owned outdoor bookstore in the world,’ graced by the perennial sunshine of its Southern California location. While the expansive inventory has grown, including new books and even some rare first editions, the famous original ‘honour system’ lives on in bookcases along the street, where you can shop after closing time and just drop the corresponding number of coins in the coin box. With its pleasant reading areas and relaxed vibe, this is not only a must-see spot during a visit to Ojai but also a gathering spot for the locals of this artsy, nature-rich community.

Bart’s Books, 302 W. Matilija St., Ojai, CA, USA, +1 805 646-3755

Books & Books (Coral Gables, FL)

Founded by Mitchell Kaplan in 1982, Books & Books is located in a stunning 1927 Mediterranean-style building that is listed on the Coral Gables Register of Historic Places. The expansive South Florida bookshop, which enjoys original tile floors, a fireplace, beamed ceilings, dark-wood bookshelves, and an open-air courtyard, is not only a beautiful place to shop for books but also one of the largest independent booksellers in the state of Florida. While they see a continuous flow of writers at their reading series and even host live music in the palm-lined courtyard, their secret weapon appears to be their full-service cafe, a much-loved spot for a healthy lunch or a glass of wine with friends.

Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL, USA, +1 305 442-4408

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