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The Weeks that Were

Friday Five: 15 of the Best Bookstores

Friday FiveGreat bookstores - the meccas of the bookgeek. You all know what it's like to walk into a bookstore: the sight, the sound, even the scent of thousands of years of human endeavor, piled and stacked and shelved for your delectation.  Perhaps there's a ray of pale yellow sunshine pooling on an ancient, overstuffed armchair.  There might be a sleepy bookstore cat curled photogenically on a tabletop, or in a window display. If you're visiting a favorite bookstore, you probably even have a routine; a trail that, say, leads you from the door to the fantasy section by way the history books and past the bargain bin.  You know what to expect - the familiar cheek by jowl with the new. A great bookstore is pretty much everything wonderful in the world.

We needn't go into the precipitous decline of the independent bookshop here; it's a story we're all too familiar with.  Instead, we'd like to celebrate those wonderful bookstores that have won our hearts.  Today we're featuring our three favorite bookstores in all the world.  We've also each included an honorable mention and a tribute to one late, lamented bookstore.

Please share your favorites in the comments, so that we may add them to our Geekmaps. (Although the Geekmaps currently represent only four cities - Chicago, London, Kansas City and San Francisco - we're always looking to add more.  If you have any suggestions, please shoot them to us.)


Any Amount of Books (London): London's packed with great bookshops, but this Charing Cross cozy has the three things I appreciate most: an ever-rotating, totally random selection, sickeningly low prices and late opening hours. The randomness is key - I've found everything from the latest proofs to crumbling 18th century plays. And if there isn't something there for me today? There invariably will be tomorrow.

O'Gara and Wilson (Chicago): Like something out of Diagon Alley, this South Side Bookshop is packed with rare books and eccentric antiques. Based right by the university, it caters to the faculty, not to students, and, accordingly, it is crammed wall to wall with esoteric tomes, lost volumes and dusty treasures. It isn't cheap, but it is absolutely wonderful.

Borderlands (San Francisco): Whenever we go to San Francisco, we set aside a day for our Borderlands pilgrimage. And when every single shelf is packed with the best of genre fiction (new, old, obscure, famous) it really does take that long to pour through it. Their customer service is aces as well - whenever we need something foxy from the Homeland, there's always someone happy to help.

Honorable Mention: Rainy Day Books (Kansas City): Many thousands of hours of my non-misspent youth were spent at Rainy Day Books. I became an expert trader - scavenging unwanted books from my mom's shelves and swapping them for store credit so I could pick up a stack of second-hand Wild Cards or Heinlein paperbacks. As I grew up, I saw that Rainy Day was doing what the big bookstore chains were all too lazy to accomplish - making KC a stop on author tours. Thanks to them, I got to meet Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and a host of others. Even now, they remain fiercely independent and a good moral compass. (They're one of the reasons why we don't do Amazon affiliate links, bless 'em.)

RIP: Fantasy Centre (London): In 2009, Fantasy Centre closed its doors after almost forty years of trading genre books (we went to the "closing down" sales no less than four times). From their discreet Holloway location, Ted and Erik ran an Aladdin's cave of rare and second-hand treasures. Like our trips to Borderlands, our friends from the US would take pilgrimages to London just for the opportunity to ransack the shelves at Fantasy Centre. All the goods and greats of British SF/F passed through Fantasy Centre - and not just as books. Whenever we came in, Ted and Erik always seemed to have the kettle on for some legendary figure or another.

Fantasy Centre


Francis Edwards Antiquarian Bookshop/Quinto Books (London): Rent increases in the mid-2000s put many of the specialist and antiquarian booksellers on Charing Cross Road out of business.  Although their wonderfully atmospheric original shop is now a boring chain café, Quinto managed to survive by decamping to the basement of the nearby Francis Edwards - a move that will, knock on wood, keep both going strong into the future.  The twinned result is a wonderful place to wile away a rainy afternoon; one can lust over the dusty, calf-skinned tomes on the ground floor and then go loot the novels in the basement.

Shakespeare & Co (Berkeley): Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue is an irresistable draw to Bay Area teenagers; in my time, it was stuffed to the gills with cheap sandwich shops, dusty thrift stores, second-hand record shops (including a shop that sold actual vinyl records at 25¢ a pop), and wonderful independent bookstores. Shakespeare & Co. was, and remains, my favorite by far.  It's an old house crammed floor to ceiling with used and remainedered books, and finding anything requires a lot of patience and goodwill.  Which, of course, is what any self-respecting booknerd brings to a used bookstore.

Powell's Books (Chicago): Indeed, if there's any bookstore that rewards patience and goodwill, it's Powell's South Side store.  Being close to a university means the constantly-rotating stock is particularly eccentric and shockingly erudite.  The prices are good, and, best of all, there's a basement full of all the trashy paperbacks one's professors read and then quietly, hurriedly dispose of.  And there's usually a box of freebies huddled outside to tempt the unwary passer-by.

Honorable Mention: City Light Books (San Francisco): A bookstore with one hell of a pedigree: Laurence Ferlenghetti and Peter Martin founded City Lights in 1953 as the nation's first all-paperback bookstore.  Ferlenghetti shot to infamy three years later when he was tried for obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsburg's Howl.  City Lights has long been a draw for the self-absorbed, overly-sensitive, artistically-inclined (you know, teenagers and beatnik wannabes); God alone knows how much time I've devoted to being Very Serious in the poetry section over the years. But, all joking aside, it's a great bookstore.

RIP: Cody's Books (Berkeley): Another of the Bay Area's best bookstores, Cody's shut down in 2008 following pressure from national chains and the bizarre, ultimately disastrous decision to expand into multiple spaces just as Amazon was taking off as major retail competition. Cody's boasted multiple floors of books, great views over the city, and a countercultural history to be proud of. It even got firebombed in the '80s!

City Lights


Foyles (London): Foyles has always been a wonderful London institution, but it also used to be awful. It was dingy, unfriendly and by some stroke of lunacy the books were grouped by publisher. Now they've got their shit together, and spruced up their cafe, there's no better place for a book lover to browse.

Gosh! (London): Comic shops can be daunting and dark but Gosh! is neither. Its selection isn't vast but is always interesting, its staff are approachable and knowledgeable, and it's right opposite the British Museum. What more could you ask for?

Borderlands (San Francisco): I'm not a San Franciscan, but Borderlands is so great every city should have one. And don't listen to what Jared tells you about the sphynx cats which prowl around it. They are beautiful and I MUST HAVE ONE. 

Honorable mention: Gainsborough Book Shop (Sudbury, Suffolk): where I bought my first ever Target novelisation. 'Nuff said.

RIP: Murder One (London): the first genre bookshop I haunted when I moved to London. And thanks to including romance and crime along with the normal geek stuff, it broadened my horizons.


Not exactly the dozing bookshop cat we had in mind.