5 Cool San Francisco Bookstores to Visit
Updated: Apr 14
I recently got to check a destination off my bucket list and visit the illustrious city of San Francisco, California. I say I checked it off, but as there's always more to explore, I can guarantee you I will be back for more.
As usual for me, I packed my visit with lots of California literary sites and lots and lots of San Francisco bookstores! Let me tell you, those San Francisco bookshops did not disappoint. When I packed for my trip, I intentionally left myself a significant amount of free space and weight in my luggage so I could bring home books (hello, Virgo planner over here).
Even with my planning, I really pushed the limits and thought for a brief while that I'd have no choice but to ship books home!
Overall, I'd give San Francisco an A+ as a literary destination and rank it up there among the best US destinations for book lovers. There's so much literary history, so much to do and see, and so many fantastic San Francisco bookstores. Even if you have a full week here, you're not likely to see all there is to see.
Are you heading there soon, or is San Francisco on your list of must-see US destinations? For your future reference, I've put together this list of 5 San Francisco bookstores to visit on your next trip. Because we all know, if you're a reader, the first thing you're going to be googling when you start planning is "where to buy books in San Francisco."
I've selected each of these bookshops for specific reasons, either because they have great historic and/or literary significance, killer book deals, a unique feel, or all of the above. This list includes a combination of new bookstores and used bookstores in San Francisco. And they all make a great place to shop for one of my top souvenirs: books set in San Francisco.
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City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Ave.
North Beach, San Francisco
We can't talk about San Francisco bookstores without mention of City Lights Bookstore. City Lights is a North Beach bookstore forever tied with the Beat generation of writers. Along with nearby Vesuvio Cafe, it was a popular gathering spot in the 1950s for the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and other famous Beat writers, musicians, and artists.
City Lights Bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who passed away earlier this year, 2021) was himself a Beat poet, though perhaps less well-known than some of the really big names of the time. Still, it is Ferlinghetti and the City Lights Bookstore history that really makes this a must-visit destination in San Francisco.
A brief City Lights Bookstore History:
A sign inside the City Lights Bookstore San Francisco identifies it as "a literary meetingplace since 1953." Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin opened the store in 1953 and soon after expanded it to include City Lights Publishers, with the aim of inspiring, cultivating, and publishing new writing talent. They started off with publishing what's now famous as the Pocket Poets Series.
Most famously, it was Ferlinghetti and the City Lights Publishers that published the Allen Ginsberg poem, "HOWL," for which Ferlinghetti and bookstore manager Shigeyoshi Murao were arrested on obscenity charges. The ensuing, lengthy trial was publicized worldwide and made San Francisco into a mecca for aspiring poets and writers of the time. It also helped set a precedent against censorship in publishing.
This North Beach bookstore is still full of that Beatnik personality today, with three floors of books, including a wide selection of poetry and politics. You can also buy copies of the ongoing Pocket Poets series and even pick up a City Lights Bookstore t-shirt (I know I did!).
City Lights Bookstore Hours:
Wednesday - Monday 12 pm - 8 pm
1 Ferry Building
As far as San Francisco bookshops go, this is the bookstore with the view, with every window overlooking the famous San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Book Passage is located inside of the old Ferry Building, one of San Francisco's most famous historic landmarks, recognizable by its enormous clocktower. Before the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge were constructed, the only way most people could visit San Francisco was by ferry, so in its heyday, 50,000 people a day were traveling in by ferry to this historic building.
The Ferry Building fell into eventual disuse but in 2003 reopened after an extensive restoration. It has since become one of the most popular San Francisco marketplaces. You'll find everything here from coffee shops to food vendors to fresh flowers and products from local artisans. Just make sure you make your way to the backside of the building and check out this cute San Francisco bookstore, Book Passage, which would be easy to miss if you don't know to look for it.
Book Passage is more of a specialized bookstore than a general one, containing all new books (no used): a mixture of the latest fiction and non-fiction, children's literature, and a large sections devoted to guidebooks and books relating to San Francisco. It's also the place to find unique San Francisco souvenirs you aren't likely to find elsewhere.
Plus, after you shop, you can grab a vegan donut, fresh sourdough bread, or even vegan soft serve ice cream (it is San Francisco, after all, the Land of the Vegans), then eat and read with a great view of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Just make sure you bring a jacket: it might be only an urban legend that Mark Twain said "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco," but it sure is damn cold all the same.
Book Passage hours:
Mon-Fri 9 am-7 pm
Sat 8 am - 6 pm
Sun 10 am - 6 pm
Bound Together Anarchist Collective Bookstore
1369 Haight St.
Haight Ashbury district, San Francisco
This seemingly random used bookstore with a pretty rough vibe both inside and out ended up being one of my favorites in the city. I'm glad I made the trip to Haight Ashbury and checked it out, because it's the San Francisco bookstore where I found the best book deals, despite its relatively small size.
Bound Together Bookstore is located in the famous Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, the center of the counter-culture hippie movement of the 1960s. The area still retains much of that character; tye-dye stores galore, weed dispensaries on every corner, and everywhere you look, bohemians of all shapes and sizes getting high and hanging out, with or without guitars.
The Bound Together Anarchist Collective Bookstore has been a part of the Haight Ashbury scene for more 35 years. It is a "collective," meaning it's run entirely by volunteers and is dedicated to "radical literature and events." The main tables and displays contain a variety of anti-establishment literature, both the obscure and the famous. You'll find plenty of locally published pamphlets and different sorts of anarchist literature.
Surrounding the center tables in this small bookstore, the shelves are also stocked with a superb selection of affordably priced used books of all genres. I walked away with at least 10 used books and regretted not being able to buy at least 10 more.
Look specifically for the multiple shelves of $2 used books. All of the proceeds from these (cash only) sales directly support the Prisoners Literature Project.
Bound Together also sponsors the annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair every spring.
Make sure to pick up a copy of the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal for $5 while you're here. It's a local publication of mostly poetry with occasional prose. The journal was started in 1980 by a group of self-declared poets, writers, ex-convicts, ex-junkies and all the diversity of colorful characters you come to expect and cherish about the Haight Ashbury district.
"Poetry brings sanity to an insane world," the editors of the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal say, "We're maybe the sort of utopia of an old Chinese poet writing poems and dropping them into the stream."
Bound Together Bookstore hours:
Open daily 11:30 am - 7:30 pm
Closed occasionally; call ahead to check hours
Beat Museum Bookshop
North Beach, San Francisco
If you're in San Francisco, you should definitely pop in and check out the Beat Museum. It's a small museum dedicated to the prominent figures of the Beat Generation, with special focus on Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg.
However, even if you don't pay for admission to visit the Beat Museum, you can still visit the Beat Museum bookstore, one of the coolest San Francisco bookshops to browse in my opinion, if for no other reason than to take a dive in a bathtub full of books.
Okay, no you can't literally dive in, but yes, it's literally a bathtub full of books. The museum worker was happy to tell me the story behind the clawfoot tub filled with inexpensive, secondhand paperbacks. Basically you can sum it all up that if you are offered a free, antique clawfoot tub, you find a way to use it, and if that way involves filling it full of paperbacks because you've run out of shelf space, then so be it.
Apart from the museum and the bathtub, this is a really cool North Beach bookstore to spend some time perusing. There's a diverse selection of new and secondhand books, including lots of rare and early editions of books by Beat writers for sale. There's also lots of vintage magazines (vintage Playboys galore, among others) and cool posters, postcards, and stickers.
I especially enjoyed browsing the extensive collection of antique photo prints and magazine clippings and walked away with a handful of books and prints I was really excited about.
Next time you're in the city, definitely put this San Francisco bookstore on your list of places to visit. If you have the time, pay admission for the museum, too, and you'll be browsing with a lot more knowledge and understanding of the Beat movement.
Beat Museum bookstore hours:
Open Thurs- Mon, 10 am - 7 pm
(closed Tues and Wed)
Green Apple Books
506 Clement St. &
520 Clement St
Green Apple Books is a San Francisco bookstore chain that's been around since the 60s. It's grown immensely since then, now with two locations in San Francisco and a third franchise location called Browser Books. Green Apple Books is frequently voted San Francisco's favorite bookstore in annual newspaper superlative votings.
The first and main store location can be found at 506 Clement Street at 6th Avenue, where you can get lost in two stories of books! They also have a second location, the one I was able to visit during my trip to the city, known as Green Apple Books on the Park. This is right across the street from one of the main entrances to Golden Gate Park. While not as large or as extensive as the main storefront location, it's a great shop to poke around.
Green Apple Books sells a great variety of both used and new books as well as music and DVDs. You'll also find a fun selection of San Francisco-inspired gifts, cards, and novelty items to browse.
At Green Apple Books on the Park, they even sell picnic blankets so you can browse for books then pick up a cream tea to-go at nearby Sip Tea Room and picnic with tea and books in Golden Gate Park. It makes for a perfect San Francisco afternoon.
This is a San Francisco bookstore that is proud to be locally owned and really involved in the surrounding community. They "support non-profits and public schools at higher levels; provide a living wage, predictable schedules, health benefits, paid time off and more to our UFCW Local 5 employees; and are truly invested in our neighborhoods."
It's a great San Francisco bookshop to browse and support on your next trip to the city.
Green Apple bookstore hours:
Daily 10 am to 9 pm, closed some holidays
Well, that's my list of my 5 favorite San Francisco bookstores to visit on your next trip. Did I miss any of your favorites? Drop them in the comments below!
And make sure you pin this for your next trip to San Francisco: