As a college town, Berkeley is home to dozens of bookstores. But literature has a deep history in the Bay in general, from Mark Twain, to the Beat movement, to the revolutionary writings during the counterculture movement. As an out of state student, the more I’ve explored the literary scene around the Bay, the better I’ve been able to understand the Bay itself. It’s easy to stay in Berkeley and simply appreciate what the city has to offer, but there’s so much outside of the mile radius around the university. I’ve collected here some of my favorite bookstores around the Bay Area, from San Francisco, to Oakland, to even further out in the North Bay. If you’re looking to find some new shops to explore, or just simply hear about one person’s experiences with bookstores, keep on reading!
Books and Bookshelves
Castro, San Francisco
Every so often, circumstances and events collide to create what feels like pure magic. The first time I visited California, back in sophomore year of high school, my parents and I stayed in a small apartment just off of Divisadero. Late one evening as we wandered up and down the hills of the Castro, a shop sitting on the corner of the street caught my eye. In the window, the nickel green font of the display read “Books and Bookshelves.” What an odd idea for a store! And yet, in another way, it made complete sense. We immediately knew we had to explore it.
The entrance to the store was flanked by bookshelves on either side, colorful mixes of pine, cherry, oak, and mahogany. As we began to explore the inside, I looked to the walls, to see each adorned with colorful pieces of art. Further in held the books themselves; old worn cookbooks, locally printed poetry, film books that could cover a whole table. The confluence of all of this—the time, the weather, the location, the setting, the situation—struck me, creating something that I will hold in my heart for years to come. I chose two volumes of the poetry anthology Zyzzyva: one I gave to my best friend, and the other still sits on my bookshelf.
99 Sanchez Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Owl & Company Bookshop
Just before I started my first year at Cal, my parents and I stayed in Oakland for a couple days. On one of them, as we were walking down Piedmont Avenue, we came across Owl & Company Bookshop. The logo in the window, an ancient looking owl writing in leather-bound book with a quill, gave the store a sort of archaic feel. The interior was narrow but long, with books piled in every nook and cranny. It felt like any book you picked up in here had a story behind it, outside of the one held in the pages themselves.
I wasn’t looking for just any book though; I had just finished The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, and next on my list was The Left Hand of Darkness. As we walked down the aisle, covered wall-to-wall on either side with stacks and stacks of books, I spied a few authors starting with “L” at the very end. And there it sat, a slim white paperback with blue lettering. Later on, the school year would start and I would get bogged down with assignments and quizzes. Every so often, though, I would find a sliver of free time and read a chapter of The Left Hand of Darkness, and return to that store where every book was within my reach, and that moment where I wanted to reach for every book.
3941 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611
City Lights Bookstore
North Beach, San Francisco
On one Tuesday evening in early spring, my best friend and I took BART into the city to check out a technology and literature panel hosted by a local magazine, Logic. The location that they chose for their event was one of the most famous bookstores in the Bay: City Lights Bookstore. City Lights isn’t popular for no reason: along with its extensive collection of political and world literature, and deep ties to the countercultures movement of the sixties, it also exudes what I like to think of as “quintessential bookstore energy.” The exposed brick and wood create a casual, warm atmosphere, while the shelves upon shelves of books found on three separate floors give a labyrinthine quality to any exploration.
When I walked in that night, I felt as if I could turn in any direction, find the perfect book, and then cozy up in one of their chairs placed in various rooms and enjoy myself for the rest of the night. At the panel, seeing this magazine that had only started two years ago feature well-established writers, professors, and journalists talk about truly enormous issues in technology, I got a sense as to how City Lights Bookstore is truly a lightning rod for history. After the talk, my friend and I wandered around the shelves before heading to a cafe across the street. I ended the night with a copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album and a mug of orange blossom tea. Whenever I think about San Francisco now, this moment sticks in my head: creaky wooden stairs, orange tea leaves, and never ending rows of books.
261 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
Stinson Beach Books
After my hiking partner and I came down from the peak of Mt. Tamalpais on a windy Sunday, we happened upon a small store nestled in the beachfront named Stinson Beach Books. The storefront itself epitomizes the word “quaint,” a navy structure covered in dark brown shingles with a Dutch door front and center. A white-and-navy sign on the roof reads “Stinson Beach Books,” accompanied by a navy illustration of two herons grazing in thick grass. There’s only two rooms and so it’s just as quaint on the inside, but the selection of books more than makes up for it.
With no cell reception to pull me towards my phone, hiking brings out my love of reading. I had just finished one on the trail, and was hungry to start another. I picked up and put down book after book, each one convincing me more and more to pull out my wallet and walk up to the counter. I settled on A Game of Birds and Wolves, a nonfiction thriller about women in the navy during World War II. Even after I traveled back down to Berkeley, as I read the book each night snuggled up in my comforter, I got to relive a bit of my mountain hike and the bookstore that came with it.
3459 CA-1, Stinson Beach