A City of Bookstores
If you can tell who a person is by their shoes, then you can tell what kind of city you’re in by its bookstores. The big box bookstores were never welcome in the Bay Area, and even though the advent of online book sales and high rents plunged a dagger into some of my favorite indie bookstores, the Bay Area is still a flowering garden of bookstores with distinct personalities.
There’s the ragamuffin artiness of Dog Eared Books (900 Valencia Street) in the Mission, a bookstore that represents the “old Mission” to me, before the Internet swooped in with its shiny sheen in the late nineties. It’s the type of bookstore where you never know what you’re going to find. I’m as likely to leave with a new small press collection of poetry as I am the latest novel featured in the New York Times Book Review. Borderlands (866 Valencia Street), which is just down Valencia Street, specializes exclusively in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Its adjoining café is my favorite place in the Mission to dally over a book or scribble in my journal, and you’ll often see a group of people writing assiduously in a Shut Up & Write meetup there.
Green Apple (506 Clement Street) looks upon the Richmond district like an avidly curious and beloved kooky professor. Its floors creak with each step, and if a whiff of dust rises when you take a book off its shelves, it seems like magical reading fairy dust. The Booksmith (1644 Haight Street) offers comfy browsing in the Haight, where I love to thumb my way through the breadth of its magazine rack, and the old San Francisco anarchist spirit is alive and well in the stacks of radical literature at Bound Together Bookstore (1369 Haight Street) right down the street.
I now live in Berkeley, though, so I spend many hours combing the shelves for biblio surprises as my kids roam the children’s section at one of the Pegasus (2349 Shattuck Avenue) stores in the East Bay. Moe’s Books (2476 Telegraph Avenue) has been a venerable indie institution since 1959 on Telegraph Avenue, just down the street from UC Berkeley. Moe’s possesses all of the labyrinthine jumble of the best used bookstores, yet the stacks feel carefully curated.
It’s impossible to name all of my favorites. There’s Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Avenue), a bookstore that could be cast as the charming community bookstore in a movie, in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. Books Inc. (601 Van Ness) opened in the Gold Rush days, and now has eleven stores throughout the Bay Area and hosts an overflowing calendar of readings and a number of cool programs for kids. If I’m in Marin, I like swinging by the famous Book Passage (51 Tamal Vista Boulevard), which probably hosts the most author events and classes in the Bay Area. If I’m south of San Francisco, I make a point to dip into Kepler’s (1010 El Camino Real) in Menlo Park. I often go on mini writing retreats in Petaluma, and take breaks to peruse the books in Copperfield’s (140 Kentucky Street) and chat with its dedicated staff of book lovers.
And then my favorite place for sumptuous journals and whimsical, fantasy writing supplies—such as wax seals for my letters or ink for my quill pen—is Castle in the Air on Berkeley’s Fourth Street. Someday I hope to take a calligraphy class there.
Landmarks and History
In its early days San Francisco was the scene of fierce newspaper competition, and some of its earliest chroniclers were writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain. Twain is attributed with coining the famous line, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” It is cold because of the city’s fog, which is so prominent it even has its own Twitter account, the humorous @KarlTheFog.
The East Bay is home to much Jack London lore, including Heinold’s First and Last Chance (48 Webster Street), a favorite hangout of London’s, appropriately located in the Jack London Square shopping complex in Oakland. London studied there as a teenager and sketched out two of his most acclaimed novels, The Call of the Wild (Macmillan, 1903) and The Sea-Wolf (Macmillan, 1904). Next to Heinold’s is London’s Cabin, where London lived during the nineteenth century Klondike Gold Rush.
Dashiell Hammett came to San Francisco soon after London died and created the classic sleuthing detective, Sam Spade, the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon (Knopf, 1929), which Hammett dreamed up while working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. San Francisco looms large in much of Hammett’s work, where he paints the city as a paradise for drifters and grifters. Today, you can take a walking tour devoted to Hammett’s time in San Francisco, and visitors can stroll by the apartment building located at 891 Post where the fictional Spade—as well as Hammett himself—lived.
John Steinbeck grew up in nearby Salinas, which houses the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main Street) and is just seventeen miles from Monterey, where Cannery Row (Viking Press, 1945) is set. Eugene O'Neill, the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, ended the meanderings of his restless life when he chose to live on a 158-acre ranch called Tao House near Danville (now the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site at 1000 Kuss Road), where he wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.
If you’re a Beat aficionado, traipse up to the Beat Museum, which is easy to make out in San Francisco’s North Beach with its huge black-and-white painting of Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Part store, part shrine, you can peruse hard-to-find Beat titles by everyone from Kerouac to Hunter S. Thompson to Charles Bukowski.
The Beats existed alongside other hippie writers, such as Richard Brautigan, Ken Kesey, and a shifting group of merry pranksters. Brautigan handed out poetry on the streets when he first moved to San Francisco and later became involved in its sixties countercultural scene. He gave away a poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” to the Diggers, a group of radical anarchists that included Peter Coyote, a Bay Area author and actor, who distributed it throughout the city. The poem predicts a time when “mammals and computers live together in mutual programming harmony,” presciently illustrating the tech and mammal culture that flourishes in the city today.
Armistead Maupin’s celebrated series Tales of the City captured the eighties, and his stories were among the first popular books to deal with AIDS. Nan Boyd’s Wide-Open Town (University of California Press, 2003) charts the history of gay San Francisco, and is a good complement to Randy Shilts’s arresting history of AIDS, And the Band Played On (St. Martin's Press, 1987). Michelle Tea’s Valencia (Perseus Books Group, 2000) is a lively chronicle of lesbian life in the early nineties of the Mission District.
Several Bay Area poets have served as U.S. poets laureate, including Robert Hass and Kay Ryan. To celebrate the region’s heritage of poets, Downtown Berkeley features a “poetry walk,” a series of “stepping stone” plaques engraved with lines of one hundred and twenty-eight poems by poets who lived, worked or influenced the area, including poems from Ohlone Indians, Mexican rancho era song/poets, poems from Japanese and Chinese internment camps, and contemporary wordsmiths. If you’re in Oakland, you can pause to ponder longtime Oakland writer Ishmael Reed’s famed poem, “Let Oakland Be a City of Civility,” which was written for Jerry Brown’s 1999 Oakland mayoral inauguration and is emblazoned on a mural on the side of General Liquors in Reed’s neighborhood.
Many other landmarks—such as Gertrude Stein’s residence, the location of the “Howl” reading, and Philip K. Dick’s apartment (Dick graduated from Berkeley High in the same class as Ursula K. Le Guin)—are included in the Literary City, an interactive literary map of the Bay Area created by San Francisco Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie.
Cafés and Watering Holes
San Francisco is a city of cafés, bars, and bookstores. In fact, USA Today once reported that San Francisco has the highest per capita consumption of both alcohol and books. I still make a point of taking occasional pilgrimages to City Lights, located in the North Beach neighborhood, which stretches away from the financial district with festoons of Italian cafés, pastry shops, and fine restaurants. Every time I go, I make sure to spend time reading and writing in the nearby Caffe Trieste (601 Vallejo Street)—the West Coast’s first European-style coffee house—where Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of The Godfather, and where writers such as Alan Watts, Gregory Corso, and Kenneth Rexroth gathered amidst the clutter of photographs that hang on the walls.
After buying my books at City Lights, I dip into Tosca (242 Columbus Avenue), a bar across the street, where writers like Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag, and Hunter S. Thompson have sipped martinis to the sounds of legendary opera on the jukebox alongside celebrities like Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage.
Other writerly watering holes include John’s Grill (63 Ellis Street), which Dashiell Hammett immortalized in The Maltese Falcon. It hasn’t changed since then: It’s still a place for a good thick steak and a martini. The Library Bar (562 Sutter Street) inside Hotel Rex hosts the Books and Booze Happy Hour Book Swap, which meets to exchange books over drinks. In true speakeasy fashion, you’re required to knock at Bourbon and Branch’s (501 Jones Street) unmarked wooden door and provide the secret password (“books”). After reciting the correct code, you’re treated to the main library, lined from floor to ceiling with books from the Prohibition era. And then there’s the new Octopus Literary Salon (2101 Webster Street) in Oakland, which is plentiful with book launches, readings, and fine beer.
Every neighborhood in San Francisco is dotted with cafés, if not crowded with them. When I first moved to San Francisco in 1989, I would often spend an entire day traipsing from one café to the next along Valencia from 24th Street to 16th Street—a corridor that now houses fine restaurants and trendy shopping, but still holds the funky artsy textures of yore. Most of the cafés I adored are gone, but I still like meandering through my old hood and stopping to read and write at Ritual (1026 Valencia Street) or making my way among the bookstores and Mexican markets along 24th Street to end up at the famous Philz (3101 24th Street), my go-to coffee shop throughout the Bay Area.
If you’re in Potrero Hill, then you have to go to Farley’s Coffee (1315 18th Street) to indulge in coffee and a plentiful selection of magazines (its tagline “Community in a Cup” says it all). The Blue Danube Coffee House (306 Clement Street) is a great place to hole up with a book in the foggy Inner Richmond. And Café du Soleil (200 Fillmore Street) gives a European vibe to the otherwise gritty Lower Haight.