American Spring

America's beloved independent bookstores

From rural Pennsylvania to North Hollywood, Open Salon selects the shops that keep our love of reading alive

  • Iliad Bookshop

    North Hollywood, Calif.

    This originally appeared on Victoria Carlson’s Open Salon blog.

    Nothing ever feels more satisfying to me than the weight of a book in my hands and the aroma of a good independent bookstore. Whenever I am in need of something to read, I head over to the Iliad Bookshop at 5400 Cahuenga Blvd. in North Hollywood, Calif.

    The Iliad reminds me somewhat of Ollivander’s wand shop, with its ladders and step stools in every aisle to access the hard-to-reach shelves. It’s a bit dusty and the floors are creaky and the sofas are worn. It’s a cozy haven on a rainy afternoon and a quiet respite from the minutiae of a busy day.

    This past year, the Iliad broke through the neighboring wall and doubled in size. Its shelves are steeped in history, art, photography, theater, classic literature and pulpy paperback galore. It’s a biography lover’s dream, a collector’s Mecca. It’s the kind of place where sci-fi and graphic novel fans can while away hours. If you’re lucky, you may happen upon a signed first edition by Nick Hornby or Alice Walker. Time to replace that worn copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”? You’ll find it at the Iliad. Don’t seem to have what you’re looking for? Just ask Dan or Lisa. Your Iliad hosts are more than willing to oblige.

    Best of all is the $2 wall: hardcover fiction heaven from A to Z. Upfront, the $2 table is piled high with nonfiction, and if you’re willing to dig around a bit, you never know what you may discover. And for the avid reader, for whom spending a buck or two is quite a stretch these days, they are more than welcome to rifle through one of the boxes of freebies just outside the front door. You really can’t get much better than the Iliad.

    Just ask Zola, the Iliad’s cat in residence.

    Open Salon.
  • Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore

    Minneapolis

    This originally appeared on Michael Fishman’s Open Salon blog.

    Once upon a time in the late 1970s I discovered a small independent bookstore at the corner of Franklin Avenue and 4th Avenue South in Minneapolis called Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. Behind the counter was a tall man named Scott Imes. Scott was, simply put, a genius. There wasn’t a question about science fiction or fantasy that Scott couldn’t answer, and through him I was introduced to a universe of authors and stories I never knew existed. This Dec. 11 marks the 10th anniversary of Scott’s passing and I always think about him at this time of the year and remember “that tall guy who knew everything” who opened my head to new worlds.

    In 1984, owner Don Blyly moved Uncle Hugo’s, and its mystery bookstore brother Uncle Edgar’s, to its current location at 2864 Chicago Avenue South in Minneapolis, about a mile south of downtown and, for 27 years, Blyly has continued to serve the Twin Cities as a full-service independent bookseller. The “Uncles” boast an impressive selection of new book titles and a floor-to-ceiling used book inventory in both genres. They stock titles by authors known and unknown and their first-class, knowledgeable staff will – if you let them – open the doors to literary worlds you never imagined existed. The Uncles also offer services such as a quarterly newsletter, a frequent-buyer discount program, a mail-order service as well as maintaining customer want lists and hosting many in-store events.

    Sadly, life is difficult for the Uncles. An old building, rising property taxes, a large drop in traditional book sales and a corresponding surge in e-books have all conspired to hurt business. Thankfully, for readers and independent bookstore lovers, the Uncles continue to hold on.

    Open Salon.
  • Baldwin’s Book Barn

    West Chester, Penn.

    This originally appeared on Alysa Salzberg’s Open Salon blog.

    When I was a teenager, my dad and I took a trip to several spots in eastern Pennsylvania.  We don’t have a lot in common, and our destinations showed our disparate tastes: a microbrewery and Independence Hall for him; Philadelphia’s Edgar Allan Poe House and the Museum of Art for me.  But my dad had also come up with a surprise pit stop near West Chester: Baldwin’s Book Barn, an early 19th century barn at 865 Lenape Road that’s been converted into a bookshop. 

    I was touched by my dad’s thoughtfulness; Baldwin’s Book Barn was like heaven for me.  Five stories of crammed bookshelves and cozy corners.  The books were antiques – a rarity in my life at the time.  I ended up coming home with a boxful. I still have most of them. 

    Published in 1886, ”A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day” by Lee Meriwether fueled my travel hopes and dreams (though of course I knew it would cost me more than 50 cents a day to see Europe). It’s still one of my most cherished books. On the other hand, I have to admit that I bought “The Rise and Fall of the Mustache” mostly for its title, which always makes me chuckle.

    Previous owners have written their names in both books, but what I found especially intriguing is the person who scrawled “Bought for the Good of the People” onto an opening page of ”The Rise and Fall of the Mustache.”

    Though Baldwin’s Book Barn’s website notes that the shop is a convivial gathering place for bibliophiles and writers, when I was there, I paid no attention whatsoever to the people or activities going on around me.  All I remember is the old floors and ceilings, and between them, shelves upon shelves of glorious old tomes.  Utter bliss.

    Open Salon.
  • The Book Mart

    Perry, Fla.

    This originally appeared on SandyMarie’s Open Salon blog.

    My favorite independent bookstore is located approximately halfway between Tallahassee and Gainesville in the small town of Perry, Fla.  According to the sign on the door, it has been in business since 1979.  

    My first visit to the Book Mart was while on a trip from Tallahassee to Tampa.  I saw the sign (it’s huge!) off Highway 19 and, on a whim, decided to stop.  Since this was a rural area I was not expecting much more than a dusty romance graveyard.  I was wrong.

    As I entered the store, which is at 1708 S. Byron Butler Parkway, I was captivated by the “feel” of the place.  It was like I had stepped back into the 1960s.  I later learned the building was a former motel built in the ’50s and the bookstore space was once the owner’s home.  The floors were the original terrazzo waxed to a sparkling shine.  Filtered light filled the lodge-like room that was home to the new book displays.  A fireplace and sitting area invited me to stay awhile.  

    The first living being I saw was a huge black cat.  He opened one eye when I came in the door, then yawned, stretched and arose to greet me.  A welcoming voice came from the stacks and the owner appeared, barefoot and holding a double stack of paperbacks.  After a short tour, I was soon lost in literary heaven.

    For a small store (less than 2,000 square feet), the Book Mart has the best selection of books about Florida I have ever seen.  There was also a section of books categorized as “Simple Living.”  I bought copies of “Tan Your Hide” and “Possum Living.”  It was definitely not your standard chain bookstore fare. Used books numbered over 25,000 and were organized by someone who clearly loves order.  No dust here, only good reads and a memorable experience

    Open Salon.
  • COAS Bookstore

    Las Cruces, N.M.

    This originally appeared on Miguela Holt y Roybal’s Open Salon blog.

    Just behind the U.S. Post Office in a downtown Las Cruces mall is COAS Bookstore. In this modest building at 317 North Main Street with kind of cute 1960s-style pueblo architecture hides the most magnificent bookstore I have ever had the pleasure to browse in at length. The establishment contains the Southwest’s largest inventory of chiefly used but also new books and it is the mother of my own home library.

    Gentle friend, when I say that it was like falling through the hole in Lewis Carroll’s  ”Alice in Wonderland,” I’m not exaggerating.  At first I just walked through the building astounded at the sheer volume of books.  There was room after room after room of books — books from floor to ceiling, countless books. 

    And I was back, every single week for four years.  This was my routine:  I woke up each Saturday morning and attended the garage sales I found posted in the newspaper.  At each, I bought the books that I thought COAS would trade with me.  Las Cruces is just a few miles from an international border and there is a large university so the population is educated and varied. 

    There was an amazing array of castoff books that I found in the tattered boxes people laid out on their front yards and I bought them for often less than $1 and sometimes for a little as a dime. COAS would give me much more than what I paid for a book in store credit. I learned which books were valuable and which were not.  There is a big difference between editions of the same book, and a dust jacket in good condition greatly enhances its value. One signed by the author is always nice. Art books are big money.

    COAS Bookstore, which was founded by Patrick Beckett in 1984, is family owned and staffed. Service is unparalleled and special orders are no problem. They report that business is good these days because people are looking for ways to economize and exchanging books is a way to indulge in reading on a budget. The store receives over 1,000 books per day so the selection varies endlessly.  COAS also features scheduled popular reading activities for children including  occasional book giveaways.

    Open Salon.
  • WORD

    Brooklyn, N.Y.

    This originally appeared on Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Open Salon blog.

    I love books, and I love talking about books, but I’m often hard-pressed to find people outside the Internet as eager to chat about the latest romance and young adult novels as they are about the new Gary Shteyngart or Haruki Murakami. The place I know I can always go and discuss the nuances of historical romance novelists Sarah MacLean and Eloisa James, or debate the fact that so much YA is full of death, or simply compare tattoos or thoughts on what’s new in book land, is WORD, at 126 Franklin Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where the staff genuinely love books.  When they recommend something to me, I don’t feel like I’m getting the hard sell so they can make a buck, but rather a genuine, customized recommendation.

    Recently, I wanted a copy of the graphic memoir “Underwire” by online comix creator Jennifer Hayden, and being the somewhat lazy person I am, I posted to WORD’s Twitter account (@wordbrooklyn) asking if they had it. They didn’t, but they ordered a copy for me, emailed me when it was in the store, and I just picked it up and I’m loving this quirky, profanity-laced comic about motherhood and marriage. I do often shop for books online, because, again, I’m lazy, but what I get from WORD is the art of the random discovery, such as a book I carry in my purse in all its tattered beauty. One afternoon when I was looking for something to cure an increasingly broken heart, I found poet Nikki Giovanni’s “Bicycles.” It’s a deceptively slim volume, but it contains a poem, “I Would Not Be Different,” that spoke to me in a way all the other women who’ve fallen for married men couldn’t (“You sort of see someone/ And you don’t want to notice/ That ring on his finger/ Nor really that sort of happy/ Look in his eyes”). That poem alone has gotten me through some tough times, and I have WORD to thank for it. Bonus: For every $100 you spend, you get $5 in store credit.

    Open Salon.
  • Bookman’s Alley

    Evanston, Ill.

    This originally appeared on Chicago Guy’s Open Salon blog.

    Walk into the warmth of Bookman’s Alley on a cold, snowy day. Pull the door shut behind you. Breathe in the musty smell of literature across the centuries. Look around. Could that white bearded fellow down the aisle really be Charles Dickens?

    Located at 1712 Sherman in Evanston, Ill., Tucked back in an alley. In the shadows of a skyline that now calls up Batman’s Gotham City. Bookman’s Alley is a quiet tribute to how literature can make a person forget time. Because in Bookman’s Alley, all you want to do is ramble down an aisle, reach up and take down a volume, some rare jewel you’ve been looking for forever, find a comfortable chair, lift the cover on the candy dish, and take out a gumdrop. Then sit, read, forget where the candy leaves off and the story in the book begins. Warm in Bookman’s Alley while it snows, time itself can vanish.

    There are places that feel like Bookman’s Alley. Shakespeare and Company in Paris comes to mind. But there is no other Bookman’s Alley.

    And come January, the store will close. Roger Carlson, 83, founded the store in 1980. He’s watched over it ever since. He says it’s time.

    Open Salon.
  • Hub City Bookshop

    Spartanburg, S.C.

    This originally appeared on Melissa Walker’s Open Salon blog.

    My favorite independent bookstore is Hub City Bookshop at 186 West Main Street in Spartanburg, S.C. I’ve been in love with books and reading for as long as I can remember. For me, reading is about engaging with the world—with other times, other places, other people, and other ideas through the pages of books. Independent bookstores nourish that kind of engagement better than any other retail outlets.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy that people are buying books anywhere, but I find that shopping at my independent bookstore both deepens and broadens my reading experience. As I browse the shelves, I chat with other patrons and the clerks about the books. The manager of Hub City Bookshop has excellent purchasing savvy, and she stocks the store with lots of fascinating titles I don’t see other places, not even my public library. What’s more, she knows my tastes and my interests, and she’s always on the lookout for a new title I will enjoy. At Hub City Bookshop, I attend readings and get turned on to writers whose work I might not encounter in any other setting. These things just don’t happen at the big bookseller across town, and they sure don’t happen online or at the big box store with its discounted bestsellers.

    My favorite thing about Hub City Bookshop is the fact that it is a nonprofit bookstore. It was founded by the Hub City Writers Project, an organization that has nurtured readers and writers in our community for more than 15 years. Hub City Bookshop was funded by members of our community who believed in the value of an independent bookstore so much that they made gifts ranging from $5 to $50,000 to cover the store’s start-up costs. It is a community endeavor through and through. All the proceeds from our sales go into programs that fund creative writing education and our nonprofit publisher, Hub City Press. When I buy books at Hub City Bookshop, I take home a great product — good reading — and I invest in fostering the literary arts in my community. Independent bookstores build community, promote tolerance of diverse ideas, and encourage people to engage with each other. What could be more important?

    Open Salon.
  • title=''
    Deborah Méndez-Wilson
    The author's son reading at the Tattered Cover

    The Tattered Cover

    Denver

    This originally appeared on Deborah Méndez-Wilson’s Open Salon blog.

    Founded in 1971, the Tattered Cover today has three locations: the store in historic Lower Downtown Denver, another in a converted theater on Colfax Avenue, and the third in my suburban neighborhood, some 15 miles south of downtown Denver. All are great places to find the latest titles, hear authors talk about their work, meet with reading clubs, or just sit back and people watch. The bookstore has played host to hundreds of authors, averaging about 400 a year.

    At the original Cherry Creek store, my children and I sat on the floor to immerse ourselves in pop-ups, masterfully drawn picture books, and Newbery Medal winners. Afterward, we sat in overstuffed chairs sipping from giant cups of café au lait or Earl Grey, and cradling our crisp brown Tattered Cover paper bags. We watched as wide-eyed newbies walked in, stopped and looked around, stunned by the sheer volume of books, magazines, newspapers, brain teasers, greeting cards, journals, posters and other essential accoutrements for readers in the Rocky Mountain West. 

    At the Lower Downtown location, New York Times writer Rick Bragg signed his heartbreakingly beautiful memoir “All Over But the Shoutin’” for me, and talked to me about the challenges of daily journalism. Chilean novelist Isabel Allende charmed us with her wit and humor before signing copies of “La Hija de la Fortuna.” I reminded her that I had interviewed her in her home in Caracas years earlier, and she graciously tried to remember the meeting while signing books for my daughter and me. Another time, legendary rock climber Lynn Hill regaled my husband and me (along with hundreds of other fans) with stories of her exploits on rock faces around the world. Then we lingered to talk to the diminutive but powerful athlete, and asked her to sign her memoir, “Free Climbing: My Life in the Vertical World.”

    After we moved to the suburbs, the Highlands Ranch branch became our go-to Tattered Cover, where we have spent weekends reading, snacking and treasuring the worlds of J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan, or searching the shelves for Colorado history books, biographies of Einstein, Green Day and the Clash, or the latest New York Times picks. Every Friday, the bookstore hosts a pajama party for families who want to share their passion for books and reading with their children. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run to Tattered Cover on a weeknight to buy a copy of “The Lightning Thief” or some other Riordan book so my son could finish a reading response assignment.

    The nucleus of the publishing world is New York, but the center of the reading world in Denver is the Tattered Cover bookstore. For those of us who reside in the middle of this great land mass we call North America, it is nothing less than our connection to the wide world.

    Open Salon.