Our favorite booksellers that don’t begin with an “A.”

curved bookstore shelves
Photo by Gunnar Ridderström on Unsplash

Sure, the Internet makes holiday shopping easy. But when it comes to books, I don’t necessarily want my shopping experience to be easy. I certainly don’t want it to be quick. I want to be distracted and sidetracked, forgetting what I came in for but discovering three other things I had no idea I wanted. A little clutter and dust is fine, and extra credit if there’s a bookstore cat. I want to browse real stacks in literal rooms, and if I do need help, I don’t want to consult a virtual assistant with a vaguely exotic name; I want to talk to a real, live, book-loving former English major who’s bursting with suggestions and genuine enthusiasm about books they’ve actually read.

I also love the idea of shopping locally. I certainly have known the joy of having a package show up on my doorstep in prime time, but supporting an independently owned business, allowing it to employ members of my community and to continue hosting local author events feels good, too.

For all these reasons and more, I’ll be doing my holiday book shopping in real stores this year. The following is a list of some of the Western bookshops we love the most. Hopefully you live near one and can patronize it this holiday season, but if not, most will ship nationwide. And yes, so does a certain not-so-local bookseller out of Seattle, but if you buy online from one of these sellers, you’re still supporting an independent retailer. Just without the cat. 

Bookstores We Love

California

Book Passage, Corte Madera and San Francisco

This excellent Bay Area bookstore has two locations: a cozy one in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and a larger one in the Marin County enclave of Corte Madera. The Marin location carries general interest books with strong concentrations in both mystery and travel. The wildly ambitious slate of author readings, conferences, classes, and book clubs earned the store the title of “The Bay Area’s liveliest bookstore.” Owner Elaine Petrocelli is a walking compendium of book knowledge and can come up with a recommendation for anyone on your list.

Staff Recommendations

Gift Wrapping: Yes, at both locations

Ships Nationwide: Yes

Cat: No

Bay Area Honorable Mention: City Lights Bookstore, founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, has been at the forefront of the free-speech movement for almost 70 years and is a mandatory stop for anyone looking for the last breath of beat culture in San Francisco.

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles

The Last Bookstore

Lex Voight

It’s not actually the last bookstore in California, of course, but at 22,000 square feet with a quarter-million books, it may be the last one you have to stop at to get your holiday shopping done. Make a beeline for the annex where the rare, collectible, and display-ready coffee table tomes are kept, as this is where you’ll probably find gifts for people you didn’t even realize you were shopping for. Don’t leave without seeing the jaw-dropping book tunnel, a remarkable and much-photographed piece of architecture.

Staff Recommendations

Gift Wrapping: TBA, depending on staff bandwidth

Ships Nationwide: Yes

Cat: No

Southern California Honorable Mention: Lost Books in Montrose offers a plant tunnel entryway that isn’t as famous—yet—but is just as Instagrammable.

Colorado

Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver

The Tattered Cover

Lucy Beaugard

This Rocky Mountain book emporium, which lists “discourse, discovery, and diversity” as core values, has five permanent locations (with two more slated to open in the next few months), but remains fiercely independent. A recent change in ownership makes the brand the largest Black-led bookseller in America. The store also actively supports local artists by showing works by Colorado makers at its Colfax store. Bonus: A holiday pop-up location at the Park Meadows Mall is already in full swing.

Staff Recommendations

Gift Wrapping: No

Ships Nationwide: Yes

Cat: No

Hawaii

Kona Stories, Hawaii

Kona Stories
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Courtesy of Kona Stories

Like so many good things, Kona Stories is tucked into a shopping center on the Big Island of Hawaii. Here you can pick up the latest best-sellers and more from a 10,000-volume inventory. You’ll also find a strong children’s book selection, and an extensive collection of books about Hawaiian history and culture. There are a number of locally-made gifts for sale too, so if you’re visiting from the mainland, you may take care of a large swath of your holiday shopping list during your vacation. (And if you’re local, you undoubtedly already know about this island treasure and its friendly two- and four-legged staff.)

Gift Wrapping: There is a DIY table outside. Paper and tape are provided free of charge, and any financial contributions patrons choose to leave in an honor box are donated to AdvoCATS, an island spay and neuter program.

Ships Nationwide: Yes

Cat: Three! Siblings Loki and Kinsey (she’s named after the detective hero of Sue Grafton’s mystery series); and newcomer Chloe.

Oregon

Powell’s Books, Portland

Powell's Blue Room

Courtesy of Powell’s Books

It’s not exactly a secret, but it’s world-famous for a reason. There are several Powell’s locations in Portland, but the flagship Powell’s City of Books is not to be missed. You may have heard the stats—that it holds a million books and takes up a whole city block—but it really has to be seen to be believed. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, it may not have been written yet. 

Staff Recommendations

Gift Wrapping: No

Ships Nationwide: Yes

Cat: Sadly no longer, though longtime patrons may remember Fup, a tabby who lived at Powell’s Technical Books until the mid-aughts.

Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe, Bend

Dudley's Bookshop Cafe

Courtesy of Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe

This well-loved bookstore and café specializes in fiction, though you’ll find books on just about every subject imaginable. (This is Oregon, after all, and the outdoor section is substantial.) Two quirks set this bookstore apart: You’ll find new and used books right next to each other on shelves, and hardcovers are always discounted. Bonus: 1% of proceeds go to the 1% for the Planet, an environmental nonprofit that Dudley’s was the first American bookstore to partner with.

Staff Recommendations

Gift Wrapping: Yes

Ships Nationwide: Yes

Cat: No

Utah

The King’s English, Salt Lake City

The King's English

Courtesy of The King’s English

This charming little shop that looks more like a private home (which it used to be) than a store prides itself on being the kind of place where people sit around and talk about books. Staff know they can’t compete with the big chains in quantity so they make up for it by providing the kind of friendly service and ready recommendations you can’t get from a website. There’s an impressive slate of author events, too, although they’re mostly virtual now. If The King’s English doesn’t have what you want in stock, staff can order it and get it to you almost as quickly as that online behemoth can.

Staff Recommendations

Gift Wrapping: Yes

Ships Nationwide:  Yes

Cat: Not currently. Patrons may recall the beloved Agatha, currently occupying the great patch of sun in the sky.

SLC Honorable Mention: Ken Sanders Rare Books, which offers one of the quirkiest and most idiosyncratic inventories in the West, is the place to shop for the more eccentric family members on your list.

Washington

Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

Capitol Hill’s Elliott Bay Book Company manages to combine industrial with cozy in a way that may only be possible in Seattle. What is essentially a warehouse space is warmed by lots of wood, including the store’s signature cedar shelving holding 150,000 volumes. There may be no better place to pass a few hours on a rainy Northwest day. Good news: The pandemic has barely slowed the store’s remarkable schedule of author events—up to 500 some years—although most are virtual.

Staff Recommendations

Gift Wrapping: Yes

Ships Nationwide: Yes

Cat: No

Seattle Honorable Mention: Twice Sold Tales used bookstore has many vintage and collectable books that would make great gifts for a book lover. The store has not one but four staff cats.

Specialty Bookstores

At these shops, you may not satisfy everyone on your list—but you might make that one hard-to-shop-for bookworm very happy.

For the foodie: Omnivore Books, in San Francisco, offers a world-class, tightly curated selection of new and vintage cookbooks.

For the hopeless romantic: Culver City’s The Ripped Bodice is the West Coast’s only bookstore entirely devoted to romance novels.

For the artist: Also in Culver City, California, Arcana: Books on the Arts has a beautiful selection of books that are not just about art; many are works of art themselves.

For the family member who knitted their own Pussyhat: Feminist bookstores are few and far between in the 21st century. Tucson harbors Antigone Books, one of the handful left in the United States.

For the builder: A 70,000-volume library of books on construction and design can be browsed at San Francisco’s William Stout Architectural Books.

For the seeker: Paradise Found, in Santa Barbara, carries a huge selection of books on religion, spirituality, and conscious living. Need stocking stuffers? Pick up some crystals and incense, too. 


Read the 2021-22 Winter in the West Issue Right Here

Get one year of Sunset—and all kinds of bonuses—for just $24.95. Subscribe now!