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35 OF THE BEST BOOKSTORES IN THE USA
Leah Rachel von Essen Jan 11, 2023
Independent bookstores are the backbone of our communities — event spaces, community centers, and refuges, as this list of the best bookstores in the USA will show. I grew up in a town with a single brick & mortar Barnes & Noble, and I loved it — but nothing has compared to growing up and finding independent bookstores across this country where I can find love, acceptance, and validation. Through queer and woman-owned spaces — community spaces — I have found friendship, good reads, and new discoveries in gorgeous bookish spaces from San Francisco to New York City and from Austin, Texas, to my adopted city, Chicago.
Now, lists like this have been written before. So forgive me if I skip some of the bigger stores, the classics that get most of the attention. The Strand in New York City, Powell’s in Portland, and City Lights in San Francisco are stunning, much-loved bookstores, and I’ve been to them, and loved them. But I suspect most of you know them already. So we’re going to skip them and get straight to the best bookstores in the U.S. that you may not already know about.
Many of my fellow contributors wrote their own love letters to the bookstores across the U.S. doing good and valuable work, and I filled the spaces in between. Enjoy this list of beautiful bookstores doing community, activist, and bookish work that matters to their communities and to the reading world at large.
THE BEST BOOKSTORES IN THE USA
Talking Leaves Books (Buffalo, NY)
I’ve been going to this bookstore since I was small, but only as an adult did I realize just how good of a store it is. The selection is superb — they have a books-in-translation shelf, a great young adult section, and small but well-crafted shelves throughout. Their staff recommendations are always good, but more importantly, I can consistently find books there that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. They hold many events throughout the year and partner with the BABEL speaker series with Just Buffalo Literary Center that brings authors to speak throughout the year.
Loyalty Bookstores (Washington, D.C. / Silver Spring, MD)
“I live in Washington, D.C., where I’m lucky to have access to a ton of phenomenal independent bookstores, but Loyalty Bookstore is my happiest of happy places. It’s a Black and queer-owned small business that centers books from diverse and unique perspectives. The owner, Hannah Oliver Depp, is a former Book Riot contributor and all-around wonderful person, and WOW does Hannah know how to find the best booksellers in the business to work at Loyalty. They put together fantastic events, both virtual and in-person, and are always looking for new ways to get books in the hands of readers. You can see the team featured on Good Morning America, which recently gave Loyalty a giant check to help them get a bookmobile up and running in DC!” —Susie Dumond
The Golden Notebook (Woodstock, NY)
“This is my childhood bookstore, and I am definitely biased, but it has so many books packed into its fairly small space, and is where I met my childhood writing hero, Paula Danziger, back in the ‘80s. It’s such a joy to still be able to visit when I’m in town, and they always have something I didn’t know I was looking for.” —Annika Barranti Klein
Greenlight Bookstore (Brooklyn, NY)
Greenlight was founded in 2009 in Brooklyn, and has grown to its huge level of success today. It has two locations, a big feat in an age when brick-and-mortars can struggle, and is truly a neighborhood bookstore. On the business end, Greenlight is known for its startup model. Their “community-lender” model has been used around the country by other bookstores — asking the community to give loans for the new location, which would be repaid and also give each lender “employee” discounts until repaid. It was explicitly a loan system rather than a donation one in order to emphasize that independent bookstores are a community asset and institution.
Harriet’s Bookshop (Philadelphia, PA)
Jeannine Cook is the founder of Harriet’s Bookshop, which was founded to “celebrate women authors, women artists, and women activists,” and named after Harriet Tubman. I’ve been in love with Cook ever since her article in Oprah Daily — she also owns Ida’s Bookshop in Collingswood, New Jersey, named after Ida B. Wells. Every month, the inventory changes based on a theme. There are musical performances in-house for browsers and exciting events hosted each month. The Black-owned bookstore is an exciting rising star in the indie world.
Three Lives & Company (New York, NY)
“I discovered this magical bookstore in the ‘90s, and try to visit it every time I am in New York…even though sometimes it isn’t there. This tiny store is jam-packed full of excellent fiction, if you can find it in the first place.” —Annika Barranti Klein
Three Lives is a New York icon. Founded by three women in 1978, Jill Dunbar, Jenny Feder and Helene Webb, and now owned by Toby Cox, it has been lauded by The Hours author Michael Cunningham, and other fans include Sarah Jessica Parker, Zadie Smith, and Patti Smith.
Book Moon Books (Easthampton, MA)
“This small but delightful bookstore is owned by author Kelly Link, and it is one of the coziest and most joyful bookstores I’ve ever had the pleasure to browse. They sell both used and new books, but what really sets them apart is the selection. I’ve found books at Book Moon that I’ve never seen on a shelf in any other bookstore! They support tons of small indie presses, stock brilliant but lesser-known titles, and have an incredible selection of queer lit, especially given the store’s small size. And if all that wasn’t enough, Kelly Link also runs Small Beer Press, whose books are always in stock in the store, and the wonderful booksellers of Book Moon are the geniuses behind the Reader’s Guide to Western Massachusetts map — an incredible resource for book lovers!” —Laura Sackton
McIntyre’s Books (Pittsboro, NC)
“This is a super cute independent bookstore in Fearrington Village, home to the beltie cows, or the “Oreo cows,” as they’re known. (Full disclosure, I worked here a little more than a decade ago). If you’re looking for a well-read staff who’s enthusiastic about books (just ask Pete about the mystery section!) and is always up for picking just the right book, this is the place for you. Author events, a delightful children’s section, a diverse and inclusive selection of books and gifts, and a great staff make this a fun place to visit.” —Jaime Herndon
Housing Works Bookstore (New York, NY)
This bookstore and café in SoHo hosts performances, The Moth StorySLAM, readings, and more, and sells a fantastic selection of donated used books. But most importantly for me, 100% of the profits go to the Housing Works nonprofit, which was founded by four members of activist group ACT UP to fund social justice work fighting HIV, AIDS, and homelessness across the city. When you buy books from this stunning bookstore, you’re not only getting wonderful reads, but you’re also funding vital and meaningful work.
Longfellow Books (Portland, ME)
Longfellow describes itself not just as independent, but “fiercely independent.” Named after poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this bookstore is much-loved by people for their knowledgable staff and all their recommendations and curation — in other words, the things that most make independent and local bookstores what they are.
MIDWEST & GREAT PLAINS
Moon Palace Books (Minneapolis, MN)
First and foremost, the logo for this bookstore is the most amazing reading sloth, and I love it. The bookstore has been open since 2012. In the #BlackLivesMatter protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Moon Palace Books was actively supportive, making pizzas for and talking with protestors. The owners Angela and Jamie Schwenedl won the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association Booksellers of the Year award in 2020, and were praised for their “radically welcoming generosity of spirit that radiates throughout the community and the book industry at large.” The bookstore is currently open to those wearing masks, and supports a queer book club, cinema book club, book launches, and more.
Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery (Chicago, IL)
This Black woman–owned bookstore and cultural community center opened in Chicago in 2019, and showcases authors of color and work by local artists. It is currently in the process of moving back to its original location, and I can’t wait to visit! In Fall, it held its first-ever Lit Fest, which featured food trucks, cocktails, and authors including Jessamine Chan, Dr. Tara Betts, and José Olivarez. The store has a nonprofit, Parenthesis, that supports closing the literacy gap in marginalized communities by working with Chicago Public Schools.
Seminary Co-op Bookstores / 57th Street Books (Chicago, IL)
After decades of being incorporated as a cooperative, the Seminary Co-op transitioned to be a nonprofit in 2019: all profits are reinvested to support the cultural mission of bookselling. Led by director Jeff Deutsch, they’re making the case for a new way to sustain our local, indie bookstores and acknowledge them as not just a place to buy things, but as the neighborhood institutions they are. Plus, Seminary Co-op and its second location at 57th Street Books (just two blocks away) are beautiful, maze-like bookstores with fantastic selections.
Eyeseeme African American Children’s Bookstore (University City, MO)
This children’s bookstore describes its mission as: “to be a resource to parents, teachers, and schools in providing the very best children’s books on the market that promote positive images and stories about African American culture and history.” I mean! The founders are themselves parents, and have created the kind of bookstore they would want children to have. Not only is their selection based in this, but they also host book fairs, a mentorship program, history presentations, and more.
Books & Mortar (Grand Rapids, MI)
Jenny Kinne, who became the owner in 2018, describes Books & Mortar as “proudly progressive, consciously curated, and fiercely independent.” There’s something deeply satisfying about an independent bookstore named after the brick & mortar model. This store is politically active and a true integrated part of the community, rich with the feeling that you truly know your booksellers in all the best ways.
The Raven Bookstore (Lawrence, KS)
I first discovered the Raven through their sharp and vital advocacy in support of independent bookstores online, and have more and more fallen in love with this store that fights against Amazon and for the USPS on its social channels. Originally founded as a mystery book shop, it’s now an employee-owned business that was Publishers Weekly’s 2022 bookstore of the year. It is integral in the Lawrence, Kansas community and a vital piece in the independent bookstore fight to thrive across the U.S. Oh…and they have two bookstore cats, Dashiell and Ngaio, who I love unconditionally even though we’ve never met.
Brain Lair Books (South Bend, IN)
This Black-owned, woman-owned children’s bookstore focuses on stocking an inclusive selection of books — children’s and YA books written by and written for the BIPOC, queer, and disabled communities — plus adult nonfiction as well. This is the kind of bookstore I wish was available to me as a kid. They host fantastic readings and in-person events, including a Social Justice Book Club and author readings by writers such as Anna-Marie McLemore and Aiden Thomas.
Prairie Lights (Iowa City, IA)
This bookstore is best known for its nearness to the University of Iowa’s writers’ workshop, making it a center for literary life in the U.S., having hosted authors from Toni Morrison to Susan Sontag. It also hosts “Live from Prairie Lights,” a reading series, that ran for 18 years on WSUI and now runs on college radio station KRUI-FM and online. This iconic indie is huge, and has a coffee shop where writers like E.E. Cummings and Robert Frost used to gather. Its poetry section is particularly iconic.
Women and Children First (Chicago, IL)
“In my humble opinion, this is one of the best independent bookstores in Chicago. Located in the Andersonville neighborhood, this women-owned indie bookstore is dedicated to amplifying underrepresented voices, and they focus on maintaining an intersectional, trans-inclusive feminist space. Women & Children First also has an incredibly large and diverse LGBTQIA+ book selection, and regularly hosts fantastic author and community-based events. They also have a strong partnership with Chicago public schools and a number of other Chicago local organizations. They’ve created such a welcoming, inclusive space, and it is a genuine joy to shop here and contribute to the good work that they do on a daily basis.” —Melissa Baron
Skylight Books (Los Angeles, CA)
“Chris Pine (objectively the best Chris) shops here, and they have the best book events of any store around. Add in a huge range of genres and an actual tree growing through the middle of the store right up to the literal skylight, and you’ve got a perfect bookstore. And I love their friends with benefits program — the benefits are books! Well, discounts on books, which is basically the same thing.” —Annika Barranti Klein
Sour Cherry Comics (San Francisco, CA)
Lesbian-owned Sour Cherry Comics is one of a few really exciting new minority-owned bookstores opening up across the U.S. that has me really excited for the future of indies. When I visited in early spring, it was brand new, and owner Leah Morett and her precious small dog welcomed us. The selection was incredible for such a small, up-and-coming spot — a shelf of radical nonfiction and memoir, a shelf of adult and YA queer fiction, art and zines from local artists, manga and comics for all ages, and space for community events. Since then, I’ve seen them host workshops, comic release parties, readings, open mics, and more, and they always are the first to have your queer comic faves.
Broadway Books (Portland, OR)
This women-owned independent bookstore has been thriving in Portland since 1992. This year they promoted what they called The Year of Reading Ursula K. Le Guin. I was lucky enough to visit and it was warm, friendly, and a cozy place to spend a rainy day. They try to keep their selection eclectic and diverse, highlighting a wide range. They have a frequent buyer program and celebrated their 30th anniversary last May with custom jigsaw puzzles, cupcakes, and the promise that anyone who wore their Broadway Books T-shirt or hoodie in-store would get something extra-special.
Bel Canto Books (Long Beach, CA)
Last year, contributor Stacey Megally wrote in her excellent piece on AAPI-owned bookstores and their recommendations: “Bel Canto Books’ community-led book clubs, monthly events, and three shopping options make it easy for readers everywhere to engage with them.” This bookstore, owned by Filipina-American poet Jhoanna Belfer, offers a curated selection of books particularly by women and people of color, and hosts pop-up events and personalized recommendations. The bookstore is currently gathering donations to support a second location in Bixby Knolls, and describes itself as a “proud member of the #StandUpForAAPI awareness and action campaign.”
Changing Hands (Phoenix, AZ)
“This is a store that is so engaged with its community, with an almost constant stream of events featuring nationally-recognized to more local authors. They also host writing workshops, book clubs, and even crafting circles at their bookstore/bar location in downtown Phoenix. And, have we talked about the books? Both locations are so relaxing to browse and discover new authors, with book sellers that take time to highlight and amplify underrepresented voices.” —Nikki VanRy
Sistah Scifi (Oakland, CA)
This indie bookstore founded by Isis Asare (which is in the midst of crowd-funding) is the first Black-owned SFF bookstore in the US. It describes itself as “a cauldron of all things afro-futurism — mysticism, science fiction, voodoo, magical realism, speculative fiction, and horror — casting spells to uplift literature written by Black and Native American women.” Their calendar boasts book clubs and watch parties, and their Wine Down Wednesdays have hosted guests, including Sheree Renée Thomas, Kosoko Jackson, and more.
The Ripped Bodice (Culver City, CA)
“The first all-romance bookstore in the United States is owned by queer, Jewish sisters, and it’s genuinely one of the most pleasant spots in the greater Los Angeles area. Everyone who works there is a true romance expert, and they carry every sub-genre and a range of age categories. I adore this store!” —Annika Barranti Klein
Under the Umbrella Bookstore (Salt Lake City, UT)
This “little queer bookstore” recommended by contributor CJ Connor is a place of refuge for queer people that’s just getting started. They stock queer authors, queer stories, and queer perspectives, and all other items and gifts in their store are made by queer artists or businesses. Their website states that “Under the Umbrella is meant to help bridge the gap between what Salt Lake City currently has and what the city needs by providing a safe, accessible, and inclusive space for everyone.”
Fabulosa Books (San Francisco, CA)
Smack in the middle of the very historically queer Castro District is a beautifully gay bookstore. Formerly a branch of Dog Eared Books, when it was going to close after struggling despite a GoFundMe during the pandemic, 20-year employee Alvin Orloff bought it instead, and reopened it as it is today. “We were determined to survive because a neighborhood without a bookstore is like a day without sunshine,” he said when it was purchased. “We’re very mindful of the fact we’re occupying the same space as A Different Light Books, which served queer San Francisco during the difficult years of the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s.” I’ve been there, and it’s wonderful.
Magic City Books (Tulsa, OK)
“The best bookstores not only celebrate literature; they celebrate their community and try to shape it for the better. Magic City Books, an amazing bookstore in Tulsa, Oklahoma, does just that. I love how thoughtfully they promote Oklahoma voices among their titles, like books about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, local Indigenous perspectives and history, and thoughtful investigations of the oil industry. Their Advisory Board is made up of prolific authors including born and raised Tulsa poet Joy Harjo, David Sedaris, Sir Salman Rushdie, and many more. MCB and its nonprofit owner, the Tulsa Literary Coalition, have been doing the incredibly important work of pushing back against Oklahoma book bans. I’m so grateful for all they’re doing to build Tulsa’s literary community.” —Susie Dumond
Black Pearl Books (Austin, TX)
“This Black-owned bookstore is beyond amazing for multiple reasons. It is family-owned and this love is apparent from the moment you walk into the store, where you’re greeted with a smile and salutation. They work closely with the local school district through numerous initiatives, such as the Redacted Reads Club which helps to get banned/challenged books in the hands of the students. They also started a non-profit called Put It In a Book, which is designed to promote representation, inclusion, and diversity in literature. In short, everything about this store is amazing!” —P.N. Hinton
WordsWorth Books (Little Rock, AR)
“Arkansas, the home of Walmart, can be a difficult place for a small local business to thrive. I grew up there and saw way too many beloved places close. But WordsWorth Books has stuck around for 40 years now thanks to its ties to the Little Rock community and its passionate booksellers. From celebrating local authors to partnering with the Clinton School of Public Service to supporting local hospitals and libraries, WordsWorth is right at the center of Arkansas’s literary heart. And although it’s not a huge storefront, they somehow always seem to have just the book you’re looking for — along with a great recommendation for a new favorite.” —Susie Dumond
Parnassus Books (Nashville, TN)
Founded by novelist Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes, Parnassus Books describes itself as “the independent bookstore for independent people.” They have an online magazine that includes Patchett’s blog, reading lists, and most importantly, stories from the store’s shop dogs (and there are a lot of them). The bookstore was built to be a true neighborhood bookstore from events to collaborations with local organizations. Patchett’s prestige in the book world community and the rich atmosphere that Parnassus has forged brings authors to the store. And their subscription boxes are carefully curated.
Blue Bicycle Books (Charleston, SC)
Each year, book lovers and authors swarm to YALL Fest, a young adult book festival in Charleston, South Carolina. And Blue Bicycle Books is behind it all, their staff working overtime to get it going. In 2022, authors including Adam Silvera, Angie Thomas, Casey McQuiston, Cassandra Clare, Daniel José Older, Dhonielle Clayton, Neal Shusterman, Nic Stone, and many, many more gathered to discuss their work and the state of YA today. And of course it’s a wonderful bookstore in its own right.
Lark & Owl (Georgetown, TX)
“This is a woman-owned bookstore close to downtown Georgetown. When you walk in, you’re immediately greeted by a staff member so you feel welcomed from the start. They also regularly will host live podcast recordings and have multiple book clubs available. No matter what your preferred genre is, you’ll be able to find one for you. In addition to promoting an open and safe environment for everyone, they also believe in civic duty and will open up their bistro to the Voter’s League and close down to give their employees the opportunity to go vote. They also highlight local artists and authors and will regularly open up their courtyard for Market Days for them.” —P.N. Hinton
Did we miss a bookstore that has to be on this list? I am absolutely certain we did. Let me know on Twitter!
For more of the best bookstores in the U.S. and beyond, check out our list of indie bookstores you can shop at from around the world, the 15 most Instagrammed bookstores in the world, our list of the best bookstores in all 50+ states, and other lists of amazing indie bookstores.