Bookstores again

by Henry on March 28, 2007

Scott has a “new article”: over at _Inside Higher Ed_ talking about Borders, and reviewing the “Indies Under Fire”: movie that I “mentioned”: a few weeks ago. It sounds like a more complex and interesting movie than I expected from watching the trailer. Which reminds me – Jim Johnson suggested a while back that I should do a post on good bookshops, and consider linking to them in addition to/instead of Powells and Amazon when I review books. I have mixed feelings about linking to Amazon, which is a vociferously non-union operation, but get the impression that many or most CT users buy stuff there. So what good, alternative bookstores are out there? I’ll start by singing the praises of “Prairie Lights”: in Iowa City which I visited this weekend, and which was teh awesome. Fabulous selection of small press books, and a book buyer who, after a brief conversation about Rick Perlstein’s forthcoming, came over to snoop shamelessly through the pile of novels that I was buying at the cash register (the kind of customer profiling I can live with happily). Other recommendations?



JR 03.28.07 at 6:17 pm

Politics and Prose in Washington, DC.


Maurice Meilleur 03.28.07 at 6:29 pm

Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.


otto 03.28.07 at 6:34 pm

Can you recommend bookshop(s) in Dublin? I understand that Hodges Figgis, still good, is now part of the HMV chain. Are there others?


justin 03.28.07 at 6:43 pm

The Tattered Cover in Denver (Which has the political advantage–that that’s what you’re looking for–of being the bookstore that challenged the Patriot Act.)


Rob 03.28.07 at 6:45 pm

Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, CA


Edd 03.28.07 at 6:48 pm

I’m partial to the American Book Exchange – a consortium of independents.


Steve LaBonne 03.28.07 at 6:51 pm

Forgive me for briefly hijacking the thread to mourn for a great bookstore that is no longer with us- Great Expectations in Evanston, Il. I misspent many a happy hour there (when I should have been in the lab!) in my grad-school days.


Kelly 03.28.07 at 6:51 pm

…what’s wrong with Powells?


Justin 03.28.07 at 6:57 pm

I like shopping in chain bookstores. They have better lighting, wider aisles, and larger parking lots (which is great for us suburban conservatives).

But most of the books I buy are from And the great thing about Amazon is that they sell used books. I’ve probably bought 100 used books in the last year, even though I haven’t set foot inside an indy bookstore since my college days.

My theory is that chains trump indies, but amazon trumps chains, and indies trump buying new on amazon.


Steve LaBonne 03.28.07 at 7:06 pm

If you feel as Henry does (and I sympathize though I do buy stuff there) about Amazon, there are plenty of other sites to shop for used books. Try and for starters. (Of course I don’t know anything about the attitude of these- presumably rather small- operations toward unions…)


Steve LaBonne 03.28.07 at 7:07 pm

Should have said “If one feels” since I wasn’t specifically addressing Justin.


Justin 03.28.07 at 7:17 pm

I’ve checked out other websites that sell used books. But I like Amazon the best – it is simply an incredible value-added service. I love the reviewer comments, the listmanias and the So You’d Like To … guides. I will often start out reading the reviews for one book, then end out shifting to dozens of others before making my final decision (usually buying all the well-regarded books on a subject). The other sites don’t have as large of a community.

Since Amazon provides that service, it is only fair that they get my business.


Luis Villa 03.28.07 at 7:19 pm

I’ve taken to linking to Library Thing, which then links to multiple locations and has a standing offer allowing any indie bookstore with a digital catalog to link up with them.


rea 03.28.07 at 7:21 pm

Back when I first went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, back in 1975, there was this great little indy bookstore in town there, sharing space with a drug store–what was its name? Oh, I remember–Borders!


Mary Kay 03.28.07 at 7:28 pm

Powell’s *is* an independent bookstore and a very good one. They offer used as well as new books and with one exception, suit me far better than Amazon. The one exception is buying presents for the niece and nephew who are irredeemably attached to Amazon. Sigh.



Justin 03.28.07 at 7:30 pm

Borders was huge by the time I went to Michigan. I bet that Borders has the highest ratio of “money spent on education per employee, per dollar” of any bookstore in the world. There were always ex-students looking to avoid the real world, so they were very selective. It seemed like you had to know about 4 languages to work at Borders when I went to Michigan.


Henry 03.28.07 at 7:39 pm

Powells is great – and unionized too – but few CT readers seem to buy from there when I link to it. I always put it first, and used to describe the Amazon link as ‘deprecated’ but it seems to have had no effect. I have never visited the original store; my wife is a Reedie, and I keep on pushing her to attend a reunion so I can disappear into the stacks for a couple of days. The one unionized Borders is the original one that rea refers to.

otto – Hodges Figgis is now Dillonized, and has lost much of its charm (although it has a better Irish books section than its competitors). Most of the old bookshops that I used to visit as a student have closed down. Greene’s Library is still in existence I believe, although I haven’t been there in years (don’t have much time for shopping when I visit home these days).


Rich B. 03.28.07 at 7:41 pm

The value added of independent bookstores was obvious when the competition was B. Dalton and Walden, since the latter focussed more on genre fiction to the expense of “good” books.

It became less clear when the competition was Borders and Barnes & Noble, which was big enough to cater to everyone.

I am having problems even verbalizing the advantages of an independent book store in Iowa City to Amazon. It is not “local”, it will likely be slower, they are less knowledgeable than the combined Amazon usership, and they will be more expensive (less discount, not free shipping).

I will ocassionally see if a local independent has it in stock before ordering online, but really — do we even know if Prairie Lights pays its employees more than Amazon does?


hermit greg 03.28.07 at 7:42 pm

Hooray for Prairie Lights props! (Living in IC is much nicer because of it.)


fred lapides 03.28.07 at 8:33 pm

I like Amazon for its used books but am of lae annoyed since I discovered that often I am told that I can pre-order a book–it is not yet avalable–and a month later discover that it has been at my local bookstores for 3 weeks. This morning I bought a book at Barnes and Noble that was still on my pre-order list at Amazon. I cancelled that order. This is not the first time this has happened to me.I have been told that they often simply do not ship properly and it is not a policy but simply a messup.


Joel Turnipseed 03.28.07 at 8:43 pm

Micawber’s here in the Twin Cities is a little gem–but it’s about the last of the indies here (outside of specialized stores like Dreamhaven or Big Brain Comics). I haven’t checked out Garrison Keillor’s new store…

Still, I have to say I have mixed views. I was close witness to the melt-down at the one great indie here in town, Odegard’s, back when Borders/B&N were just moving to town (I was one of his returns people). Dan was (still is, AFAIK) a great guy–but he was not a cut-throat competitor in a business that’s, well, a business. Hungry Mind/Ruminator was notoriously badly run.

Dan’s stores were famously well-stocked (and well-staffed), but when the first B&N superstore (the first in the world) opened up in Roseville, you could see that it was the end of the line for indies: just the computer section at that B&N must have 5,000 titles. Poetry? Another couple thousand. True: the philosophy section sucks, but just about everything else is top-notch.

Also, I owe B&N props for selecting my book as one of their Discover Great Writers books. I have no idea what impact it had on sales, but it was a nice gesture (and my publisher only had to pay insofar as they had to print additional copies). So: B&N does go out of their way to promote little books (there are usually several small press titles in each season of the Discover series).

But… I do more and more of my own shopping at Powell’s or Amazon (or, like others have mentioned, abebooks–a great site: and we should talk about the thriving, at least here in TC, antiquarian/used bookstore market). Partly because it seems that B&N (and Borders is worse) is becoming more and more like a great big B. Dalton: row on row of Dan Brown and very little even, of, say, Saul Bellow (much less first-time novelists, and titles from Akashic, Soft Skull, NYRB, Melville House, et. al.)

Finally, do I buy the bookstore as community gathering place? I can’t think that any here in town, except when Hungry Mind was Hungry Mind and they had the Table of Contents restaurant. But even that place only sat a dozen or so.


Clint 03.28.07 at 8:43 pm

Seminary Co-Op bookstore in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

I spent way too much money there as an undergrad and still do as a grad student who lives 800 miles away. I use their Front Table ( as my way of staying in touch with interesting new books outside of my field and as a wonderful source for gifts for all the bibliophiles in my life.

I recently, through their website, ordered a fairly obscure book from a small academic press. They had a copy shelved but someone (dissertation stalker no doubt) bought it a few days before I did. While ordering it from the publisher, an employee noticed that they had could get a new paperbound edition and save me a fairly significant amount of money so he e-mailed me personally to ask which I wanted.

Finally, members get a 10% discount on all purchases and access to the annual members only sale.


Joel Turnipseed 03.28.07 at 8:44 pm

Also, Prairie Lights is a fantastic shop. They even broadcast their readings on Iowa Public Radio (though I had to do some pretty fancy editing when I read there…).


hermit greg 03.28.07 at 9:02 pm

Re: 23, the readings are “archived”: online, too. On the radio I don’t hear it as often since they stopped broadcasting live…


George Williams 03.28.07 at 9:03 pm


Rich B. 03.28.07 at 9:08 pm

Micawber’s here in the Twin Cities is a little gem—but it’s about the last of the indies here (outside of specialized stores like Dreamhaven or Big Brain Comics). I haven’t checked out Garrison Keillor’s new store…

There is (soon will be “was”) an independent Micawbers around here in Princeton, NJ, too, but they are in the process of selling out to Princeton University. I don’t know if they are related. I also don’t know if it remains “independent” if it is owned by a private university.


emjaybee 03.28.07 at 9:17 pm

You know, I feel bad for the California book lovers…but at the same time, I don’t. You see, in north central TX where I grew up, we didn’t have what they did…we live on the prairie and getting to the good book shops in arty urban districts just wasn’t an option. When Borders came to town, it was heavenly (in fact, I went on to work there). I had never, ever, seen so many good books in one place. Sure they had best sellers, but they also had the first women’s studies section I’d ever seen in a bookstore, the first real religion section, philosophy…more music than I had ever been exposed to. Before that all we *had* was Waldenbooks and a few grubby used stores that sold mostly Harlequin romances, westerns, and ancient scifi paperbacks.

The Borders and B&Ns in our area have become third places *where none existed before*. You go there at the end of a date for coffee; you take your kid there to meet friends; you go to Trivia Night, book club meetings, poetry slams, etc etc. Borders is just as good for that as any hometown operation would be.

It has the whiff of corporate evil in some ways (which is why I don’t work there for 6.50 an hour anymore) but I just can’t relate to it as a force for evil.


Anderson 03.28.07 at 9:19 pm

Some independent bookstores are just lazy and smug, like Lemuria and Square Books in Mississippi.

I’m really worried about Borders cutting on its backlist items in this corporate reinvention. The backlist is what makes me drive across town to Borders instead of hitting the Barnes & Noble much closer to me. I can’t grasp why Borders thinks it would do better by doing what others are already doing.


Slocum 03.28.07 at 9:22 pm

For those nostalgic for the indy Borders of the past, there’s a pretty cool indy bookstore in Ann Arbor just a few doors down from where the original Borders was (and just around the corner from where it is now):


K 03.28.07 at 9:46 pm

Linking to Amazon when you mention a book (or CD, or Glutino Bar-B-Q Sauce — Amazon sells groceries too) is a dumb thing to do. This is simply because Amazon isn’t usually the best place to find out more about that book. That’s why you’re making a link, isn’t it — to let your readers know more?
The publisher of that book knows more about it than Amazon ever will — a good publisher’s website will offer extracts from the book, maybe even an interview with the author, and will probably be without “reviews” written by friends of the author or mortal enemies. You will also avoid the many incitements to buy other stuff from Amazon — and those many bits of visual noise that clutter the Amazon websites.


Paul 03.28.07 at 11:52 pm

Re: 21

What about Magers and Quinn? I loved the outlet store they used to have in downtown near the Govt. Center, but they still have their main store in Uptown


Joel Turnipseed 03.29.07 at 12:03 am

Paul @ 31: (or, like others have mentioned, abebooks—a great site: and we should talk about the thriving, at least here in TC, antiquarian/used bookstore market).

Yeah, I know Denny. I remember when he was just getting started–when he bought Anthony’s next to the Oak Street Cinema to open M & Q. But Kristin’s store in Dinkytwon is great & so is Jim Cummings Jrs & there’s a new one that’s promising up in my area (NE/St. Anthony) on 29th & Johnson, called Opposable Thumbs (he just bought stock of Rag & Bone books).

But as I was saying, I think the thriving used/antiquarian book (did you all see NYT piece yesterday on personal paper collecitons?) business is another discussion entirely. Or is it? The long tail is great–but as an author, I know that most of my sales are used books. I like ’em as a reader–nay, they’re necessary to me–but as a writer… not so sure. On balance they’re probably copies that no one would buy anyway and do build up audience for next books, etcetera. But what about for retailers? I wonder, for instance, what the %sale of used books is at the huge B&N in Roseville (as a percentage of store sales)? Small I imagine. But who knows?


C. L. Ball 03.29.07 at 12:40 am

Prairie Lights is amazing as a new book store. Magers and Quinn is an odd new & used amalgam, but it has nowhere near the range of academic and serious literature that PL does. PL is a social science/humanities academics’ dream store.


Tyrone Slothrop 03.29.07 at 12:51 am

Let me plug for a neighborhood bookstore in Berkeley, Mrs. Dalloway’s. When Avenue Books closed, two of its former neighbors started this new bookstore. Mrs. Dalloway’s is on College Avenue in Elmwood, and could use your support.


todd. 03.29.07 at 2:13 am

Back Pages Books in Waltham, MA is excellent. Given the number of good book stores in Boston, it’s hard to say you should make the drive out regularly, but it’s definitely worth stopping in if you’re out that way.


joejoejoe 03.29.07 at 6:16 am

I’ll second 22. – Seminary Co-op in Chicago is the bee’s knees.


ejh 03.29.07 at 6:58 am

I’d like to recommend Menuto Rincón in Huesca, the only children’s bookshop in the whole of Aragón.

Mind you I work there.


Steven Crane 03.29.07 at 8:21 am

i agree wholeheartedly with #27.

for those of us who grew up in rural/semi-rural areas, large chain bookstores were a godsend. i was around fourteen when a barnes/noble opened in carbondale, IL – before then, the only bookstores were a waldenbooks in the mall (useless), university textbook stores (no real selection of actual books), and a few very hit-or-miss used book stores.

b&n changed nothing in the landscape, really: the used bookstores are still there, the textbook stores never will die (though i think follett’s now operates the bookstore in the student center), and even waldenbooks gamely clings to existence.


Alexander Moon 03.29.07 at 1:02 pm

Labyrinth books, NYC, up by Columbia. It’s primarily for university press books.


Ben Alpers 03.29.07 at 1:46 pm

As long as we’re mourning bookstores past, let’s raise a glass for the great bookstore of my youth, Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. It closed last year and somehow the universe (and even Berkeley) didn’t come to an end. Berkeley still has other great bookstores, most notably Black Oak. And there’s still a Cody’s branch store in the flats. But even from 1,600 miles away, the world seems a poorer place without the original Cody’s.


Sumana Harihareswara 03.29.07 at 2:15 pm

I used to work at Cody’s on Telegraph in Berkeley, then moved to NYC (where The Strand just doesn’t feel as friendly). People emailed me in mourning to tell me Cody’s on Telegraph was closing and that the other two locations got bought by some Japanese conglomerate.

Ben Alpers, did you know about the Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole in the ceiling above the information desk at Cody’s on Telegraph?

Now that I’ve moved away, I miss Borderlands and all the little used bookshops on Valencia in San Francisco, and I miss Black Oak and The Other Change of Hobbit and Moe’s Books in Berkeley.

When I was working the info desk at Cody’s, we had a multiple-page printed-out spreadsheet by the telephone, filled with names, phone numbers, and addresses of other bookshops in the Bay Area. “Well, we don’t carry that magazine, but you might try DeLauer’s, the newsstand in Oakland.” We referred people to Kepler’s on the Peninsula, Christian bookstores for miles around, an audiobook store (“Talking Book World”?) on University Avenue, the list goes on and on. I hate to think of that spreadsheet now, getting smaller, lines crossed off in ballpoint as local bookshops close.


cosma 03.29.07 at 9:13 pm

Cody’s on Telegraph is closed?!? Cody’s, where I spent so much I couldn’t really afford? Cody’s, where my father spent more then he could afford when he was a student? Pardon me while I rend my clothes, anoint myself with ashes, and otherwise mourn how the world has moved on.

To actually be slightly on-topic, while I would prefer a good independent bookstore (yay Shaman Drum!), living in Pittsburgh has given me a new appreciation for the big chains; our new neighborhood Borders didn’t squeeze out existing stores, because there was nothing for it to squeeze…


cosma 03.29.07 at 9:15 pm

Kepler’s is good, too, and Labyrinth Books does a great business in remaindered academic press books, with (I think) a really nice on-line interface.


Miriam 03.30.07 at 2:53 am

I third the Seminary Co-Op, where I worked briefly when I was a graduate student. The Co-Op also operates 57th Street Books (on, um, 57th Street…), which has a big children’s books section and more popular titles.

(Confession time: I once went to a conference specifically because they advertised “a trip to Powell’s!” as one of the extras. My money and my wallet were extensively parted.)


CattyinQueens 03.30.07 at 3:11 am

Bookpeople in Austin, TX.


paschal 03.30.07 at 8:42 pm

The new Chapters Bookstore in Parnell Street (near the Rotunda Hospital). The largest bookstore in Ireland and the finest. A great range of books at excellent prices.


sbk 03.31.07 at 12:46 am

In Berkeley: I was a University Press Books skeptic for a while, but I’ve come around. It’s attached to a pleasant café and classical music store as well, and there are often discounted sale books.

In San Francisco: City Lights! Possibly the best collection of fiction in translation I have ever seen, among other things, although maybe not oriented enough towards nonfiction for this crowd.

The Seminary and Labyrinths are indeed both great as well.

Finally, for what it’s worth: in 2002, I briefly worked at a used bookstore which listed its inventory on both Amazon and ABE. Amazon took a bigger commission and gave a smaller shipping allowance than ABE, but the store did not sell significantly more books via Amazon than via ABE, surprising as that may sound. Of course, the situation may have changed.


anne 04.01.07 at 9:20 pm

London Review Bookshop in London is wonderful. Erudite, civilised, friendly, efficient… Not only do you feel the collection there has been intelligently curated (to suit the reader of The London Review of Books) but they will order stuff for you cheerfully.

And I hear Borders UK is under fire, which would be tragic as it’s one of the few places you can get US magazines.

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