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Archive for September, 2013


I’ve taken pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, on two previous occasions on this blog to bemoan the demise of “high street” bookshops, both in principle and in my adopted city of San Francisco. In the first, I lamented the closure of the large branches of Border’s in Union Square, replaced now by a DSW shoe emporium, which, to add insult to injury, my wife loves, and 2nd and King opposite the ballpark. I consoled myself at the time with the knowledge that the Barnes and Noble branch in Fisherman’s Wharf was still carrying the flag, only to discover, shortly afterwards, that it too had made way for an expanded Cost Plus World Market.

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But, in one sense, that has been a blessing as it has forced me to seek out San Francisco’s rich family of neighbourhood bookstores. As a result, I’m no longer sure that I miss the big chains as much as I did three years ago.

On my recent trip I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the independent stores – some new to me, others old friends – and discovered a very different story to the one that confronted me when the giants (no, not those) were collapsing around me a couple of years ago.  Phoenix Books on 24th Street  in Noe Valley was my local store where, on the first morning of my vacation, I picked up a discounted copy of Comeback Kings, a book on the Giants’ (yes, those) 2012 World Series victory.

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A Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia Street in the Mission unveiled the dual delights of Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, though the latter’s sole focus on science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery is not to my taste. But the painstakingly prepared coffee was! A happy birthday to Dog Eared Books, a partner of the aforementioned Phoenix Books, Badger Books (of which more below) and alley cat books, which turns 21 this very week! On the evidence of these two thriving outlets, the declaration on its website that ‘reports concerning “The Death of the Bookstore” have been greatly exaggerated’ rings resoundingly and joyfully true.

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What struck me most about all of the bookstores I visited was the sheer number of people frequenting them, not just browsing the shelves but writing their own blogs and engaging in social media on their laptops, drinking every conceivable coffee permutation and interrogating the community noticeboards for apartment lettings or reiki classes and, in some instances, all three.

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Badger Books on the corner of Cortland Avenue and Bennington Street in urbane Bernal Heights, displayed a particularly fine secondhand selection and boasted a lovely children’s section complete with multi-coloured stools.

Needless to say, City Lights in North Beach afforded me several opportunities to part with my dollars and the Book Passage in the Ferry Building, though relatively small, always contains an interesting and eclectic collection. Besides, there are few better places to sit and read than outside with a cup of Peet’s coffee from the adjoining concession.

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Aardvark Books on Church Street near Market, where I bought a set of vintage San Francisco postcards at just fifteen cents each, The Booksmith (another regular haunt) and Browser Books on Fillmore between California and Sacramento are also fine places to stay awhile.

I may, to the purists, be about to join the dark side with my purchase of an Amazon Kindle, but I will never lose my love for plunging into bookstores (preferably those with adjoining cafes and a place to park the laptop), and divesting them of their stock. I expect that I only scratched the surface with San Francisco’s independent bookstores this time, but if the above branches are typical, their future is bright.

I dearly hope so.

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“You guys really love this city don’t you? You know it better than many people who have lived here all their lives”.

Thus spoke the balding young Oakland man with neat goatee beard, with whom my wife and I had struck up a conversation over our eggplant wraps and blueberry smoothies on the outdoor patio of the Progressive Grounds coffee house in the civilised neighbourhood of Bernal Heights one warm June afternoon.

 “You’re certainly no tourists – you’re San Franciscans”.

Whilst such a statement would have incurred the wrath of the natives who fiercely proclaim their privileged status on internet forums devoted to the subject, it was, nonetheless, pleasing to hear, especially coming from a lifelong Bay Area resident.

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As regular readers of my blog will attest, I invariably turn to Herb Caen, the legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, for his trusted opinion on such matters. In one of his many ruminations on what made a San Franciscan he said:

 I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene

have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who

become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested

in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building

for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated

with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they

savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I

know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive

Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is

something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is

where they really know how to Get Things Done.

So, after ten visits of increasing length, we have gravitated from being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to anointment as “San Franciscans”. If I harboured any doubt, perhaps the existence of this article is further evidence. And statements like the one from the Cortland Avenue coffee shop, and that of the usher at the ballpark who thanked me for both loving her city as much as she did, and articulating that love so passionately in my writing, reinforce that judgement still further.

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Moreover, they act as a useful counterpoint to the recent assertion by Travel & Leisure magazine that San Francisco is the snobbiest city in the States. Anybody – whether natives, “transplants” or wide-eyed, first time tourists – with a willingness to learn, understand, appreciate and celebrate everything it has to offer, should equally be capable of qualifying for such an accolade.

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