11 Indie Bookstores to Support in San Francisco

Find your next great read at SF’s best book shops, from Beat Generation classics to POC-centered bookstores.

As much as San Franciscans lament the tech bro-takeover and its negative effect on the city’s culture, at least there is no shortage of indie bookstores. The written word (on paper!) isn’t dead and in fact, the city alone has more than 40 indie bookstores. Whether you’re looking for an antique cookbook, a rare sci-fi title, or a Zen bookstore, SF has you covered. From Glen Park to Japantown and beyond, here are our favorite places to get lost in the stacks, which often double as peaceful sanctuaries for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city.

The 70-year-old institution almost disappeared during shelter-in-place, but loyal customers from around the globe saved it with a robust GoFundMe campaign. What would San Francisco be without this Beat Generation bookstore started by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti? With three floors of book nooks and crannies, get lost in anything from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl to discussions with local writers moderated by current SF Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin. What’s also great about City Lights is that you can pop next door to Vesuvio, grab a beer, tuck yourself away on the second floor, and dive into your new read.

Just down the street from Adobe Books is the pandemic-born, Sun Ra song-inspired Medicine for Nightmares, which took over the former Alley Cat Bookstore & Gallery space in 2021. As a POC-run bookstore, the owners, most of whom worked at City Lights for years, seek to transform what bookshops look like. For example, the U.S. history section doesn’t divide books by race, emphasizing the intersectionality of everyone’s stories.

Green Apple Books

Inner Richmond

Before SF transplants discovered the west side of the city, they were missing out on the Inner Richmond’s Green Apple, with its original location at 6th and Clement holding it down since 1967. The beloved book shop has since expanded to an Outer Sunset location, and also owns Browser Books in the Fillmore. All locations still retain a mom-and-pop vibe, with a healthy inventory of used and new books, plus community activism like seeking book donations for the Prisoners Literature Project, plus an active roster of author events.

While its sister location, Alley Cat Books, shut down earlier in the pandemic, Dog Eared remains strong. The 20-year-old shop sells both new and used books, and specializes in local, quirky, and small-press literature. The shop also features paintings from local artists, many of which are for sale.

As the name implies, this indie bookstore is equal parts book lovers’ (author Samuel Beckett) and jazz lovers’ venue (as in saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker) since it opened in 1999. B&B programs poetry readings bi-monthly and publishes an annual literary review called Amerarcana. It also consistently puts on live jazz every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and a bonus is that the carpeting and books make for great acoustics. BYOB for the shows.

Joe's Pizza
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The co-op and volunteer-run Adobe has been grassroots since its founding in 1989. Instantly becoming a “living room” space for artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers, Adobe eventually expanded to include an art gallery space, and has hosted renowned musical acts such as Devendra Banhart and The Oh Sees. Adobe moved to its current 24th Street location in 2012, which has become known as an Indie Bookstore Row (see below), and is an active part in the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.

Borderlands Books

Upper Haight

Nearly 25 years old, Borderlands caters to mystery, fantasy, horror, and sci-fi book fans. Just having relocated to the Haight from its former home in the Mission a few months ago, readers can still indulge in seminal Octavia Butler to the latest Maggie Tokuda-Hall. You can also buy audiobooks from Borderlands via the Libro.fm platform.

Forest Books

Japantown

The small-ish shop on Buchanan Mall in J-town has a highly curated selection of used and rare books, plus a cute little children’s room. Being a student of Zen Buddhism, the store founder also hosts a Zen meditation at the store every Saturday morning.

From the founder of NYC’s famous Bluestockings activist bookstore comes this intimate Outer Sunset bookshop that opened in 2017. It not only boasts a well-edited collection of new fiction, non-fiction, and children’s literature, but also a decent cafe window and the coziest secret garden laden with succulents.

San Francisco is a food city, and the fact that we have a bookstore dedicated specifically to culinary books is just one more way to prove it. Yes, there are cookbooks galore, but there are also tons of food magazines, vintage menus from the 19th and 20th centuries, and antiquarian tomes like a first edition soul food cookbook by the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. Now that’s food for thought.

Yes, it’s outside of the city proper, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t include this historic book shop that was first founded by Drs. Raye and Julian Richardson in SF’s Fillmore District in 1960, and serves as the first Black-owned bookstore in the entire country. Now located on MLK Wayi in Oakland, you’ll still find a wealth of books paying homage to the global contributions of the African Diaspora, including literature, cookbooks, history, music, political science, and more, along with author talks, book clubs, poetry readings, and other similar events.

Margot Seeto is a Bay Area freelance writer and a contributor for Thrillist.