All my life I have moved toward living in a community with bookstores. If I were to get picky, the bookstores would be independent, not this chain garbage, although I can’t tell you how many times Barnes & Noble and, back in the day, Borders, saved my life because I didn’t have the luxury of being picky.
When I was kid in Northwest Ohio it was the chain Waldenbooks at the Defiance Mall. We had an independent in neighboring Bryan, Ohio, but I don’t recall it having more selection than my mother did (my mother had amassed enough books over years to almost hold up the walls).
When I was in college it was Barnes & Noble and Borders in Springfield, Missouri, if it wasn’t the university bookstore or a library book sale.
My introduction to the You’ve-Got-Mail, truly independent with a heritage kind of bookstore, was in the Bay Area. Independent bookstores were part of my decision to leave Southwest Missouri; when I left most of the independents were Bible bookstores. When I visited the bookstores in the Bay Area I got to know each one like a personality: Alexander’s on Second Street in San Francisco would have African American literature, Stacey’s would have lots of writerly and readerly accessories in addition to books and journals, Green Apple would stash the books in the stair bannisters, City Lights would be all about the beats, the renegades. I loved them all, and still love them all. I remember a quest to bring in a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey to Green Apple, I remember getting a copy of Tales of the City at Alexander’s. I remember the day Stacey’s closed, and I still have a tote bag from there.
San Diego, happily, also has a wonderful collection of bookstores. People who are from cities like New York and San Francisco can roll their eyes at the limited number of San Diego independents, but I am eternally grateful to them in any number. San Diego doesn’t like to set itself off as a readerly city (San Diego is mostly known as a brewery town), but when there are literary events the readers come out in a packed collective (would the noun here be “a chapter/book of readers”?). There are author events here, too; local authors come out en masse in August to meet readers at the two-day reader event sponsored by the Union-Tribune, visiting bookstore booths as well. In April the bookstores hold a Litcrawl, the bookstore equivalent of a pub-crawl all over the city (and San Diego is a sprawling city) for three days of book binging. And then there are the events that happen throughout the year by bookstore concoction and by author publication events: Warwicks has probably the largest number of author events, but authors also frequent South Park’s Book Catapult and North Park’s Verbatim (Verbatim is a big proponent of poetry and zine writers). The University of California San Diego bookstore has a cafe in the first floor, and The Library Shop has new books to buy if you don’t want to check them out on a deadline. Bluestocking Books in Hillcrest donates books to kids’ organizations and holds themed specials every month (with February they are discounting a small collection of titles on co-dependency), and LaPlaya Books in Point Loma (as well as the aforementioned Book Catapult) have book clubs that meet once a month. Most of the stores send out emails of what’s new; Book Catapult also holds a once-a-month coffee session with the new suggestions on discount that day.
What’s the difference in a San Diego indie and a San Francisco indie? This could just be my personal experience; I’m so gun-shy of scaring people with my passion for reading that I try not to be a gushing groupie to the person behind the counter. My experience in San Francisco matched that fear; most of the booksellers I’ve met in San Francisco prefer to be left alone unless you’re desperate, with the exception of Green Apple, who I always enjoyed a conversational relationship with in the shop and on social media. But San Diego booksellers…my experience is that they will draw you out. There’s not a time where I have walked into them without someone asking me if I needed help finding something; my standard response is that whatever I’m looking for usually finds me, and then the bookseller nods and laughs and realizes that I’m an avid reader without being scared by my passion. Some of them even ask about my reading habits and we are both at ease (Book Catapult knows I review books as a side gig, so we do a lot of talking shop in a safe space). I’m not sure if in San Francisco the majority of booksellers know that they are in a literary town and therefore don’t encourage the groupie mindset (I’m reminded of the scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Francie finally gets up the courage to ask for a book recommendation for the girl she used to be and confronts the librarian for not even looking up), but San Diego booksellers seem to relish any patron with a love of books who wants to talk.
San Diego, as a readership, seems to be grateful for the indie bookstore.