America through the eyes of a booklover

Marta Bausells of The Guardian stated in her article that four of the Top 10 Independent Bookshops in the world were in America (as of 2015). Starting out in San Francisco, California, I intended to travel across North America, visiting these highly rated bookshops in Oregon, Minnesota and New York.

I began my journey in City Lights, famed for its Beatnik connections (Ginsburg’s ‘Howl’ was read aloud there for the first time, Neal Cassidy had visited, etc. etc.) I had left my accommodation in San Jose at 7am, to catch the Cal Train upstate to San Francisco. I reached City Lights at 10:30ish, bleary-eyed but tentatively excited to see this historic space. Scott, the bookseller, was very amiable, recommending books to me and showering me with freebies – though I cannot guarantee this special treatment to all who visit. City Lights – situated alongside San Francisco’s China Town and Little Italy – is in my opinion well worth the trek out from England!

Next, I boarded a plane to Portland, Oregon, a city on the rise. Powell’s, their famous bookstore, is an impressive 68,000 square feet (over 1 mile long)! Customers are provided with a map to help them to navigate this sprawling labyrinth, and an intercom system connects the various floors and rooms. With over 250 events running per year, as well as regular tours for schools and visitors, Powell’s has become a law unto itself, operating as its own mini-society. It’s no surprise that it’s the 2nd most visited man-made attraction in Portland!

Four days later, I find myself crawling through a little purple door, designed to be the perfect height for a child. Feeling somewhat like Alice in Wonderland, I emerge inside Wild Rumpus, Minnesota’s most famous bookshop, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it was in fact a zoo. A menagerie of animals, from cats and birds, to chinchillas and tarantulas (well, one tarantula, named Thomas Jefferson), Wild Rumpus has earned its namesake. The ceiling depicts the gradual shift from interior to exterior, bringing the outdoors indoors; the concept is based on Anne Mazer’s The Salamander Room, a delightful children’s book about a little boy who brings home a salamander and gradually transforms his bedroom into a woodland paradise. Stroking the black fluffy chicken, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I smile, pleased at having made it this far – and anticipating my journey to New York ahead.

New York shall be the most gruelling leg of my one month journey; ten days, alone in a hostel, in the city that never sleeps. I’m nervous, but the last few weeks of journeying across America have prepared me for this.

The Strand, New York’s most famous independent bookstore, is like Powell’s, in that one also requires directions to navigate the various floors of books and amazing book-related merchandise for sale. The staff are happy to help, and maps are again provided. Books here range from a dollar or less – several racks of these stand out in the street – to serious, collector-level expensive (they have a rare books room on the top floor). Following in the footsteps of Saunders and Lumley (that’s right – ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ filmed an episode here) I browsed and shopped, heady with the scents of old and new books, elated that I had, finally, visited all four of America’s best independent bookshops…as rated by Guardian readers.


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May 2022
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