Wednesday, October 5, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Two Shops Straight Out of Central Casting

This is the last in a series of short articles on independently owned San Francisco general interest bookstores. Soon, this space will host a series on the many special interest bookstores in the city.

When one goes into most used bookstores, there is a set of expectations. One is that staff tends to leave customers to their own devices. Two is that whether or not the store is very well organized or has a more casual approach to the idea of book categories, the place is not lit like a science lab. Signage, if it exists, is pretty much scrawled by hand. And no one really cares how long you stay. It’s the way it ought to be. It’s a place to escape from the world at large and enter into your own private fantasy — food, mysteries, romances, history, etc. If you were going to shoot a scene from a movie that took place in a used bookstore, you could easily use the Russian Hill Bookstore or Aardvark Books.

There are three commercial patches along the commercial stretch of Polk Street. The first, just up from the Civic Center, has been trying to change its image to Polk Village. But many of us remember it as Polk Gulch or Polk Strasse. This used to be a tough, wild area of the city. In the 70s and 80s, gay culture dominated and the brand practiced here was often outlandish, unlike the staid Marlboro country of Castro of this era. This, the south end of Polk, is no longer all that wild, but is has resisted attempts at total gentrification. The north end of Polk, on the other hand, is very gentrified. Restaurants and wine shops cater to more expensive tastes. Between these two Polk Streets is a stretch that is, in fact, very much in between. This neighborhood has good, but less expensive restaurants, interesting, but more practical shops and a well established used bookstore that has not only weathered changing retail habits, but has done so without changing itself. The Russian Hill Bookstore not only has a large and ordered selection of used books, but also offers a huge section devoted to greeting cards.

2234 Polk Street, (415) 929-0997,

I am among those who think that used bookstores should have a resident dog or cat. Most stores selling old books have that slightly frumpy feel. In this case comfort trumps style. And this is a good thing. Looking for a good book should be a warm and comfortable experience. Aardvark Books is just that with Owen the Cat, hanging around to make you feel at home. The medium-sized store is just off Market Street on Church — officially in the Castro, but equally close to both the Mission and Lower Haight. It is also incredibly accessible to all forms of above- and below-ground public transportation. The corner of Church and Market also hosts a variety of interesting restaurants and coffee shops, not to mention the gargantuan Safeway.

227 Church Street, (415) 552-6733

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