Wednesday, November 9, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Nostalgic Look Back, Some Who Weathered The Storm

We began this series talking about how many of the big bookstores have disappeared in the recent but fast-breaking wave toward ebook domination. No Borders or Barnes & Noble inside San Francisco’s city limits. Virgin, Stacey’s, and Cody’s are gone from here. But some, who were around before these stores were even built have come and gone.

During my brief but enjoyable stint as editor of the Nob Hill Gazette, I assigned myself a story that required me to explore Francisco’s bookstores. What a job. (What would I assign myself next? Bakeries, gelato joints?) That would be 1983. Many of the bookstores I wrote about then have also disappeared. However, some have survived.

So, as I contemplated what bookstores would be next in this ongoing series, I began to look at Antiquarian bookstores. That’s when I remembered doing that article I wrote a little more than a quarter of a century ago. I wondered which bookstores I wrote about and what I said.

Of course, there was City Lights, which still exists and still shines as does its owner and co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But there was another famous bookstore owner here in the City — Warren Howell.

“Warren Howell, son of the man who founded John Howell Books in 1912, is regarded as the “dean of bookmen,” a title he both earned and relishes,” I wrote then. He was the person to go to if you wanted first editions of works by Keats, Whitman and Spencer. He once possessed a Samuel Johnson dictionary and first-edition hand-printed copy of Ulysses signed by James Joyce. His store on Post Street was often regarded as the best Antiquarian bookstore on the West Coast. It is gone now.

However, the Argonaut Book Shop, founded in 1941, still exists and is a highly respected dealer in antiquarian books, particularly about the history of California and the American West. If you want to know what a bookshop is supposed to look like, this is it. At least that was Alfred Hitchcock’s opinion when he ordered a replica of the store built in Hollywood for a scene in his film, Vertigo. In addition to its Western literature orientation, the shop has a broad selection of books on the American Civil War as well as posters from World War One and other maps, prints, and photographs.

786 Sutter Street, (415) 474-9067,

For those who miss John Howell Books, don’t despair. There’s a fine, antiquarian bookshop just off Union Square. John Windle Antiquarian Booksellers occupies a large suite in a building full of highly respected, fine art galleries. Unlike the galleries, wide open and generously lit, the shop seems more like a sacred library, a place where one might uncover the next DaVinci code. And as the mood suggests, the store specializes in medieval illuminated text manuscripts and “illustrated books and fine bindings from the 15th through the 20th centuries.

49 Geary, Suite 233, (415) 986-5826,

I wouldn’t consider Fields Bookstore to be antiquarian. However, the fact that it has been around since 1932 — in the same location — gives it some historic authority. This shop was in my original story in the Gazette under the category of “Metaphysical.” This wasn’t the stereotypical California “vibe” kind of metaphysics. This is oriented to series readers of esoteric and magical studies, major Eastern religions, Jungian psychology and considerably more. They deal in both new and used books and because this is the only bookstore for what is now being called “Polk Village,” they also have a selection of general interest bestsellers as well.

1419 Polk Street, (415) 673-2027,

Other bookstores have disappeared since my original article was published. You might remember Small Press Traffic, which specialized in books by individuals and independent publishers. Richard Hilkert Bookseller, Ltd., was a rare books shop on the pre-trendy Hayes Street. There was McDonalds, a gigantic used bookstore, noted for its dust and lack of organization. Two stores devoted to film and theatre — Limelight and Drama Books — are now among the missing. Old Wives Tales was a store was devoted to books for, by and about women. And well before Different Light bit the dust recently, the first of its kind in San Francisco, Walt Whitman Gay Bookstore, went out of business. You might also remember Paperback Traffic, which had a huge store on Polk and a second later on Castro. There were others. And there will be others even as the whole idea of reading approaches new frontiers.

Caption: Detail from the celestial ceiling mural at Fields Bookstore. The artist is Shelley Masters

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