Wednesday, July 13, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Books Inc., A Chain That Isn't

This is the third in a series of short articles on independent San Francisco bookstores. While their numbers are dwindling, there are still many colorful, one-of-a-kind bookstores in various colorful, one-of-a-kind San Francisco neighborhoods.

This is tricky. Billed as the oldest independent bookstore in the West, Books Inc. is also a chain. On the other hand, Books Inc. is not only a small chain as chains go, it is a local one — and local in the best possible way. The managers, buyers and members of each staff know books and their neighborhoods. Each of the stores has the independence — even mandate — to stock their shelves with books that reflect the community they serve. Of the dozen Books Inc. stores in California, here are the four in San Francisco neighborhoods:

Opera Plaza — Books Inc. occupies most of what used to be the now departed, but highly respected bookstore, A Clean, Well Lighted Place for Books. The good news is that the store remains clean and well lit and offers a well-balanced selection of new books. It is close to the Civic Center, heart of city, state and federal government and on the busy and increasingly residential Van Ness corridor. Next to and opening into the bookstore is a café belonging to another local chain, Peet’s Coffee. When you’re done exploring all the fine books, you can pick up a cup of coffee and a scone or take in a movie at one of the Opera Plaza theaters. Great place to spend a Sunday morning. 601 Van Ness Avenue, (415) 776-1111.

Laurel Village — Not the largest, but perhaps one of the busiest of the Books Inc. stores, this store serves a neighborhood that could just as well be called be called “stroller village.” Though the shelves are full of great new books for all kinds of readers, they have an especially good selection of children’s books. The location in a shopping strip along California Street in Laurel Heights, is near two great grocers, a couple of restaurants and coffee houses, a fantastic wine shop and other fine stores. Great store, great neighborhood. 3515 California Street, (415) 221-3666.

The Marina — The real surprise is that this newly remodeled store serves not only the Marina, but also Cow Hollow. That means that among all the shops along Lombard, Union and Chestnut, Books Inc., offers the only full-service bookstore. Lots of families and double-wide strollers here as well. One can spend the afternoon on busy, upscale, shop-oriented Chestnut and a lot more time checking out store windows if you include Union Street and the slice of Fillmore that connects the two, uber shopping areas. Have lunch. Read a book. Buy stuff. 2251 Chestnut Street, (415) 931-3633.

The Castro — The neighborhood’s gay and lesbian bookstore, A Different Light, closed its doors recently, leaving Books Inc. as the only store offering a large selection of LGBT books and magazines in the world-famous gay neighborhood. Fortunately for the increasingly diverse residents of the area, this Castro Books Inc. offers a wide range of books for everyone and is located in a lively retail community located a few steps from the Castro trolley line and an underground MUNI station (K, L and M lines). 2275 Market Street, (415) 864-6777.

All of the Books Inc. stores have active reading groups and regularly schedule author events. Also, as you might want to do in all fine bookstores, pay attention to the “staff favorites.”

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