Book Keeping: A Reader's Community

My Year in Indie Bookstores

Jeff VanderMeer

Area X by Jeff VanderMeer

Among the great privileges of touring behind the three novels in the Southern Reach Trilogy this year was encountering so many wonderful independent bookstores across the United States. Some I had visited before. Others were new to me. But wherever I went, one thing remained constant: A passion for books that expressed itself in creative and unique ways.

Here, then, is my year in indie bookstores: every U.S. indie I read at or signed stock at.

Jeff VanderMeer
Barnes and Noble

Bookmark It (Orlando) – A tiny but carefully curated new bookstore, bursting with energy and located above a selection of amazing gourmet, locally-sourced restaurants. A lovely selection of local interest books is balanced by great taste in their general literary selections. Bookmark It supports Burrow Press and the Functionally Literate reading series, which gives the store a larger presence in the community.

Book Passage (San Francisco) – The outpost I visited, perched on the edge of the bay in the Embarcadero, is a friendly, cozy general bookstore with an omnivorous selection. A pleasant place to spend a couple of hours browsing. Alas, I only had five minutes!

Bookshop Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA) – A great (and large) general bookstore that has the added bonus of being near a lighthouse. Well, that’s a bonus to me, anyway. Getting a chance to go there with KUSP radio host Rick Kleffel, browse and sign stock, followed by some seal-watching and lighthouse gawking made for a pleasant afternoon. An excellent selection of craft and coffee table books, too.

Booksmith (San Francisco) – Located in a great bohemian neighborhood, Haight-Ashbury, Booksmith has wide and eclectic tastes in mainstream fiction. They don’t skimp on promoting staff favorites and have a wealth of nonfiction selections, too. An organized, well-lit, inviting space. I’ll always think of this bookstore when I think of the Southern Reach Trilogy because a couple of scenes in Authority pivotal to characterization are based on an encounter I had just up the block from Booksmith.

Having a book addiction means recognizing those moments when you might get into serious trouble.

Book Soup (Los Angeles) – Any bookstore that displays all their Europa Editions in one place has my best interests in mind, if not my wallet’s best interests. This is a crowded, eccentric bookstore, with its own odd but appealing ambiance. You want a bookstore to feel larger on the inside than it looks on the outside, and this is that place. (Alas, this year I signed for them at their stall at the Los Angeles Book Festival and didn’t get to explore their actual bookstore again, but hope to next time.)

Chop Suey Books (Richmond, VA) – Downstairs you’ll find new-and-used books and a definite counter-culture vibe. Upstairs a wealth of discounted and used books await you, with some great curating in both spaces. Indie press and eclectic major-label fiction and nonfiction is in evidence all over the store. A great store to temporarily forget what you came in for and just browse, with a smattering of interesting staff selections near the front. This time, I walked in just as they were taking an order for Annihilation over the phone—a fairly surreal experience. I walked out with some great books from Dalkey Archive Press, including Boris Vian’s Heartsnatcher.

City Lights (San Francisco) – Ranked high amongst counter-culture royalty and bookstores in general, City Lights is a dream for me, with featured selections that always seem aimed at my core tastes. Even better, I always find books or authors I’d never heard of that I wind up enjoying the heck out of; I bought Will Self for the first time at City Lights. The staff is…just out of this world wonderful. I could listen to them talk about books for hours, if I was to be so lucky. Such a great space, too, with the eccentricities of structure—on a slant, tight staircase, etc.—that help create unique character in a bookstore.

Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle) – I worried when Elliott Bay moved a few years ago that it might become a shadow of itself, like my beloved Goerings in Gainesville, Florida. But over the years it’s become clear the store is just as vital and extraordinary as ever. The location also benefits from being surrounded by great restaurants and coffee shops. Another one of those bookstores you can lose yourself in for hours. A true institution, and a joy to visit.

Fountain Bookstore (Richmond, VA) – The energetic, sharp Kelly Justice runs a tight ship at this small but vibrant bookstore in downtown Richmond, catering nicely to the general reader. Justice also comes up with fun promotions for readings and creates a festive atmosphere for events. A general fiction and nonfiction lover’s dream.

Getting snuggly VanderMeer at Fountain Bookstore

Kramerbooks (Washington D.C.) – Technically I didn’t sign in Kramer’s. But my hotel was across the street, so I dropped by to browse and a woman was buying Annihilation as I walked in the door. I wasn’t sure if I should offer to sign or not, but wound up introducing myself and asking. She was very nice and luckily didn’t see me as being intrusive. So I did sign in Kramer’s—sort of. Even if I hadn’t, I would’ve had to put them on this list, just on general principle. They carry such an amazing selection of general and genre fiction that I usually can’t get out of there without spending hundreds of dollars. I’ve bought quite a few NYRB Classics from them.

Green Apple (San Francisco) – One of those old-school shambolic-looking bookstores I love so much, with proprietors who carry a wealth of book knowledge in their heads. I spent almost five hundred dollars last time because their fiction sections are so rich. I bought a slew of books by FSG and Dalkey, among others, as well as Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel by Paul Scheerbart, a favorite read this year. Then, just when you think you’re done, they hit you with Dedalus and New Directions et al in the recommendations by the door. Totally not fair. (They’ve also thoughtfully put the Southern Reach trilogy in both general and SF sections, which I appreciate.)

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (NYC) – I had a great time doing an event at Housing Works along with Lauren Beukes and Lev Grossman this September (cosponsored by WORD). Housing Works has that classic old library look that some bookstores cultivate and an eclectic selection of fiction and nonfiction. A comfortable place to spend some time browsing or to see some of your favorite authors—and all for a good cause.

Hub City (Spartanburg, SC) – Every summer in my role as co-director of Shared Worlds, a teen writing camp, we have readings at the compact but mighty Hub City Bookstore. Their selections from Archipelago and others seem designed to make me spend as much money as if I’d bought their stock myself. Seeing our 60 students gut the bookstore after the reading tends to reaffirm my optimism in the future of literature. Hub City also sponsors a visiting writer (last year, James Yeh from Gigantic Magazine) and runs a publishing house. Taken in total, that adds up to one of the more vibrant literary hotspots in the country.

Inkwood Books (Tampa, FL) – A cheery, bright bookstore that looks like a seaside cottage and carries a wide-ranging selection of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. I had a great time talking to the manager after the event, and a less great time trying to avoid browsing so I wouldn’t buy too much. My mistake was in arriving early, which meant I’d already succumbed, and in addition to several other books, had picked up Richard House’s The Kills, which turned out to be my favorite read of the year.

Not to mention their regional interest section, which is actually both regional and of interest (this isn’t always the case).

Malaprop’s Bookstore (Asheville, NC) – I’ve read at Malaprop’s six straight years now and it’s one of those little-bit-of-everything bookstores that you might raid for literary fiction one trip and for fantasy the next. Not to mention their regional interest section, which is actually both regional and of interest (this isn’t always the case). Malaprop’s always has a busy, crowded feel that’s upbeat, not claustrophobic. One of the jewels in the crown of Asheville’s vibrant downtown, Malaprop’s is, as they say, an institution. I’m always reassured and put at ease when I walk in—it’s an enduring part of my literary landscape.

McNally Jackson (NYC) – I remember walking into McNally Jackson in 2009 and buying almost too many books to carry, mostly because their staff recommendations seemed to fit perfectly with my tastes at the time. Lots of McSweeney’s and Penguin Classics and quirky-but-deep lit. I also remember wondering if I’d ever get a chance to read there—and this year I did, as part of an event that included a fun Q&A with my editor at FSG, Sean McDonald. On a cold winter day, there’s really nothing better than heading to McNally Jackson and losing yourself in a lazy browse. (If I lived in New York, I doubt I’d ever get anything done…)


Illustration by Jess Gulbranson

Mysterious Galaxy (San Diego and Redondo Beach) – Among the most iconic of SF/fantasy bookstores, Mysterious Galaxy is the mom-and-pop chock full o’stuff store of your teenager dreams. Every time I read there, I find it almost overwhelming: the sheer density, the super-saturation, of speculative fiction on display. It’s owned by the nicest people in the business and among the most knowledgeable. The Redondo Beach location, tragically, is attached to a beer bar, which means if I lived in Redondo Beach I’d probably never leave the bookstore.

Politics & Prose (Washington D.C.) – I’ve never had a bookseller give me an illustration of a rabbit or an owl before (thanks L.A. Grabenstetter) or had such a great time shooting the breeze with staff, including the great Anton, before an event. P&P is voluminous, deep, and has just a hint of that “book mine” vibe I so love—the thought that you might possibly get lost inside. I must admit, I found the selection so comprehensive and overwhelming that I mostly browsed from afar. Having a book addiction means recognizing those moments when you might get in serious trouble. Next time I’m in D.C. I plan to strap on an I.V. (so I don’t need to break for lunch) and dive in…

Powell’s Books (Portland, OR) – I doubt there’s anything unique I can say about Powell’s, except to point out that only Chamblin’s Book Mine in Jacksonville can challenge Powell’s for sheer volume—for sheer depth and width and range. It’s that stupendous a ziggurat of books. I read at the Cedar Hills Crossing location and encountered some of the most hardcore bookstore patrons ever—not only was it a good, raucous audience, but they bought books like it was a sacred obligation. Writer Jess Gulbranson even drew an image of me at the podium. Another bookstore you have to file under “Get Lost In.”

Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh, NC) – This wide-open bookstore with high ceilings and bright lighting manages to be both familiar and delightfully eccentric. The long, wide space makes the store inviting for readings and creates a kind of welcome laid-back vibe. The staff had a good sense of humor, too. I picked up Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, despite having vowed not to buy anything.

WORD (Brooklyn, NY) – I love WORD, and apparently they can still put up with me despite the fact that I sent them way too many smoking rabbit figurines as a joke after Authority came out. The store in Brooklyn is compact but another example of smart, proactive curation, which creates great loyalty among customers. Fun, creative, dynamic—that’s how I would describe the people who run WORD. When they sent me an image of copies of Annihilation hiding amongst plants I knew we were going to have a lot of fun this year. Just another example of the really vibrant indie bookstore scene in the U.S.

In my travels, I saw a lot of optimism about the future, an impression confirmed by my friend James Crossley, a bookseller at Island Books in Seattle. He told me that the general mood at recent indie bookseller conventions had been upbeat—sales were better and the market seemed to have stabilized. This was great news to hear, because bookstores aren’t just places you buy books. When you lose an indie bookstore, you lose a rich space for the arts and culture in general.

I’d like to make a final shout-out to other bookstores like the Strand (NYC), Book People (Austin), and University Bookstore (Seattle) that make me happy and were kind to me this year. Not to mention all the great bookstores like Ivy Bookshop (Baltimore), Skylight (Los Angeles), and Joseph Fox (Philadelphia) that set up off-site outposts that supported my books and the books of many other authors.

This is just a small selection of great bookstores, though. This holiday season, support your local indie bookstore with your patronage and maybe even a shout-out on social media.

Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and multiple year’s-best anthologies. He writes nonfiction for The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian, among others.

For more, visit

Photo Credit: Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia

  1. […] Jeff VanderMeer was on book tour for his Southern Reach Trilogy this past year, and he visited a lot of great independent bookstores he’d like you to know […]


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