When is a bookstore worth a tourist's time?
When it's more than just a place to buy books.
A destination bookstore can make you feel like you're part of the community, whether you're grooving on the laid-back vibe at Powell's in Portland, or tuning into the Beltway buzz at Washington's Politics and Prose.
Some bookstores offer literary touchstones, like the wooden chairs signed by writers who've visited That Bookstore in Blytheville, an Arkansas institution frequented by native son John Grisham. City Lights in San Francisco, once a hangout for Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, draws tourists from around the world.
"Each one of these stores has a unique, distinct personality and approach," said Meg Smith, chief marketing officer for the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent bookstores. "You really do see a snapshot of the town and the region in these kinds of fulsome independent bookstores."
And don't overlook the shopping potential. Most independent bookstores take pride in showcasing regional literature. Quirky handwritten signs with staff recommendations may direct you to writers you've never heard of. The tote bags at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, which come in more than 30 designs, were voted the No. 1 souvenir to bring home to Japan by New York readers of Nikkei, a Japanese financial newspaper.
Any list of destination bookstores is bound to leave off some favorites. But here are nine noteworthy bookstores around the country that are definitely worth a visit.
: 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, Fla., 305-442-4408. Some bookstores are crammed with serpentine rows of dusty shelves aching with books -but that's not what you'll find at Books & Books, which has three locations in addition to its Coral Gables flagship. "Our Coral Gables store is built around a courtyard in a Mediterranean-style building and our South Beach store is in a gorgeous Art Deco building," said owner Mitchell Kaplan. The store also has branches in an upscale mall in Bal Harbour and on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean. Books & Books hosts 70 author events a month, and the stores' specialties include art, architecture and regional literature, including books about Cuba and Latin America. Both the Coral Gables and Miami Beach stores also have full-service restaurants.
: 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco; 415-362-8193. This store, a city landmark, was co-founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who also started City Lights Publishers and was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl." The store continues to serve as a center for counterculture activities and politics. Recommendations from its "Muckraking" section, for example, include titles like "The Fall of the House of Bush" and "What Orwell Didn't Know." Tourists also like to stop in at the bar next door, Vesuvio, to have a drink where Kerouac once bellied up.
.: 101 S. Main St., Seattle; 800-962-5311. Elliott Bay Book Co. is located in Seattle's historic Pioneer Square district, once the city's Skid Row but now known for nightclubs, galleries, sports arenas and architecture — including the 1867 red-brick building that houses Elliott Bay. Cedar shelves offer 150,000 new and used titles in rooms with exposed brick walls, and one or two readings are held every night. "It can be anyone from a first-time poet to Dave Sedaris returning for his 10th time," said Elliott Bay spokeswoman Tracy Taylor. "We had him here when nobody knew who he was and there were 15 people in the audience. He sang the Oscar Mayer song."
: 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington; 800-722-0790. Even people who've never been here feel like they know the place because many of its readings are broadcast on C-SPAN. "We have a lot of people who come here and the first thing they want to know is, 'Where does the author stand?'" said co-owner Barbara Meade. "They want to have the whole setting they see on television explained to them." January events include the authors of titles like "The Nuclear Jihadist" and "The Speculation Economy," but don't let the "Politics" in the store's name fool you. Readers can find books here in any genre; the store's children's section is especially well-regarded.
: 1005 W. Burnside, Portland, Ore.; 800-878-7323. The Gold Room, the Rose Room, the Purple Room — even with a color-coded map and signs, it's easy to get lost in the labyrinths of Powell's City of Books. And "it's hard to walk out with less than 10 books," said marketing coordinator Kim Sutton. She added that locals love to bring their out-of-town guests in: "They'll say, 'This is my bookstore,' and show them around with a lot of pride and ownership." Powell's claims to be the world's largest independent used and new bookstore; its other locations include three other general bookstores and two specialty stores (Technical and Home and Garden).
: 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City, Iowa; 800-295-2665. Thanks to the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop, which has given Iowa City a vibrant literary scene, you never know who you're going to see at a Prairie Lights event. Could be a Nobel laureate like J.M. Coetzee; writer Michael Pollan promoting his new best-seller, "In Defense of Food," or even a presidential candidate like John Edwards, who was in town for the caucuses. "Right place, right time," said Jim Harris, the store owner, when asked to explain how the store has attracted so many bigwigs over the years — from Raymond Carver to Toni Morrison to Junot Diaz. Store events also air on WSUI, a National Public Radio affiliate.
: 1628 16th St., Denver; 303-436-1070. Visitors to Denver often go to 16th Street, a mile-long outdoor mall through the heart of LoDo, historic Lower Denver. There, amid breweries and boutiques, near the arenas where Denver's major league teams play and across from the train station, you'll find the Tattered Cover. "We get a whole lot of tourists, along with people waiting for trains and fans hanging out until game time," said spokeswoman Patty Miller. The store has two other locations, but the LoDo location is especially inviting, with cozy nooks, overstuffed chairs and a gas fireplace.
: 316 W. Main, Blytheville, Ark.; 870-763-3333. It's located in an out-of-the-way small town, but That Bookstore in Blytheville has become famous thanks to Grisham, who grew up nearby. "He comes here all the time, every time he has a book," said Mary Gay Shipley, the store's "manager, founder, owner and janitor." While Grisham no longer greets the public during his visits, he does sign books, and his association with the store gave Shipley the clout to get other big names in — from Mary Higgins Clark and "Cold Mountain" author Charles Frazier to Bill and Hillary Clinton. The store is located on Interstate 55 between Memphis (an hour away) and St. Louis, so "we get a lot of customers traveling from the Midwest to Florida," Shipley said.
: Corner of 12th Street and Broadway, near Union Square, Manhattan; 212-473-1452. Founded in 1927 by the Bass family, which still owns it, The Strand is a New York legend, offering "18 miles of books," including used books for a buck, new best-sellers, rare books and collectibles in every price range, and an entire floor of art books. It's as much a scene as it is a bookstore; customers range from Japanese tourists and East Village hipsters to New York University students and crusty intellectuals who quiz the staff on their literary knowledge. The "treasure hunt" is part of the allure, said Christina Foxley, director of store events. "Our stock is constantly changing. One hour we might have a book, one hour we don't. You never know what you might find."