If you're looking for the soul of a place, you might start at the local bookstore.
"I think it's one of the best places to go to find out about where you're visiting," says Becky Anderson, president of the American Booksellers Association and owner of Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL.
As transporting as any museum and nourishing as any local dish, America's best bookstores speak volumes about their respective cities and towns. In New Orleans, visitors can walk the same brick floors used by William Faulkner, when he rented rooms in a building that now sells first editions of his works as well as regional nonfiction. Boulder Bookstore, meanwhile, has subjects ranging from sustainable living to raw food that reflect the Colorado college town's fondness for alternative lifestyles.
In recent years, however, independent bookstores have famously struggled to compete with big-box and online retailers -- which often can afford to sell new books at deep discounts -- and with the rise of e-readers. Many independents have been forced to close, but lately, the tide may be turning.
"There's a renaissance going on among independent bookstores around the country," Anderson says. From 2011 to 2012, the association added close to 100 members, reaching more than 1,500 nationwide. Anderson attributes the increase partly to independents' ability to cultivate community: a great indie bookstore isn't just about selling books -- it's about people.
Read on for some of our favorite independent bookstores, from San Francisco's beatnik icon City Lights to Books & Books, which stocks art titles in a 1920s Mediterranean-style building in Coral Gables, FL.
This three-in-one bookstore spans a triad of post-Civil War buildings on the town square of a charming southern college town once home to William Faulkner and John Grisham. The 3,500-square-foot Square Books, Jr. is devoted to children's selections; Off Square Books features lifestyle topics such as cooking and gardening; and the main store celebrates regional history and literature, including that of Mississippi natives like Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty. squarebooks.com Photo courtesy of Square Books. See More of America's Best Bookstores
Next door to the University of Iowa and its renowned Writers' Workshop, this store (est. 1978) is a cornerstone of a literature-obsessed town where embossed sidewalks display quotations from workshop alumni including Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O'Connor. Owned by a pair of poets, the shop features 40,000 titles leaning heavily toward fiction, travel, children's and -- no surprise -- poetry. prairielights.com Photo © Ben Partridge. See More of America's Best Bookstores
Shelves soar from wooden floors to timbered ceilings inside this 1920s-era Mediterranean-style building, where an array of art titles dominates about half the inventory. The store is one of a handful of Miami-area outposts of B&B, first opened in 1982 by Mitchell Kaplan, 2011 recipient of the National Book Foundation's prestigious Literarian Award. booksandbooks.com Photo: Justin Namon. See More of America's Best Bookstores
This Northwest D.C. landmark averages 475 author events each year, welcoming wordsmiths from Salman Rushdie and Bob Woodward to Barbara Kingsolver and Calvin Trillin. A husband-and-wife team of former Washington Post writers Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine (most recently a speechwriter and adviser to Hillary Clinton) bought the store in 2011 from the original owner, who opened it in 1984. politics-prose.com Photo: Bruce Guthrie. See More of America's Best Bookstores
The eclectic spirit of this shop's hometown lives among its 100,000 titles; alongside bestsellers and general interest tomes reside Boulder-specific sections such as Buddhism and vegan cooking. Locals and tourists alike can get lost in the three-story maze of rooms, housed in a 19th-century structure on the brick-paved, pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall. boulderbookstore.net Photo courtesy of Boulder Book Store. See More of America's Best Bookstores
This cozy Greenwich Village spot is located in New York's literary heart -- everyone from Henry James to Edward Albee has lived nearby. French doors open onto the street, where passersby can browse remainders (discounted overstocks of novels and nonfiction), a solid selection of new fiction and New York-centric reads. bookbooknyc.com Photo: George Goss. See More of America's Best Bookstores
-- Sarah L. Stewart
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