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Go West, Book Lover

San Francisco has a thriving book culture. Here’s a handy guide to the best literary spots in and around town. By Matthew Jones

Interior shot of San Francisco’s browser-friendly Brick Row Book Shop. Credit: Zoe Zeitlin.
The sixth floor of the San Francisco Public Library, containing the Marjorie G. and Carl W. Stern Book Arts & Special Collections Center. Credit: Matthew Jones.
“Don Quixote” in the Edith Grossman translation, Book I with 42 illustrations by William T. Wiley, 2009. Edition limited to 400 copies. Typecasting is ongoing for Book II, scheduled for publication in 2010. Courtesy of Arion Press.
The San Francisco Center for the Book’s printmaking studio. Credit: Matthew Jones.
The San Francisco Center for the Book’s bookbinding classroom. Credit: Matthew Jones.

San Francisco is inseparable from its rustic, frontier-era past—a time of shanghaied sailors, opium dens, and gold mining—and its printing history finds origin in this same period, with such names as Edward Bosqui, Charles Murdock, and John Henry Nash. Publications like The Californian, a weekly literary newspaper that employed both Bret Harte and Mark Twain, and Gelett Burgess’ The Lark sprang forth as well, but it was the twentieth century that saw San Francisco’s fine printing rise to a zenith with the arrival of Edwin and Robert Grabhorn. These two brothers from Indiana staked SF as the center of the West Coast book trade, and today their legacies survive as patrons of the book arts. Today’s institutions, booksellers, private presses, and literary boutiques are the conservators of these traditions, and it is their shared realization that makes San Francisco a dream destination for book lovers.

For first time visitors, chances are you’ll book a stay in tony Union Square—a good choice, as it’s at the heart of some of the city’s finest book tourist sites. First, off to the bookshops. Surrounded by world-class shopping and department stores like Saks, Neiman Marcus, and a massive Macy’s, the most-convenient stop is 49 Geary Street home to more than twenty fine art galleries and three ABAA booksellers. John Windle Antiquarian Books specializes in the illustrated work of William Blake, but also carries a selection that varies from medieval times to twentieth-century literature. Though serious buyers can make an appointment for a one-on-one consultation, browsers are always welcome. Located just across the hall is the Children’s Book Gallery, established in 2006 as a spin-off of John Windle. This cozy, well-decorated shop specializes in antiquarian and collectable children’s books from 1750 to 1950, and despite respectively recent beginnings, has quickly become a leader in its area of expertise. A little farther down is the Brick Row Book Shop, operating in name from 1915 though under the auspices of John Crichton since 1983. Crichton specializes in English and American fiction and manuscripts, and has a large, browser-friendly office. Another nearby ABAA bookseller is Argonaut Book Shop. This street-level and spacious shop focuses on Western Americana and literature, along with associated maps, prints, and ephemera. Walk-ins are always welcome. If in town on a Thursday (Thursday is auction day!), pay a visit to one of the foremost West Coast auction houses of books and ephemera—PBA Galleries. PBA sells material across a broad price spectrum.

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