A Book Lover’s San Francisco

San Francisco is a bookworm’s ideal getaway! Filled with small bookstores and packed with book and poetry readings, New York Times’ Gregory Dicum shares what is like to be there during the fall in the midst of one of the biggest literary events of the year.

"Dog Eared Books, in the Mission District, offers an eclectic collection of new and used books." Photo by Thor Swift.

ON a balmy fall evening in the Mission District of San Francisco, hundreds of people spilled onto Valencia Street, where they chatted happily for a few minutes before pouring back into bookstores, cafes and theaters. It was a giddy, animated crowd, but most of all bookish — a collection of fans and believers, here to listen to the written word.

The occasion was an event called Litquake, which, over the course of nine days, would draw some 13,000 residents and visitors to readings by scores of authors, many of them — like Maxine Hong Kingston and Daniel Handler (a k a Lemony Snicket) — local celebrities. The “Lit Crawl” finale alone featured more than 400 readings at bars, laundromats and even the police station in a single evening.

Litquake is an annual event, but on almost any day or night in San Francisco, there is likely to be something for the literary-inclined — a poetry reading at a bar, a book swap in a cafe or a reading in the book-lined lobby of the Rex Hotel. This is a place, after all, where dozens of fiercely independent bookstores not only survive but thrive, thanks to a city of readers who seem to view books not only as a pleasure, but as a cause. For the out-of-towner, these one-and-only shops can be destinations in and of themselves.

Books, we are told, are a half-millennium-old technology on the cusp of being swept away forever. So a journey to San Francisco to immerse oneself in them might seem the cultural equivalent of going to visit the glaciers before they melt. But in San Francisco, the home of many of the very technologies that have drawn a bead on the book, visitors will find a living, historically rooted literary scene that, though it has surely heard the news of its own demise, isn’t buying it.

THE same quality that gave rise to the city’s proliferation of small bookstores — compact, walkable neighborhoods with a militant objection to chain stores — makes it easy for visitors to explore the city’s literary terrain. Though the center of gravity has moved around over the years — from the old Barbary Coast in the days of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce to North Beach during the Beat era to the Haight a decade later — today the scene is most visible in the Mission.

Valencia Street around 20th Street is an excellent place for a visitor to begin. A cluster of shops — 826 Valencia; Borderlands, a science fiction and fantasy bookstore and connected cafe; Modern Times, a bookstore collective; and the used-book store Dog Eared Books — is surrounded by cafes and bars that host regular literary events. It is a neighborhood in which one can see an author read one evening and spot him at the next table at a restaurant or cafe the following day.

A Book Lover’s San Francisco