What’s your favorite bookstore?” It’s a question we lovers of reading often ask one another as a conversation starter, as a means of discovering great booksellers, and perhaps to identify a fellow member of our group. Discussion of a shop’s merits follows: Friendly and knowledgeable workers versus staff who encourage us to wander and let serendipity strike. Broad inventory instead of a focus on, say, art and photography. Clean, modern design as opposed to an entanglement of shelves punctuated by comfy wingback chairs. A series of intimate author events or wine-fueled poetry slams. The possible reasons we love our bookstores are infinite.
My favorite is Bookshop West Portal, where I’ve been a loyal customer for almost a decade. Located within walking distance of my home in San Francisco, this establishment is the ideal neighborhood bookseller. On Independent Bookstore Day, in April, the store bustled with activities. Adults played Bookstore Bingo, children drew the heroes from their favorite books, and tasty treats—donated by nearby restaurants—were served throughout the day. Nearby Fire Station 39 even dispatched a truck, several firefighters, and dozens of kid-size plastic helmets for fans of books like Firefighter Frank and Firefighter Duckies! All this and more took place as customers lined up at the registers and showed their support by buying books.
Founded 16 years ago, Bookshop West Portal is owned and operated by Anna Bullard and husband Neal Sofman, long-standing figures in the Bay Area book scene. “I had always wanted to have a bookstore,” Bullard explains, adding that she became involved full-time at their store only a few years ago—which allowed Sofman to step back—despite working in the industry for most of her adult life. Her experience includes bookstores in Chicago, a university press, and a Silicon Valley e-books company. Sofman, meanwhile, co-owned A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, a San Francisco literary institution that ran from 1982 to 2006.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Bullard and Sofman have seen it all, from the arrival of the big chains and the demise of many indies—there were a Waldenbooks and a used bookstore on the street when they opened Bookshop West Portal (both since closed)—to the rise of Amazon and the threat of e-books. “E-books completely, contrary to many, many people’s predictions, really just completely leveled off. No one really anticipated how the reading experience of the Kindle would actually not be that satisfactory for a lot of people,” Bullard recalls, before adding, “Some people really love them.” There’s also been the pandemic, which the shop weathered with online sales, home delivery, and help from nearby merchants. A hardware store and a mail-services outfit, which were deemed essential and permitted to remain open during lockdown, served as pickup points for book purchases.
It was during the pandemic that my devotion to Bookshop West Portal became permanent. In December 2020, on a lunch break from Zoom school, my then-15-year-old daughter walked to West Portal Avenue to buy art supplies. A man accosted them, touched them, and aggressively grabbed them multiple times. My daughter managed to escape and flee into the bookstore, where the man pursued them. Bullard intervened and kicked the assailant out of the store. He was arrested and taken into custody. “In my mind, it was the safest place I knew to go and get help,” my daughter says. A few months later, in an act of empowerment and recovery, my daughter applied for a part-time job at Bookshop West Portal. They were hired, and they continue to work there when not in school.
With pandemic restrictions lifted, Bullard is keen to restore the shop’s full calendar of events. In addition to in-store gatherings, which she has already restarted, she is planning for ticketed events with big-name writers. Before COVID-19, she organized readings at the movie theater across the street, which has since shuttered—although a new owner may revive it. Until then, she may try the gymnasium of a high school two blocks away. “Events are a big part of what we feel our mission is in terms of promoting authors and also just providing community service,” Bullard says. She hopes that the store is known to all as “a welcoming community center or spot.”
It’s an objective shared by the proprietors and employees of the 85 bookstores that we’ve included in this guide. I’m reminded of what my daughter says about helping customers at Bookshop West Portal: “It doesn’t get any better than being surrounded by books and booklovers.”
We hope that this list serves as a reminder of the vital contributions bookstores make to their communities. In the end, however, it is admittedly subjective, and we know we’ve left off many, many great indie booksellers. Drop us a line at email@example.com or fill out this form to let us know whom we missed and visit altaonline.com/bookstores for frequent additions.
So, what’s your favorite bookstore?•
BOOKSHOP WEST PORTAL
80 West Portal Ave., San Francisco, bookshopwestportal.com