I’ve been a loyal customer of Bookshop West Portal for almost a decade. Located within walking distance of my home in San Francisco, this establishment is the ideal neighborhood bookseller, a place to be surrounded by books and booklovers. On a recent Independent Bookstore Day, the store bustled with activities. Adults played Bookstore Bingo, children drew the heroes of 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 in 2006, 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—though she’s worked 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 operated from 1982 to 2006.

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.” Then came the pandemic closures, 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.

With pandemic restrictions lifted, Bullard has been restoring the shop’s full calendar of events and participating in neighborhood happenings like the West Portal Wine Walk, a Finding Waldo treasure hunt, and the Halloween Stroll. For in-store gatherings, wheeled shelves make way for rows of folding chairs beneath a ceiling adorned with colorful kites and a mobile of three whales, creating an intimate space for writers like Jane Smiley and Peggy Orenstein to read from their latest works. Bullard is also planning for ticketed author events at nearby, larger venues. Before COVID-19, she organized this type of programming at the movie theater across the street, which has since shuttered—although a new owner may revive it. In the meantime, she is eyeing 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.”•


80 West Portal Ave., San Francisco, bookshopwestportal.com

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Blaise Zerega is Alta Journal’s editorial director.