Independent Bookstores: Piedmont Avenue

It’s been a while since I reviewed any independent bookstores, but boy, do I have some good ones for you today.

The motivation behind my birthday adventures to Oakland several weeks ago was largely the concentration of independent bookstores on Piedmont Avenue. There are at least four. Mere blocks from each other. It was perfect.


First up: Owl and Company Bookshop. The shop is owned by Michael Calvello, who has another shop in San Francisco and specializes in antiquarian books. Owl and Company is the quintessential independent bookstore. This is why.


Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining both walls. Ladders (even if they’re not sliding ones).


And all the old books even my heart could desire. Well–at least for a while.


There was even a vinyl record of Viennese Waltzes providing ambience.


And a wooden owl keeping watch.


Next up: Book Zoo and Issues, next-door neighbors. Much smaller than Owl and Company, Book Zoo has an eclectic, slightly outdated collection of books on adult topics, politics, and environmental issues. Their website has a very intriguing compilation of other independent bookstores in the area.

Issues is more of an independent magazine shop, although there were a few books as well as eclectic print materials (including a large variety of greeting cards).


Their outdoor sign was also unique and charming. Perhaps I ought to advertise this way?


Finally, Spectator Books. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the display in the front room is all new books, which I don’t find quite as interesting as used ones. But what’s special about this shop is that it’s bigger on the inside.


In this veritable labyrinth of books, hallways lead to rooms, which lead to more rooms, which lead to nooks and crannies, all lined floor to ceiling (and then some) with books. Note to self: I should never face the temptation of Spectator Books (or any shop like it) alone. If my mom hadn’t diligently dragged me out when our parking meter expired, I might still be there. I bought a copy of Princess Academy by Shannon Hale as a souvenir.

I hear there’s also a fifth bookshop on the avenue called Black Swan. Sadly, I didn’t make it that far. Guess I now have an excuse to make a return trip.

Independent Bookstores: Seattle

Since I spent last weekend visiting my college stomping grounds in Seattle, Washington, what could be better than to do a tour of the city’s used bookstores? In a city full of coffee, hipsters, and rain, the book trade flourishes, and the independent bookstores each have as much uniqueness as the people walking by. Here are my top 3 favorite Seattle bookstores:

1. Arundel Books

Though Arundel has recently moved to the Pioneer Square area, its old location was just a few blocks from Pike Place Market. Selling new, used, and rare books, it has something to tempt everyone. I found one of my rare nonfiction buys there: a copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, on the psychology and importance of fairy tales. Very intriguing. Just as intriguing as Arundel’s spiral staircase that leads into an airy balcony packed with books.

2. Mercer Street Books

When my old favorite, Twice-Sold Tales, left the Lower Queen Anne area, Mercer Street Books rose from its ashes. A quick bus ride away from my school, this bookstore’s big, inviting windows often lured me to step inside…probably more often than I should have. In addition to selling used books, they also buy used books.

To me, selling books feels like selling children. I could perhaps conceive of passing along a few “less-favorite” titles in order to make room for more books on my shelves. But I have this hunch that if I were to trade books for money, I’d instantly trade money for more books. Then I’d leave with more than I brought. It’s one of the unfortunate laws of book magnetism.

3. Ophelia’s Books

Definitely my favorite independent bookstore in Seattle, Ophelia’s buys and sells used books. I found a nearly-new copy of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for about $7 here while I was working on my college senior project. But the real draw of this bookstore is its charm. See that upstairs loft? The ceiling is only 5′ 10″ off the floor. And guess what’s shelved up there? Children’s books. Oh yes. Perfect.

There’s always at least one cat lurking around Ophelia’s. Even though cats make me sneeze, they do lend a certain ambience to a quirky little book paradise like this one. And I love that the store is named after a character from Hamlet, my favorite Shakespeare play!

Ophelia’s also has a spiral staircase. Have I mentioned that I think spiral staircases are awesome? Almost as awesome as sliding ladders. Those will show up in another bookstore, another day.

This concludes our tour of the Rainy City’s used bookstores. I know there are many more, though, so if you have a favorite that’s not listed here, please leave a comment!

Snapshots of Cambridge

Two years ago this week, I was in Cambridge, England. As an American college student, watching my British counterparts study, ride their bicycles to class, and play cricket at the park, I almost felt like I was looking in a distorted mirror. But after 9 days of living, walking, and studying in this medieval college town, it almost began to feel like native habitat. I can’t give you a Lonely Planet guidebook description. So I’ll just share a series of snapshots that characterize the journey there. 
Two structures characterize Cambridge: the tall, Gothic spires of the colleges and cathedrals…and the spokes of bicycle wheels. The medieval streets make driving a health hazard, not to mention an insurance nightmare. So everyone bikes. Little baskets and all. Even in skirts. Knowing my world-class klutz skills, I decided to forgo this traditional mode of transportation and let my good ol’ feet carry me….

…to every bookstore in sight. The bookstores in Cambridge are absolutely world-class. There are some fine new shops–Heffer’s and Waterstone’s, not to mention the home office of Cambridge University Press. But better still are the used and antiquarian bookstores. “Old books” in the U.S. reach maybe 50, 60, even 100 years old. But when the Brits say “antiquarian,” they mean it. I found a crumbling copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress from the early 1800s in a discount bin because the spine cover was falling off. The early 1800s! One of these days I’d like to about bookbinding and fix it up. If you’re ever in Cambridge, go check out G. David Booksellers (where I drooled at a two-volume leather-bound set of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary that cost 2500 pounds) and The Haunted Bookshop (absolutely dripping charm, with a head-bumping spiral staircase!) 

The May flowers in Cambridge are also jaw-dropping. Many of them I had no names for, but I did recognize fields of many-colored tulips and walls covered with wisteria, like this one. 

When the Cambridge boys aren’t riding their bicycles to class, they make a little extra pocket money by punting: pushing tourists down the shallow river using flat-bottomed boats and ten-foot poles. They expertly steer their passengers down the river, pointing out all the sights along the way. Our group decided to be economical and do the punting ourselves. Our group was also 90% female. I gave tried punting for about 10 minutes before almost falling in and calling it quits. Those poles are a lot heavier than they look!  
Possibly the funniest moment in Cambridge: a mother duck and her brood of ducklings decided to cross the street, plunging headlong into traffic. Shopkeepers and pedestrians from both sides of the road darted after them, stopping traffic to “make way for ducklings.” It was rather adorable: a whole street of cars and people frozen in motion as a little family of ducks waddled across the road.

Most fabulous teatime: The Orchard. About three miles (on foot) outside of Cambridge, we sipped Lady Grey tea and nibbled scones and clotted cream at outdoor picnic tables under trees frosted with apple blossoms. The sun even decided to grace us with her presence for part of the afternoon. Sweaters came off; some of our group closed their eyes and tanned; some opened books of poetry; some blew streams of bubbles from plastic wands into the air.  

And last, but not least, the King’s College Chapel choir. We attended services at King’s one Sunday morning under the grand fan ceiling, sitting on carved wooden benches with a Rubens painting at the far end of the nave. And then the boys’ choir began to sing. If I hadn’t been looking right at them, I would have sworn it was an adult choir including both men and women. But listen to them! Surrounded by candles in that vast Gothic space, they sound like a choir of angels.

This concludes Episode Three of our Armchair Travel Guide to Britain. Have you been to Cambridge? England? Did you have experiences that you positively have to share?