There are not enough books… or libraries

My sister Alice and her husband, Ben, gave me a wonderful birthday present that day: a bookstore gift certificate. I am addicted to books and libraries. It was like giving a gambler a stack of lucky chips.

It gave me an excuse to wander the aisles of my favorite stores, judge a book by its cover, pick up a new book, read a page or two and put it back down again. I was not a regular surfer. I was a real customer, armed with a good card in exchange for an expensive hardcover at no cost to me.

I’ve always loved libraries. I like the way they look: books piled to the ceiling, shiny, new, unopened. I love the smell of new books, and the sharp smell of ink. Or the stench of used libraries and knowledge covered in dust. Sometimes I’m looking for bargains—books left, bestsellers that never were, or biographies of nearly famous people. Once it came to the life of King Zog of Albania, which was marked for quick sale. You never know.

The King Zog book was for sale at the Friends of the San Francisco Library at Fort Mason. I know people who would wait for the annual Friends sale and come out with shopping bags full of books. But I am moderately addicted.

John Steinbeck once said, “I think there are never enough books.” But he did not see my basement, which was full of books and other dusty things. Or sometimes forcing me to go out and get more, especially if it comes as a Christmas gift.

San Francisco has always been a city of books, from Mark Twain and Frank Norris to Lemony Snicket. San Francisco has a large main library, 27 branches, and dozens of bookstores. A true cultural asset. Sometimes we forget.

You may remember the major bookstores, Borders and Barnes & Noble. They did not survive in San Francisco, but bookstores large and small did.

The greatest of all, of course, is City Lights, in North Shore – founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti – a first-rate literary landmark. It’s so famous and so cool, I sometimes get a little intimidated in there.

So I began my book search at two of the smaller books—the earlier Adobe Books and Alley Cat Books, now called Medicine for Nightmares—two places in the wall a few blocks from each other along Latin 24th. Street in the mission. Both are lively little places with art galleries.

Not a mile away, in Noe Valley, is Folio Books, at 3957 24th St. , a bookstore in a completely different neighborhood.

The Mission also has the adorable aptly named Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street, with books littered on the street.

I’ve always loved the neighborhood bookstores: BookShop West Portal, Green Apple on Clement in the Richmond and also on Ninth Avenue in Inner Sunset, Booksmith on Haight. Books Inc., which traces its history back to the Gold Rush, has two outlets in the neighborhood: in the Laurel Village shopping center and another on Chestnut Street in the Marina. Books Inc Store The Opera Plaza on Van Ness Street is what I believe is the flagship of an 11-store chain.

Libraries are like restaurants. You can’t go to all of them, but you can have your favourites.

Here are half a dozen. For the most unusual, I voted for Kinokuniya in Japantown, an offshoot of a Japanese chain. Besides the standard bookstore fare, Kinokuniya has Japanese books and magazines, manga, and gifts in both Japanese and English. You feel for a moment that you are in Japan.

When everyone else works in the downtown offices, I’d occasionally sneak in for an hour-long lunch. But not for food. To visit the Alexander Book Company on Second Street. A great place to browse: three floors of books – 50,000 of them, discounts on bestsellers, as well as cards and other goodies. and a good selection of African American books, novels, articles, and material not found elsewhere. There is also a good selection of mainstream bargain books.

I hang out in Marin a lot and have three favorites north of the Golden Gate: Stinson Beach Books, a small shop in a beach town; Point Reyes Box, a cultural site in a very beautiful area; Sausalito wrote near the bay, on the edge of Richardson Bay.

The view from there is only surpassed by the Book Passage Store in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. The inside is full of books, of course. And outside the blue bay, and a great view of the bay bridge. Ferry ships and boats coming and going are the backdrop, a moving feast.

My gift card was fine there. After nearly an hour of browsing, I got hold of “The Revolutionary Samuel Adams,” which is a huge history book. And I ordered another book, too. There are never enough books.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com

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