I've been in San Francisco for 35 minutes. Lunch is overdue and my still-packed suitcase sits on my hotel bed, but I'm already outside hustling along the sun-baked sidewalks. Rinky-dink cable cars and the neon-studded Chinatown pass by in a blur as I head for North Beach and the black-painted door of America's most celebrated counterculture bookstore.
Founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights gained infamy as the publisher of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, triggering Mr. Ferlinghetti's arrest for obscenity and the work's elevation as the beat generation's defining poem. It's still a bohemian hangout – but balances it with branded T-shirt sales – the much-expanded store's selection remains razor-sharp.
Glancing at hand-painted posters lining its interior – "Stash your sell-phone and be here now" is my favourite – I browse the towering stacks, resisting the urge to load up on Charles Bukowski and J.D. Salinger. But while the main floor teems with out-of-towners buying copies of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, downstairs is where the locals are, silently folded into wooden chairs leafing through poetry zines and vegan cookbooks.
Withstanding the soulless march of downloadable e-books, San Francisco has one of North America's best independent bookstore scenes. And while City Lights (261 Columbus Ave.; citylights.com) is its most prominent title, there are dozens more committed to the communal value of quality time with like-minded bookish types. Back on the streets – and passing a closed branch of the Borders bookstore chain with a smug grin – I hop a BART train to the city's best bookshop neighbourhood.
The paint-peeled Mission District has been the Spanish-influenced home of hole-in-the-wall taco shops and cheap-and-cheerful bars for decades. But its low-rent heritage buildings have also lured artists, writers and a well-plotted series of one-of-a-kind bookstores – many located a few steps from each other between the 16th Street and 24th Street BART stations, especially on Valencia Street, where they're as ubiquitous as coffee shops.
First up: Dog Eared Books (900 Valencia St.; dogearedbooks.com). A creaky-floored corner store brimming with new and used titles – "We just have good stuff; stuff that we like," hipster front-desker Jordan says – the staff picks shelf runs from William Gibson to Roald Dahl. Lured into buying a $6.99 (U.S.) collection of Philip K. Dick stories, I spend almost as much time flicking through copies of cool literary journal McSweeney's in the bargain bin outside.
Even more of a bargain is the nearby free box, a book exchange that sees lots of action. "Most stores have these," Mission resident Maria Johnson says, keeping both eyes on the tomes sliding through her hands as she chats. "I shouldn't really take any because I don't have the room, but it's hard not to look." She already has two hefty volumes in her linen bag.
After detouring to the purple-painted Community Thrift Store (623 Valencia St.; communitythriftsf.org) across the street – where the extensive book selection includes behind-the-counter erotica and my own Lonely Planet Vancouver City Guide ($1) – I'm soon creaking through the doorway of rug-floored Borderlands Books (866 Valencia St.; borderlands-books.com). It's home to horror, fantasy and sci-fi titles, plus occasional appearances by hairless store cats Ash and Frost.
I'm greeted by gregarious part-timer Claudius Reich, the kind of dedicated, highly knowledgeable employee that big-box chains and online stores can never emulate. "The fun of this job is finding something for someone that you know they'll really like. I always ask: 'What would be the perfect book if you hadn't already read it?' " he says.
Not that all staffers concur on recommendations, especially with a selection ranging from H.P. Lovecraft to Edgar Allan Poe and from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin. "There are only about three books here we all agree on," Mr. Reich chuckles. He also hands me a printed list of other area bookstores he thinks I should check out and leaves me with the line, "There are a lot of readers in San Francisco – this is definitely still a town of book people."
Nipping into Adobe Books (3166 16th St.) a few blocks away, it's hard to disagree. A vintage hippie – complete with drooping walrus mustache – dozes on a sagging armchair in the middle of the store, between slender piles of teetering volumes. An employee tiptoes carefully around him, shelving an esoteric array of used books from Gay London to Garden Vegetables.But while cozy Adobe feels like a hangover from the past, the city's e-readers also crave the spine-cracking pleasures of the printed word.
Burrowed into the back of the Mission's trendy Viracocha antiques store, Ourshelves (998 Valencia St.; ourshelves.net) is a tiny private lending library run by Kristina Kearns. Her carefully curated collection – donated by local authors and readers – lines a nook where Ms. Kearns spends her days reading, perched on a wide shelf and welcoming chatty browsers into what feels like a walk-in art installation.
"I didn't know what to expect when we opened, but it's really developed. We now have 1,200 books as well as author readings," Ms. Kearns says, explaining that members pay up to $20 a month and can take out as many books as they want, one at a time. "A lot of the fiction titles here are my absolute favourite books – including some from Canada."
After a late-afternoon burrito – apparently books aren't the only required sustenance – I'm soon back on the BART. There's just time for a quick visit to eclectic Kayo Books (814 Post St.; kayobooks.com), where I dive head first into comics and old-school pulp novels, before returning to City Lights. The neon of nearby strip bars illuminates the store's exterior, as I spot adjoining Jack Kerouac Alley and its Vesuvio Café where beret-wearing beatniks once hunkered over Sartre paperbacks.
This time, the store is almost empty, but a book reading is progressing upstairs. Trying not to disturb anyone as I climb the creaking steps, I find a convivial crowd of San Franciscans listening to silver-haired academic Thanasis Maskaleris read from Zorba the Greek. A smiling woman in the front row indicates an empty seat and I squeeze through the throng, feeling like the locals have welcomed me as one of their book-loving own.