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These are America’s most adorably whimsical bookstores

Book vending machines, paperback labyrinths, weird zines, & more!

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Created by Anna Hider - September 13th 2016

Despite what the internet might say, print isn't dead! Spend a whole day getting lost in one of America's coziest, quaintest bookstores-- because nothing online can ever even come close to replacing the experience of leisurely browsing through shelves of paperbacks as you sip a coffee, smell the unique scent of new books, and soak in all the literary potential. Take that, e-readers!

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San Francisco, CA

City Lights is notable for its association with the beatnik writers of San Francisco in the 1960s. It's a bookshop/indie publisher that was founded by famed poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He was the one who won a free speech case for publishing Allen Ginsberg's notoriously edgy poem "Howl" here, and Jack Kerouac work with them to publish some stuff here as well. You can really sense the history here as you browse their offerings, which range from a selection of newer stuff to some quirkier books on progressive politics, poetry, the arts, and more. Pro tip: they have a whole section of essential beatnik books upstairs.

Do you know how much space you need to hold one million books? Four floors of a building that's the size of a full city block isn't even enough! Powell's City of Books is the largest independent bookstore in the world, and it's one of Portland's most popular attractions. Because they have so much stuff, there's no excuse to not buy something here! Cookbooks, rare and old books, comics, kid's stuff, travel books... they literally have everything here. You'll definitely want to grab a map when you first get inside so you know where you're going!

Los Angeles, CA

The Last Bookstore has 16,000 square feet of stuff-- books as far as the eye can see. And, like any good bookstore, they've got a coffee shop and used record store as well. It's one of the last in LA still buying used books and records, This is the kind of place you come to discover new things, and there's a lot to find... especially upstairs.

The highlight of the Last Bookstore (other than all the awesome work they do and the events they host) is the second floor, which has been converted into a magical realm of literary whimsy called The Labyrinth. Wander through tunnels of paperbacks, offbeat art installations made of flying books and other objects, little shops and displays of art, trinkets and antiques, and mazes made of shelves lined with a rainbow of assorted volumes. And, on top of that, everything up there is only $1-- plus, half of that dollar goes to charity. Seriously, does it get any better than that?

Washington, DC

Politics and Prose is a DC establishment known for the many speakers they host (usually for free!), for their massive selection of books, and for the awesome cafe in the basement-- but don't even think about ordering your drink to go; you'll be too absorbed in the wares and their atmosphere. Obama is a fan of this place, so you know it's cool!

Baltimore, MD

You could spend a whole day browsing the posters, comic books, old school zines, knick knacks, and sci-fi/fantasy/monster lit at Atomic Books and still not see it all... and that's not even taking into account their indie records and DVDs. If you want a better idea of the kind of place this is, the fact that John Waters is a fan should tell you everything you need to know. They've also opened a bar!

You could stop by The Strand, but you might find yourself overwhelmed. Instead, virtually travel the world without leaving Manhattan at McNally Jackson-- they organize their selections by country. Grab one of the billions of magazines they sell and take it upstairs to enjoy with a coffee and a scone! They're even open on weekend nights, so if your dream Saturday night involves tea and a new paperback, you're in luck.

Atmosphere is important when it comes to bookstores, and The Montague Bookmill has it nailed down. Once you pick out a book from the store, located inside an old 1800's grist mill, grab a treat at the cafe and head to the outdoor seating area, where the magic really happens. There's nothing better than getting lost in a new book while listening to a babbling brook. You can even have dinner at the restaurant and literally make it an all-day affair.

Chicago, IL

If you're looking for a copy of The Great Gatsby, you probably won't find it at Quimby's. If, however, you happen to be looking for Star Trek trading cards, a graffiti art coloring book, or a zine dedicated to scabs, this hardcore indie bookstore has got you covered. You won't be able to leave without buying something that you never knew you needed.

BONUS: If we're talking about all of North America, we have to give some recognition to The Monkey's Paw. It's one of the world's most well-respected antique bookshops, specializing in lesser-known but visually and aesthetically intriguing books, volumes on lesser-known, highly specific subjects, and books as objects. They don't buy or sell "bestsellers, popular works on general subjects or anything published after 1980". You may not find a specific title, but this shop is more about exploring and discovering something new and interesting and a little offbeat. As they put it, you'll find the perfect book that you didn't even know you were looking for.

If you can't decide what you want to buy after browsing for a bit, then fear not-- simply head to the Biblio-mat! It's their one-of-a-kind book vending machine. Customers simply insert two dollars in coins into the machine, and they receive a random volume. It could be any size and about any topic-- but since they're so exacting about the books they sell, you know it's going to be something incredibly quirky and interesting. It could be anything from a Playboy jokebook or a guide to building a home fallout shelter to a name book for pets or a vintage cookbook for bachelors-- and that's just a small sample of the kind of thing they specialize in.

There's something about the excitement of not knowing what you're going to get that makes the Biblio-mat more fun and compelling than your average bargain bin or sidewalk sale. Plus, it's the only book vending machine in the world, which is pretty freaking cool! It's definitely better than putting $2 into a vending machine and getting out a stale bag of smashed Cool Ranch Doritos. One can only hope that Biblio-mat will catch on and we'll find them in airports and offices across North America.

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From book vending machines and weird zines to labyrinths and stores so big you'll need a map and the better part of a day to explore, it's comforting to see that bookstores are alive and well... and honestly, cooler than ever to visit.

Anna Hider

Just a Civil War beard enthusiast, writer at Roadtrippers, and aspiring astronaut reaching for the stars.