Road Trip! A Tour of the West in Search of Sublime Bookstores

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

David Shapiro, the founder and president of Craigmore Creations, traveled from the Willamette Valley to the Grand Canyon to take the pulse of independent bookselling and draw attention to books from his new publishing house. What he found was a thriving culture of reading in the West and small towns that love books and their independent bookstores.

By David Shapiro, President of Craigmore Creations

The Willamette Valley

The Willamette Valley of Oregon is a land of long, rainy winters. While this does little to help out with the winter tan, it does lend itself to many days of reading. There are bookstores aplenty to help fill that space on your reading shelf.

Portland is home to Powell’s Books, the Mecca of Northwest bookstores and the bookstore that book lover’s dream about. It has so many books and a wonderful café that it is not uncommon to make a night or an entire afternoon out of a visit to the store. And now, brace yourself, they are renovating and making improvements to the store, so in the future it will be even better.

While Portland has an incredible amount of used and new bookstores, two in particular stand out. Annie Bloom’s and Broadway Books are both quality stores with great staff, a nice store layout, and a good selection of books for readers of all ages. These stores do not have a café attached, so the shopping experience is a more traditional affair. However, this is Portland and there are plenty of places to get your coffee after you have purchased your new book, and then you can sit down and read it!

Corvallis is a picturesque brick-building town in the middle of the Willamette Valley, south of Portland. It is home to the Oregon State University and its team, the Beavers, and about 55,000 people. This is a nice town that is often overlooked on people’s itineraries of Oregon, which is too bad. Corvallis has a few very nice bookstores and a good selection of places to eat any meal of the day. Grass Roots Books and Music is a very cozy store that, as the name implies, combines the best of both worlds, catering to the bibliophile as well as the music enthusiast. The brick-and-wood interior is very inviting, as is the staff. The Book Bin is another must-see bookstore in Corvallis, with a sister store in the state capital of Salem; both Book Bins are larger stores and both had a healthy number of mid-day shoppers on the Tuesday that I visited.

Eugene, at the head of the Willamette Valley, is home to the most impressive used bookstore in the state. Smith Family Bookstore is a veritable maze of books piled in so many ways as to make finding what you want a challenge.

However, it seemed to me that one does not go to Smith’s to find what they want to read, but to find what they did not know they wanted to read and now can’t fathom having done without. There is also a bronze statue commemorating Ken Kesey, poised reading a book to a varied group of listeners. For an author who was very much influenced by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this statue was an inspiration to see.

The University of Oregon has the Duck Store, which has a very impressive collection of books for both the academically and pop-culture oriented. It is among a handful of university bookstores I have visited and is an outstanding example of its kind. The campus itself is also very pleasant to walk around as you admire the old trees and brick buildings.

Idaho: Grasslands, Potatoes, and Mountains

Leaving Oregon, I am only going to briefly focus on Idaho. The town of Moscow is a hidden gem of a retreat, located where the rolling grasslands of the Palouse Prairie meet the first rise of the Bitterroot Mountains. It is home to the University of Idaho and it has a modest population of around 24,000 people. BookPeople of Moscow put me in contact with the elementary school librarian, who coordinated my visit to the local elementary schools.

BookPeople’s downtown store is spacious, well-stocked, and a very inviting place to browse on a snowy winter’s day. The town itself is home to many artists and musicians, and you can tell that they like to read. The bookstore is locally very well-known.


Walla Walla is another small picturesque brick-building university town of the West in a region that is rapidly gaining recognition for the wine grown in the surrounding hills. Walla Walla, Washington, is also a fun town name to say. Walla Walla is home to the innovative store called Book & Game, which has a wonderful selection of books in well-organized displays that make searching for titles easy for both parents and children. The thoughtfully curated toy selection coupled with the selection of gift ideas makes this store a fun, all-ages experience. The fact that the store is centrally located on a downtown corner in one of those picturesque brick buildings makes shopping here all the more enticing.

Another Washington locale, Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane, has existed as an independent since 1978 and is proud of that fact. Their Main Street location is a very attractive store with a great layout and ample selection. The aisles were bustling with mid-day shoppers when I visited, though since then, I have noticed that they closed their smaller location at RiverPark Square. Which is too bad, because that was a nice store too, but their flagship store will still continue to be “Spokane’s literary landmark.” Spokane is also home to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, which has a very nice, albeit small, bookstore specializing in books related to the exhibits in the museum.

Truly a Reader’s Town: Missoula, Montana

Missoula will forever hold a place in my heart. It was the first city of the West that I lived in. The university population adds to the overall reader base of this town of 68,000 people. Fact & Fiction has a great location in downtown, catching the eyes of the many tourists who visit in the summer, and is a favorite spot for locals to purchase books in the winter. I did a book signing in the summer of 2011 and the staff was very helpful. They also run the University of Montana bookstore.

The Book Exchange hosts more than 11,000 square feet of knowledge, adventure, mystery, romance, and more. Located on the outskirts of town, this store has good parking. The inside is well kept, the staff is very friendly and knowledgeable, and the shop was full of customers during my midweek daytime visit. Missoula is truly a readers’ town with ample parks to find a place in the shade during the summer months and plenty of cafes to read away the winter’s cold, all with beautiful scenery to rest the eyes when not looking at a page.

The Desert Southwest

Now, I’ll flip-flop regions and cross over to the Southwest U.S. New Mexico is known for its outstanding natural beauty and diversity of outdoor activities, but it also has a wonderful array of bookstores. Santa Fe's Collected Works Bookstore is a great example of an independent café/bookstore that goes the extra mile to make the customers feel at home. There are comfortable, fireside chairs that one can sit in and read the day away. The selection of this store is not outstanding, but the carefully picked inventory will be sure to offer something enticing for readers of all ages.

Albuquerque is a city of readers. I would not have known this had I not visited the city on numerous occasions, but it’s true. Albuquerque loves their books. Alamosa Books is a quality children’s bookstore that will be expanding to capture audiences in all their age ranges. The current location is a great mix of gift items and books in a spacious, clutter-free setting. The staff is friendly, and when I did a reading at the store, they were very helpful and accommodating.

Bookworks is a cozy independent bookstore blessed with a great location for the weekend shopper. They are right next to a very popular breakfast/lunch café. The interior is attractive, with a central fireplace that is used in the display of the great variety of titles for sale. The staff is very friendly and I am looking forward to working with them again in the future in collaboration with two local elementary schools.

A Warm Town with Warm People: Tucson, Arizona

Maybe it’s because I’ve been living in the soggy Northwest for so long, but an October trip to Tucson is something to be savored. When there, Antigone Books is a must-see. This local independent has achieved cult-like status over the years. This is the type of bookstore that made bookstores cool. Their website advertises that the store is 100 percent solar powered. They have also recently celebrated 40 years of business. Not only do they have a great selection, but they have mastered the store layout to be spacious, cozy, inviting, and full of books. This is the type of bookstore that when you exit, you want to proclaim to the world, “Long live print!”

Going north, Tempe, Arizona, is home to Changing Hands Bookstore. This store combines a very robust book selection with a large café, making a visit to Changing Hands worthy of an entire afternoon. The store has a very well-organized children’s section and it seemed to me that during my mid-week visit, many of the patrons were mothers with children. As a publisher of children’s books, this was a good sign. The store is very clean, well-organized, and run by helpful, knowledgeable people.

Gateway to the Grand Canyon

I will end my truncated tour of the Southwest with Flagstaff, Arizona. “Flag,” as the locals affectionately call it, is the gateway to the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, Flagstaff is a small town that is dominated by Barnes and Noble. That being said, I was able to get Craigmore Creations' books into one of the outdoor gear shops that also had a small selection of books. Never underestimate the power of the specialty market! Starrlight Books is a very cool used bookstore and I would not have mentioned them save for the fact that it’s places like this that one finds the coolest books. Outside of Flag is the Museum of Northern Arizona, which has a fantastic selection of regional books. They have been very busy the few times I have been in there, and their selection of children’s books is outstanding for a store with an educational focus.

The State of Affairs: Independent Bookstores Are Thriving

There are many stores I have not mentioned and there are many stores in these regions that I did not have occasion to visit. After all the miles I put on cars and my shoes, I can say that the state of affairs of independent bookstores looks good. My visits were almost entirely during the week, and not just that but during the day even. Each of the stores that I mentioned had shoppers who were both browsing and purchasing books. From all outward appearances, it would seem that the independent bookstore trade is still a thriving business. The intrinsic value that a well-run independent bookstore adds to a community is beyond calculation.

David R. Shapiro is the founder of Craigmore Creations. Entrepreneur, entertainer and naturalist, Shapiro earned his B.A. in Natural History and Creative Writing from Prescott College. His work experience includes tracking rare carnivores for the USFS, guiding children through a mythic theater naturalist learning camp, and acting as a liaison for large-scale art and music festival production. As an author, Shapiro has been inspired by the imagination of his two children. He lives in Portland, but travels often to be a part of the rest of the world. Shapiroblogs at Craigmore Creations.

Originally published in the April 2, 2014, edition of the PubWest e-mail newsletter. Reprinted with permission of the author and PubWest.