Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bibliophilia in Sacramento

Northern California was a reader’s paradise. The Bay Region abounded in bookstores of various types, including the famous City Lights (but also the well-stocked Cody’s in Berkley). Probably to be expected given the intellectual heft of the area.

A bit of this rubbed off on Sacramento. And, being the state capital, one would expect a literate and somewhat well-read population of public policy wonks working as lobbyists, public interest groups, bureaucrats, staffers, and journalists.

Yet the interesting thing about Sacto is that it didn’t have a big local bookstore. Nothing like the largish independents such as Hawley-Cooke in Louisville, Books and Company in Dayton or Joseph-Beth in Lexington. About all there was Tower Books, a spin-off from Tower Records (Tower was based in Sacramento). Tower had two stores, both fairly small and fairly crowded. What I recall was their magazine section, which had a lot of indy stuff, almost zine-ish. Tower carried things like Art Spieglemens' Raw, quite a find at a time when comix were still somewhat underground.

Sacramento really was best at the specialty and used bookstore. Three I remember:x

Lioness Books

This was a feminist bookstore set in an old bungalow. This was somewhat similar to Crazy Ladies in Cincinnati, and like Crazy Ladies it carried gay and lesbian lit as well as general interest titles on cultural politics and political art. This was a fairly small store, though.


I was shopping at Beers for a year before I knew they had this second floor loft space filled with used books, being known locally more as a used book store. For me Beers was an excellent example of a small independent with a niche market. They carried new titles, things like Eduardo Galleano’s Memory of Fire trilogy on Latin American history. If I recall right they did carry some GLBT titles, but not much, and I don’t recall a magazine section.

Beers also carried a solid line of technical books. This might seem surprising until one thinks of the boomtown character of Sacramento. There were a lot of contractors and engineers active in the area due to the booming construction industry, so this book carried things like building codes and engineering how-to books (including some published by locals, like the “Excavation and Grading Hanbook"). Fascinating little bookstore, which you can visit online.

Time Tested Books

This was one of the best used bookstores, a classic. The place specialized in political titles, western regional stuff and “Californiana”, works on California or by Californians, which makes sense for a bookstore located in the state capitol. Time Tested carried first editions, signed editions, and so forth, so a true collectors store. But also paperbacks, like essay collections by Virigina Woolf and Kenneth Rexroth, and Daniel Singers book on the 1968 May-June Days in Paris. I seem to recall a limited selection new titles and speaking engagements by authors, similar to what you see today on Book TV.

The owner at the time was an outspoken lefty, so the store did carry a lot of left-related titles, going back to muckraking writers of the early Progressive era. Being politically left myself I really appreciated a kindred spirit running this bookstore. I recall also his personal touch, ranging from advice to the care he took hand-wrapping ones purchase in brown paper and tape. Time Tested has apparently entered the internet era as they have a website and blog


There were some others that I don’t remember too well. Levinsons facing Plaza Park, had a lot of art books. Another that I do recall was in Old Sacramento (which also had a “Californiana” specialization, but sold old maps and prints, too). I remember because I bought a used copy of the old California Water Atlas there.

Edited or facilitated by Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Cataogue fame, the Water Atlas was published during the Brown administration, and inspired in part by the water atlas prepared by state engineer Ham Hall back in the 1890s, this huge folio-size book was partially bound in leather. A masterpiece of book design for its time, it was a real surprise to see this for sale since it was intended more as a library reference book.

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