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Six Best Bookstores San Francisco 2004 -

The following are what we like to call real bookstores: places that smell of old wood, leather bindings, and pressed flowers; places with whimsical notions of organization, bookcases that don't match, and a love of literature that's palpable; places with narrow aisles, eccentric little signs, comfortable chairs, and so many great books you know you'll have to come back again. Browse on.

Green Apple Books & Music

506 Clement (at Sixth Avenue), 387-2272, www.greenapplebooks.com

This treasure trove of a bookstore fills two rambling stories and an annex with the city's biggest selection of new and used books, CDs, LPs, videos, and DVDs. Wander about and you're sure to come upon an unexpected gem or two: vintage sheet music; handsomely bound sets of Pepys, Goethe, and Rilke; the Granny Smith Room and its fantastic collection of written history; thoughtfully arranged book displays titled "Don't Call It Frisco" or "Ahem ... Sex"; and a wide variety of cards and calendars. About a thousand current magazines are available for the browsing as well. Open until 11:30 p.m.

Argonaut Book Shop

786 Sutter (at Jones), 474-9067, www.argonautbookshop.com

The Argonaut specializes in the history of California and the west, and its walls and easels are filled with maps, lithographs, paintings, posters, and woodwork redolent of a bygone era. (This is where Jimmy Stewart researched San Francisco's spooky past in Vertigo.) The shelves and cases feature books on the Mission days, the Gold Rush, the railroads, and the earthquake; fiction by London, Norris, and Stevenson; first editions of Bret Harte, Robinson Jeffers, and Herb Caen; even Rod McKuen's Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows. The friendly staff is very knowledgeable, and the mood is tranquil, reflective, and timeless.

Alexander Book Company

50 Second St. (at Market), 495-2992, www.alexanderbook.com

This independently owned downtown resource stocks its three floors with more than 50,000 new volumes, boasts a great staff of book lovers, hosts readings by local authors, and has been in the neighborhood for a dozen years: the ideal community bookstore. What's more, Alexander's donates books to local schools, supports a variety of good causes, and keeps the neighbors up-to-date on nonprofit community events. Although it specializes in African-American, graphic design, and children's subjects, Alexander's scope is all-encompassing.

McDonald's Bookshop

48 Turk (at Mason), 673-2235

McDonald's opened its doors in 1926 and today boasts the largest selection of used magazines, books, and records in the state of California. This sprawling, ramshackle, elephantine quagmire happily describes itself as "a dirty, poorly lit place for books," and wandering through its nooks, crannies, chambers, and mezzanines, all of them stacked floor to ceiling with vintage reading material of all sorts -- there are more than 1 million items on the premises -- is a journey of discovery. (Among the on-site treasures are complete runs of Life, Playboy, Vogue, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic.) The place is closed for repairs at this writing but should reopen in July.

Dog Eared Books

900 Valencia (at 20th Street), 282-1901, www.dogearedbooks.com

Dog Eared mixes new and used, LP and CD, the rare and the trashy, and everything in between with jolly abandon. In its myriad, warped-wood recesses you might find vintage pulp-noir paperbacks, Thomas DeQuincey's Conversations, back issues of Sing Out!, a pretty good array of used vinyl, century-old children's stories, pop-up books for grown-ups, an entire section about pirates, and a fine selection of Beat literature. The well-lit, tall-ceilinged, armchair-equipped setting is ideal to the noble pursuit of rainy-day browsing.

City Lights

261 Columbus (at Broadway), 362-8193, www.citylights.com

The great San Francisco bookstore showcases mostly paperback volumes on an array of subjects eclectic enough for the thirstiest intellectual. A Little Press Alcove features a couple of hundred magazines, pamphlets, and booklets; the top floor has a Beat literature section with Cassady, Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and all the rest; and there's a well-stocked poetry room where readings are occasionally held and our hippest era is, briefly, reborn. Owned and operated by poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti since 1953, this living, breathing municipal treasure is open until 'round midnight.

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