Discover these cities through their indie bookstores

When we visit big cities, we want to see what makes the town special. So we go to what’s tried and true: museums and landmark buildings, parks and historical sites. They’re time well spent. But to really understand the spirit of a city, check out its independent bookshops.

Indie shops have become increasingly rare as big chain bookstores have squeezed many of them out of desirable neighborhoods. But the indies hang on through their knowledgeable staffs (and staff picks), their organized readings and events and their devoted local followings. Call it community; call it a measure of daily intellectual life — but small bookstores offer a window into a city and its denizens.

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco

It’s de rigueur for any serious-minded visitor to San Fran to make a pilgrimage to this 60-year-old touchstone. Appropriately situated in bohemian North Beach, City Lights offers a shaggy, welcoming feel where natural light comes in through clerestory windows. This is where the Beats gathered and found an outlet for their distinctive voices; the publishing house affiliated with the store has given the world works by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and Charles Bukowski.

You’ll certainly find mainstream titles like Jess Walters’ “Beautiful Ruins” and Lawrence Wright’s takedown of Scientology, “Going Clear.” The shop also stocks graphic novels and sells photos of Beat icons like Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. It hosts one or two readings or other events weekly.

Left Bank Books, Seattle

It’s still 1968 at this Pike Place Market bookstore. When I was working in Seattle, I always found grazing the market and browsing these shelves a great way to while away a lunch hour. The place specializes in radical literature, but staffers are just as likely to enthuse about “The Brothers Karamazov” as about anarchist tomes.

Given its location at the market, of course you’ll be milling around with other bookish tourists. But make no mistake, you’ll also be getting a feel for authentic Pacific Northwest progressivism: Beyond stocking the likes of books such as “Occupy Everything,” the store is operated in communal fashion. With no bosses or managers, all decisions are made by consensus.

Kramer Books, Washington

This Dupont Circle landmark was my second home when I was in DC for grad school. Part of the appeal for me was the hours: it’s open until 1 a.m. on weekdays and 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays. Part of it was the bookstore’s really good, really popular Afterwards Café, which serves a full menu, from omelets to butternut squash ravioli. And part of it was the homey, user-friendly layout and tables stacked with all the books this then-aspiring writer needed to know about.

The dedication of the staff in this famously educated city is inspiring. “We just sling books and don't really care about anything else," one clerk said to me, and meant it. And did I mention the live folk, blues and jazz? This is arguably the best, liveliest bookstore in the country.

Books and Books, Miami Beach, Fla.

Owner Mitchell Kaplan is locally revered for nurturing and expanding Miami’s literary community. Amid the sidewalk bistros and bling-y jeans shops of Lincoln Road Mall, Books and Books is a cultural and intellectual oasis. The store is laid out in a series of parlors with a carefully curated selection. Local authors are strongly promoted, and the store prides itself on its collection of art and design books. Its sidewalk café serves healthy fare. (Check out its other locations in Coral Gables, Miami International Airport, and Ft. Lauderdale’s Museum of Art.)

Other top indie bookstores around the country: Powell’s (Portland, Ore.); Small World Books (Venice, Calif.); Trident (Boston); and in New York City, Three Lives (tucked away in the West Village), and of course, that oasis of used and rare selections (18 miles of books), the massive Strand.