Whether you're seeking an obscure eighteenth-century novel or just want to browse, there's an independent bookstore in St. Louis that has just what you need. Our researchers visited shops from Edwardsville to St. Charles to south city to report back on which bookstore is right for you. Read along and then plan to visit one (or four).
3111 South Grand Boulevard, 314-771-7150
The story: A community-driven space with stacks and stacks of rare treasures.
The backstory: Founded in 1965 by Reginald "Pat" Dunaway, the bookstore has changed hands several times over the years. Current owners Kevin Twellman and Claudia Brodie have been running things since 2017, and manager Vernon Bain is a fixture during the week.
Perfect for: Bibliophiles who love the hunt. The 80,000 second-hand books in Dunaway are spread among a maze of stacks on the store's three levels, with especially large psychology, poetry and foreign history sections. The mezzanine, which overlooks the store and its 88-year-old fully functional piano, concentrates on black and Jewish history and modern fiction, while the basement features 1970s sci-fi, the sciences and literary criticism. For a little lighter reading, find mystery novels and classic children's literature on the ground floor. Don't miss the local connections throughout the store, such as Tim Bolt's framed art along the mezzanine stairs and works by St. Louis authors and poets near the front window; local writers and musicians regularly are welcomed to the store for readings and performances.
Bring your wallet: You'll rarely leave this store empty-handed. Along with used books at all price points, the treasures behind glass — such as a thick Napoleon tome from the 1800s or a signed letter from Albert Einstein on behalf of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists — may set you back as much as a few thousand dollars.
LEFT BANK BOOKS
399 North Euclid Avenue, 314-367-6731
The story: Located in the heart of the Central West End, the city's oldest and largest independent bookstore hosts not only an expertly curated collection but an astonishing 300 events each year.
The backstory: Founded in 1969 by a group of Wash U grad students, Left Bank is now owned by Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele, who have helped the shop weather any number of seismic events, from the rise and fall of Barnes & Noble to Amazon to an attempted expansion downtown.
Perfect for: Anyone looking for something old or something new — Left Bank has a sizable used collection in the basement and all the latest releases in a host of categories upstairs. Smartly chosen staff picks and a big display of book-club selections mean that those browsing will never be short on inspiration. The kids' room is also big and friendly, unless there's an author in town (in this well-stocked shop, space is always at a premium).
Maybe think twice: If you're desperately allergic to cats. Spike is the king of the roost, and while we've seen him show neighborhood dogs a thing or two (yes, the store is pet-friendly, so long as Spike doesn't object), he's not budging unless he wants to.
6275 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-862-6100
The story: The Loop's best browsing spot manages to make room for an excellent collection of literature, art books, biographies and books about pop culture. There's a sizable children's section as well.
The backstory: Kelly von Plonski's bookstore has lasted eighteen years on a street with near-constant turnover by cultivating loyal customers and connecting them to its collection.
Perfect for: Big readers. Subterranean has one of the most generous frequent-buyer programs in town. For every ten purchases, the shop kicks back a store credit worth the average of your last ten. Or sign up for the Book of the Month, where the staff hand-picks something every month to fit your interests — and even has it delivered to your doorstep.
Be skeptical: Despite what you may read online, there are no used books here.
Ready to wear: Since Subterranean is a small storefront, space is at a premium (that loft may remind you of your college dorm room, though it contains a surprisingly big upstairs area). But the one gift option von Plonski has found room to display is our favorite thing to buy the bibliophiles on our list: T-shirts screenprinted with classic book jackets.
THE BOOK RACK
14560 Manchester Road, Ballwin; 636-394-1233
The story: A warm, comfortable store with popular reads at low prices.
The backstory: The shop, in business for more than 35 years, has changed locations a number of times, including doubling its space by moving just a few hundred feet down within its current Ballwin plaza. Owner Cindy Antonacci took over the store about seven years ago, and longtime bookseller Lauren Gockley helps customers find their prizes.
Perfect for: Anyone dying to read popular bestsellers from two years ago. While the store does acquire a few new books, it's a legitimate gold mine of pre-loved modern romances, thrillers and young-adult titles, especially in paperback (don't forget to bring in your own used books for cash or store credit). Check out the expansive children's section, which features the Baby-Sitters Club and the Chronicles of Narnia books alongside vintage toys and decor. Throughout the store, signs offer tips for readers, such as the reading order for authors' ongoing series and marquee works in certain categories. If you find something good, you can start reading immediately — each section has fluffy seating that invites readers to enjoy their finds.
Local-author alert: Near the check-out station, look for shelves of works by St. Louis authors.
Don't miss: The back room, which is filled with classic literature in both paperback and hardback. While you're there, make a cup of coffee, curl up on the church-pew bench and note the chalkboards with reading recommendations from employees.
THE BOOK HOUSE
7352 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-968-4491
The story: New, used, rare — you should be able to find what you're looking for among the 300,000 titles here.
The backstory: A no-frills shop where the prices are written in pencil on the inside cover of many of the books, the Book House has been a presence on the St. Louis book scene since 1986. The shop moved from Rock Hill to Maplewood a few years ago and carries a wide range of adult and children's books, with new and used books displayed side-by-side on its shelves. It also has a large online store at www.bookhousestl.com.
Claim to fame: George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series that inspired HBO's Game of Thrones, stopped by in the 1990s.
True vintage: As of press time, the oldest title on the shelf is from 1590.
HAMMOND'S ANTIQUES & BOOKS
1939 Cherokee Street, 314-323-6389
The story: A bookstore full of old-world charm on Cherokee's Antique Row.
The backstory: Housed in a brick beauty that was built in 1892, Hammond's has been in business for more than 35 years. The store is run by Jovanka Hammond, who had lived above the shop in its early days, and her brother Knez Jakovac, a musician who has toured the world.
Perfect for: Those who want to experience the bookstore of their dreams — complete with shelving ladders. With its mysterious nooks, twinkling lights and shelves stretching to the ceiling, Hammond's is a bibliophile's heaven. The shop specializes in rare and out-of-print books. Moving from room to room and floor to floor, readers encounter everything from a vintage Peter Pan pop-up book to a 1953 world atlas to mod parlor games, with a huge selection of culture, culinary and history tomes. Don't miss the fantastically vast collection of sparkly antique costume jewelry from the Gypsy Ltd., a notable Cherokee Street shop that Hammond and Jakovac's mother had owned for twenty years before her death in 2000.
Spend a full day: It's easy to spend hours browsing in Hammond's, so plan to grab a meal afterwards at one of the restaurants along Cherokee Street or pop into one of the other quaint shops nearby. Check dates and times, though, because Hammond's only is open Thursday through Saturday and some Sundays.
441 East Vandalia Street, Edwardsville, Illinois; 618-655-0355
The story: This downtown Edwardsville shop packs a lot of adventure into a quaint space. It also regularly hosts storytime, local author events and fun get-togethers, like knitting and documentary film clubs.
The backstory: Owner LuAnn Locke took a chance on running Afterwords seven years ago and has never looked back, turning the corner book shop into a hub of the Metro East community. Afterwords has received the James Patterson Bookseller Award and been named one of the top 25 independent small businesses nationwide by Independent We Stand.
Perfect for: Families with kids who are looking for a more intimate bookseller setting. Treat yourself to complimentary cocoa, find a cozy nook with a comfy chair and you'll feel right at home. Or check out the shop's Saturday morning storytime at 222 Artisan Bakery.
Deal alert: Afterwords allows readers to trade in gently loved books for credit towards different titles.
Plan ahead: Edwardsville is off the beaten path for most, but don't let the hike dissuade you — make it a day trip. Grab something you've really been wanting to read at Afterwords before hitting up Recess Brewing for some serious craft beer and Cleveland-Heath for a gourmet lunch.
THE NOVEL NEIGHBOR
7905 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-738-9384
The story: This Webster Groves shop offers a carefully curated selection of books, art, jewelry and more from local artists.
The backstory: Open for three years, the Novel Neighbor is more than just a bookstore — it sells goods made by more than 30 local artists and has recently expanded into an event space next door, where you can take classes or rent it out to host a baby shower (with a registry at the Novel Neighbor for children's books, of course). The staff is knowledgeable about book selections and gift ideas for everyone who's hard to buy for.
Claim to fame: Owner Holland Saltsman has appeared on Anne Bogel's "What Should I Read Next?" podcast.
For the kiddos: There's a regular children's storytime Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10:30 a.m., as well as a tween book club, which meets monthly.
MAIN STREET BOOKS
307 South Main Street, St. Charles; 636-949-0105
The story: A longtime mainstay of St. Charles proper, Main Street Books has been developing relationships with new readers for 25 years.
The backstory: Emily Hall may be one of the youngest bookshop owners in the nation. When the original owner put the business on the market in 2014, Hall, just three years out of college and with little business experience, jumped at the chance to peddle tomes to the masses, turning the family business into a full-time career.
Perfect for: Passionate bibliophiles who want to chat and get book recommendations from like-minded enthusiasts. Want to know what's the next big reading trend on the horizon? The staff are living "related book" algorithms — they're knowledgeable, super-friendly and eager to find out what you've been reading lately. Expect to find a little bit of everything on the shelves, but if you're in the mood to browse history, women's studies or a wonderfully diverse YA section, you're in the right place.
Bookstores of the future: Independent sellers have their work cut out for them trying to compete with online retailers, but Main Street Books is fighting back. The shop recently started selling books through its website and will soon partner with Libra.FM, a subscription service for digital audiobooks.
7827 Olive Boulevard, 314-349-1122
The story: An African American children's bookstore that has gained a national following.
The backstory: During their search for homeschooling materials, EyeSeeMe owners Pamela and Jeffrey Blair didn't find much that reflected black history or culture. After developing their own materials that excited their children and being prompted by teachers and community members, the Blairs opened EyeSeeMe in 2015.
Perfect for: Anyone who wants children to see themselves reflected in a variety of reading materials. With books on every academic subject, EyeSeeMe brings the contributions of black Americans to the forefront, stocking literature published by Random House, Scholastic, Just Us Books and more for all ages through high school.
Media moment: While EyeSeeMe focuses on academics, the shop doesn't leave out the fun. Readers will also find novels, comic books, educational card games and posters featuring African American protagonists, and the store hosts reading clubs and activities. One young reader was so excited about EyeSeeMe's stock that he arranged his own book club, Books N Bros, which caught the attention of national news outlets and catapulted EyeSeeMe into the spotlight.
A community resource: Fielding questions from parents and teachers nationwide, the Blairs are viewed as creating a model for education for black and multicultural children. EyeSeeMe's founders now consult on book fairs and education initiatives and are developing opportunities for mentoring, literacy and culture presentations, and in-store classes. The store's nonprofit arm, the EyeSeeMe Foundation, provides books and programs to low-income children.
AIA ST. LOUIS BOOKSTORE
911 Washington Avenue, Suite 100, 314-621-3484
The story: A design-focused shop that celebrates St. Louis' built environment.
The backstory: The bookstore for the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects is part of a global network of architecture professionals. Currently housed in the Lammert Building, a city landmark, the local AIA chapter previously spent decades in the historic Wainwright Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Perfect for: Those looking for St. Louis items without the touristy kitsch. The AIA bookstore is a small space but features a mighty selection of carefully curated books and gifts revolving around St. Louis architecture and design. Here, shoppers can find books about the architecture in the Central West End, rides from the old Forest Park Highlands amusement park and Missouri hauntings alongside smaller gifts such as laser-cut pop-up cards showcasing major St. Louis landmarks or children's books about the Gateway Arch. The shop also carries replicas and prints of works by globally known architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. Look for new items in the store's ever-changing window display.
Claim to fame: President Bill Clinton asked his driver to pull over when he spotted the AIA St. Louis bookstore during a city visit in late 2017. The former U.S. president and design enthusiast picked up a variety of books and gifts, including Hero Decks, a collection of playing cards starring the Cardinals' best players past and present.
—Allison Babka, Kevin Korinek, Lauren Milford and Sarah Fenske