A Rare Experience: Exceptional Bookstores that Amazon Can’t Match

Specialty bookstores are being severely threatened by the Internet. This is one change that I am personally resisting and I’ll tell you why. The story begins in San Francisco at Stout Books where I have bought individual books as well as part of the Spiro Kostoff library collection. Happily browsing there recently, I struck up a conversation with a customer who told me that he visits the store to find out what he wants and then he goes to his computer and makes the purchase at Amazon.com. This is understandable, because typically books purchased via the Internet are discounted with shipping often included in the price. I wondered how this phenomena changed the buying habits of architects and designers? I decided to ask some of the bibliophiles in my life about their buying habits and discovered that for many (but not all) the Internet has become a big part of their buying actions. The Internet is a disruptive technology in many ways today—but my instincts favor the patronage and support of our precious specialty bookstores (and their Web sites) that bring both richness and uncommon selection along with that special “book experience.”

Books are not a trivial subject for most architects and designers. Ideas and visions are shared and preserved through them. When purchasing or collecting books we are assembling the history of the design professions. To buy the books of Christopher Wren, Augustus Wellby Pugin, R Buckminster Fuller—as well as modern day monographs—we are reminded of the value of good design and the potential ahead of us. To collect works on architecture and design, we begin to understand the world and the intellectual and imaginative power of design and the people who make it happen. I love these books. Books inform us, center us and help us to make a more important contribution to this needy and fragile planet.

Not all specialty bookstores can be exalted to the degree of Stout Books in San Francisco, but I’d like to share my favorites.

William Stout Architectural Books
San Francisco
415.391.6757
www.stoutbooks.com

Prairie Avenue Bookshop
Chicago
312.922.8311
www.pabook.com

Hennessey & Ingalls Art and Architecture Books
Santa Monica
310.458.9074
www.hennesseyingalls.com

National Building Museum Shop
Washington, D.C.
202 272-7706
www.nbm.org

Chicago Architecture Foundation Bookstore
Chicago
www.architecture.org

Cambridge Architectural Books
Cambridge
617.354.5300
www.archbook.com

Peter Miller Architecture and Design Books
Seattle
206.441.4114
www.petermiller.com

AIA Bookstore and Design Center
Philadelphia
215.569.3188
www.aiaphila.org

Urban Center Books
New York City
212.935.3592
www.urbancenterbooks.com

Charles B. Wood III Antiquarian Booksellers
Cambridge
617.868.1711

Architectural Center Bookstore
Indianapolis
www.aiaindiana.org/bookstore.html
317.634.3871

AIA National Bookstore
Washington DC
202.626.7475
www.aia.org/books

JB Muns Fine Arts Books
Berkeley
510.525.2420

Tattered Cover Bookstore
Denver
303.436.1070
www.tatteredcover.com

David Morrison Art and Architecture Books
Portland
503.295.6882
www.morrisonbooks.com

Yes, there are more. And there are also wonderful specialty bookstores around the world. In London, I like to visit the Henry Sotheran’s on Sackville Street and the Sims Reed bookstore. Both have some of the finest antiquarian architecture books and the ambiance offers up consistent pleasure. But if you enter one of these stores, prepare to spend a few hours. Here you will find the best books, and when it comes to architecture and design books, the best should never be the enemy of the good. Give these precious resources a second thought. Visit their Web sites—some have excellent search engines that yield rare volumes not available at Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Amazon. I recommend we do all we can to keep these shops vital. Each has a special aura that reminds us we need the past for wisdom as we invent the future.
—James P. Cramer