The joy of reading a good book comes from, among other things, the feeling of community. If it’s a classic, countless others have read it before you, and if it’s new, many will read it after you. On and on the pattern goes, until you and a bunch of complete strangers are bonded simply because of a book you’ve read. Bookstores facilitate this ongoing cycle, and are thriving in spite of the digital age. Thankfully, Phoenix has some good ones.
We explored numerous independent bookstores across the Valley and, though each one may have a treasure hidden somewhere, we've narrowed the offerings down to 13 of our absolute favorites. Each shop specializes in its own specific stock list and general atmosphere. But mainly, each one makes us want to empty our wallets and retreat to a quiet cozy place to read. We think you’ll feel the same way. As you peruse each one, be sure to ask the owners and booksellers what their favorite item in the store is. They will surely have a good story for you.
Book Gallery is an antique bookstore that specializes in rare copies of books from the biggest names in literature. The store, located in Arcadia, sells first editions and signed copies of all your high school English teacher's favorites, including extremely limited early copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, works from Richard Feynman and Philip K. Dick, and a beautifully crafted Dumas collection. And though there are some incredible obscurities (don't miss the $5,000 book written by an Italian doctor studying the plague and a copy of the first Bible ever to be printed by a woman), this store is for the literature aficionado, the die-hard collector, and those who treat books like family. Most items are in pristine condition and are meant to be collected. A sister Book Gallery is located in Mesa in what used to be a movie theater. You’ll find the same quality of inventory, but a different style, with rolling ladders and of course, lots of books. Both locations have been around for close to 30 years.
Half Price Books
The best part of Half Price Books is that it lives up to its name. At its Camelback location, the store carries tons of books sold at a percentage of what their competition charges. The store carries collectibles, classics, cheesy romance novels, and everything in between. There’s also a decent selection of records and comics, if that’s what you’re into. And, as if you needed another reason to support an area bookstore, the store has participated in the Million Book Donation Project and the Half Pint Library Book Drive. Additional locations are found in Mesa and Paradise Valley.
Zia Records Exchange on Camelback
Zia Records Exchange's biggest store is located at Camelback and 19th Avenue, and sells a variety of books, records, and curios that would elicit a giggle or smile from anyone. Make sure to head toward the $1 baskets in the back. The store carries an array of science fiction books and, somewhat surprisingly, has a decent selection of gardening books as well. Buyers can find new releases, as well as the classics, in new and used conditions. They also have an impressive selection of collectible and popular graphic novels that range in price from $1 to $50. Be sure to seek staff help if you’re in a hurry. They are friendly and informative — and often necessary to navigate the massive space. Other Zia locations are in Chandler, Mesa, north Phoenix, and Tempe.
Lawn Gnome Publishing
The epitome of hip and independent, Lawn Gnome in the Roosevelt Row District is the perfect hideaway in downtown Phoenix. There’s usually only one employee, and aside from the initial greeting, they leave you to browse in peace. Miles Davis or electronica plays softly through the speakers and creates the perfect ambiance for book browsing. Inside the store, you can find some classics, but the real treasures are the silly forgotten publications, like an Ellen Degeneres’ coffee-table book. The store's biggest mission, however, is its dedication to promoting local, first-time authors. Shoppers can purchase local art, pick up homemade zines, and show their support by attending frequent exhibits and readings on Lawn Gnome's patio. Though it only takes a couple minutes to see every product in the store, there’s a life in Lawn Gnome that can only come from a bookstore surrounded by a strong arts culture and community.
Alcuin Books in Scottsdale is a veritable gold mine of rare Arizona texts and other invaluable pieces of literature. For example, local history buffs can purchase the original copies of the Arizona Historical Review Volumes I and II, which includes articles and accounts by some of the state's most famous historians. Along those lines, visitors can also find old copper maps and business listings. Over the years, the store has acquired many libraries full of classics and antique books. Some of the most impressive selections include signed, first-edition copies of books by Jack London and James Joyce. Some of Alcuin’s books were created before the printing press was invented, but you’ll have to ask to see those. At Alcuin, you’ll come for the books, but you’ll stay for the conversation. Owner Richard Murian expresses such a deep passion for all things Arizona, it’s hard to leave for fear you’ll miss a good story or well-placed Bob Dylan quote.
Ash Ave Comics and Books
Ash Avenue Comics and Books has provided shoppers with some of the best comics in the Valley for more than a decade now. Owner Drew Sullivan keeps a well-curated selection of bound versions of comics and graphic novels. From the moment you enter the small store, you’re confronted with both modern and classic comics, all at prices that will cause sporadic spending you won’t later regret. Comics and graphic novels aside, Ash Ave also has an impressive collection of local zines that are worth checking out. Though the store's footprint is small, you won't have to look far to pick up an interesting new science fiction title that you (probably) won't find elsewhere.
Read on for more of the Valley's best book shops.
It is truly impossible to leave Changing Hands empty-handed. Owners Gayle Shanks and Cindy Dach, a mainstay in the Phoenix art scene, continue to maintain what is perhaps the most popular bookstore in the area. With locations in Tempe and Phoenix, you shouldn't have to travel far to visit one. The Tempe bookstore carries used stock and will buy books if you're looking to change up your personal library. Though the Phoenix location does not buy used books, its large selection is worth a visit. Prices are a little higher here than they are at some other bookstores. But the prices aren't unreasonable, and the quality of the used books is what makes this store so impressive. As well as being a local hot spot for avid readers, Changing Hands hosts multiple events throughout the year. From former presidents and professional wrestlers to authors willing to share their advice, both stores draw big crowds. You should plan on staying for a while when you visit Changing Hands, particularly if you go to the Phoenix branch. First Draft, the bar that's conveniently inside the store, is enough to keep you there for at least an hour.
For fans of crime and pulp fiction, the Poisoned Pen in Old Town Scottsdale is a treasure trove of reasonably priced thriller literature. From the sconces outside the brick-and-mortar building to the chalk outlines on the floor, this store maintains its sleuth-y vibe in spite of the tourist crowd that flocks to fill the small space. The walls are also lined with signed photographs of authors who have visited, including Gillian Flynn, Diana Gabaldon, and many others. The Poisoned Pen also hosts many events, around 300 each year, where avid crime readers can come together under one roof and discuss their favorites, sometimes with their favorite authors.
With its door flanked by two terrifying mannequins dressed like soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, this small bookstore makes a quick impression. Though it seems like too narrow of a niche, Guidon Books in Old Town Scottsdale cashes in on the historical charm of its city by selling a very specific set of books, mainly those about Western history and the Civil War. Guidon opened in 1964, and has since expanded its collection to include rare and out-of-print books that include highly sought-after presidential collections. Selections include old collectibles about guns, like Axis Pistols by Jan Still and John O' Connor's Complete Book of Shooting. Guidon also keeps a large stock of classic western novels by the likes of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. The inside is small, but books are stacked to the ceiling and the walls are covered with Americana paraphernalia. Confederate flags, old maps, and mounted steer skulls adorn the walls and add to the Old West feel. Books are both new and used, and give shoppers an opportunity to look back in time.
Regardless of what time you visit Bookmans at 19th and Northern avenues (or its Mesa location), there’s always a steady flow of shoppers. If you turn a corner in its maze of shelves too quickly, you will likely run into or trip over someone whose nose is buried deep inside a novel. In terms of genre varieties and types of books, this store outdoes many. Aside from the general sections you’d find at a typical bookstore, Bookmans has massive collections of generally underrepresented books, like career planning, language, and banned literature. There is also a certain level of comfort you can find in Bookmans that comes from the strategically placed displays and notes, which give gentle reminders to read and ask for help.
All About Books and Comics
All About Books and Comics is home to the largest selection of comics, one it has been growing since Marsha and Alan Giroux opened the store more than 30 years ago. At their newly relocated Camelback store, the selection includes classics and lesser-known series ranging from the Marvel and DC staples (including the "non-tie-ins") to this year's Stringers. It also carries a diverse range of contemporary comics, like East of West and The Covenant. The staff keeps the hefty inventory organized and neat, which make it easy to find what you’re looking for but difficult to stay focused. There are also weekly deals and specials that reinforce the store’s status as one of the Valley’s best.
Old Town Books
This storefront of Old Town Books is a welcome sight among the Sun Devil gear shops and college bars on Mill Avenue. There's a rack of used books on the sidewalk, and an older couple sitting at the entrance, ready to point you in the right direction. The shop is general use in nature, but has expansive sections in Arizona, Native American, and Old West history. Old Town also carries vintage, first edition, and out-of-print books, along with the more familiar used books (like just about every Larry McMurtry title, including a signed copy of All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers behind the register). The narrow shop holds thousands of titles, and they are cash only, so bring your billfold. Old Town Books was inspired by owner Chris Smith’s daughter Holly, an elementary school teacher, and was established in 1984. They’ve been in their spot on Mill Avenue since 1987, and will hopefully not be going anywhere soon.
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Established in 2016, Palabras Librería/Bookstore is downtown Phoenix's only Spanish-language bookstore, though it also carries titles in English and other languages. Founder Rosie Magaña, a first generation Mexican-American, set up shop in the washed-out-green La Melgosa building on Grand Avenue that you easily could mistake for a candy store. Inspired by the installation Librería Donceles by Mexico-born artist and author Pablo Helguera, Magaña‘s shop sells and rents books to the public, and accepts used books in all languages. Palabras also hosts classes, workshops, and literary events.
Lauren Cusimano and Sara Weber contributed to this article.
Editor's note: This post has been edited from its original version, which first appeared in September 2015.