Where are the best independent bookstores in New England? We asked associate editor (and independent bookstore co-owner) Joe Bills for a list of favorites.
By Joe Bills
Apr 13 2022
Please note that many establishments throughout New England have modified their hours and/or operations in response to COVID-19. Always check for the latest information before making travel plans.
Do you share our love for independent bookstores? Fortunately, New England is home to many fine shops carrying a wide assortment of books, many with additional used selections and some serving coffee. What more could you ask for? Read on for a list of the best independent bookstores in New England.
It has been said that I never met a bookstore I didn’t like, and I think that is probably true. Big or small, focused or eclectic, bookstores are entertainment, education, relaxation, and inspiration all at once. New England is blessed by many wonderful bookstores, and yes, I like them all. But there are some I love. Here, in no particular order, are a handful of favorites.
Why It Is On the List: Now in its fifth decade, Broadside is the very definition of a community bookshop. In this case, the community in question happens to be Northampton, one of the country’s greatest college towns. Although relatively small in square footage, Broadside boasts an impressive collection of both fiction and literary nonfiction, and a terrific selection of hard-to-find journals.
Since 1961, when they opened their doors as Paperback Booksmith, this shop has been “dedicated to the fine art of browsing.” They also have great customer service and a pretty impressive track record when it comes to attracting A-list authors for readings and appearances. That said, their announcement of a 2020 expansion that will add 4,000-square-feet, including a 45-seat cafe, is cause for celebration. We might never leave.
Why It Is On the List: What started as a used bookshop has changed with the times, and Crow now supplements their impressive selection of “experienced” books with a growing catalog of new titles. From the creaky floors to the eclectic ephemera, the entire shop has a quirky, fun feel. This Burlington shop is a bookshop-lover’s bookshop.
Why It Is On the List: For more than a century, Gibson’s has been serving up books in downtown Concord, but if you haven’t visited since their move in 2013, you are really missing out. With an impressive café and plenty of comfortable seating to go along with a wide-ranging book selection, Gibson’s is getting older and better.
Why It Is On the List: I’m a sucker for great specialty bookshops, and Grolier’s is part of the reason why. This is easily the smallest shop on the list, but its 15,000 volumes—all poetry—are nonetheless a sight to behold. The shop is owned and operated by poets, and it shows.
Why It Is On the List: You’ll be taken care of here. Since 1979, Gulf of Maine has been a Brunswick staple. Friendly, knowledgeable service and a great selection make sure that trend continues. Local authors are amply supported here, which is always a plus, and it feels like every book on every shelf is there for a reason.
Why It Is On the List: Years ago, Harvard Book Store was the center of a spiraling constellation of Harvard Square bookshops. Times have changed, and so has the neighborhood, but this oasis of what used to be remains. The selection is as scholarly and impressive as you would expect, but it is the events that really set Harvard Book Store apart. Does your favorite writer have a new book coming out? The odds are good that he or she will be reading here.
Why It Is On the List: You know that feeling when you stumble upon an unexpected treasure that you just can’t wait to share with your friends? That’s hello hello, in a nutshell. Despite its small size and relative newness (in its current embodiment, the store opened in 2011, although its roots run through Second Read and Rock City all the way back to 1992). This gem of a shop in Rockland does a little bit of everything—you’ll find new and used books, gifts, magazines, crafts and more—but the key here is the curation. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at every turn.
Why It Is On the List: As previously mentioned, I’m a sucker for a well-themed specialty bookshop, so the chance discovery several years ago of this gem that somehow remains hidden in plain sight on Brattleboro’s main drag was a true treat. I was immediately transported to years gone by, when the gone-but-not-forgotten Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge and the now online-only Spenser’s Mystery Bookshop in Boston were regular stops on my evening commute. Whether you like your mysteries hardboiled or genteel, foreign or domestic, you’ll find it here by the shelf-full. Don’t know what you are looking for? The friendly staff can help you get to the bottom of that mystery, as well.
Why It Is On the List: Northshire does it right. The coffee is excellent. The chairs are comfy and well located. The children’s section is so expansive that it spans the entire top floor. The selection of gifts, games and toys is wonderfully eclectic. The events calendar is brimming with big name authors and locals alike. And the books? They’ve got it all in this Manchester gem.
Why It Is On the List: The café is excellent, the book selection is comprehensive and its proximity to New York lends the shop a surprising amount of starpower, in terms of both events and customer base. You never know who you’ll see in this Madison shop. Despite all that, however, it is the little touches—like the handwritten recommendations from staff—that resonate and make this a store worth returning to again and again.
Why It Is On the List: Since being purchased by Sherman’s Books and Stationary, the Maine Coast Bookshop has not only maintained its charm, but has built on it. The selection is vast, and the shop is a cultural center for the town, and a place where tourists and locals mingle. The time passes quickly here, but never feels wasted.
Why It Is On the List: With a terrific selection of both new and used books, there’s always a treasure to be found in this Providence shop. The art section here is particularly impressive, and if it is a graphic novel you are looking for, they probably have it in stock. The organization is sometimes a bit lacking, but that only makes the hunt more fun!
Why It Is On the List: An Unlikely Story is a privileged bookstore, and it shows in all the best ways. Created and funded by author Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have been huge bestsellers, An Unlikely Story is the shop most other bookstores wish they could be. The books are creatively displayed and very well curated. Predictably enough, the children’s section is particularly good. Every fixture in the shop has an interesting backstory. The café is superb and comfortable, and the upstairs event area hosts a diverse lineup of reading and events that often draw big crowds.
Nothing is quite so subjective as a list of favorites, of course, so if asked tomorrow my list could well be a bit different. The following shops are equally excellent, and on a different day may well have made my list. All of them are worth your time and deserve your patronage:
Longfellow Books, Portland, ME, longfellowbooks.com
New England Mobile Book Fair, Newton, MA, nebookfair.com
Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, MA, odysseybks.com
RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, NH, riverrunbookstore.com
Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, Cambridge, MA, schoenhofs.com
Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough, NH, toadbooks.com
Trident Booksellers and Café, Boston, MA, tridentbookscafe.com
For our purposes here, I focused on stores that sell new books. My used bookstore list? Let’s leave that for another time.
What tops your list of the best independent bookstores in New England? Let us know in the comments!
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated for fact-checking, but not to add or remove establishments. We hope to bring you an updated list later in the year.