America’s Most Bookish Cities

What 1,841 bookstores tell us about the character of 896 cities

You can’t judge a book by its cover. You might, however, be able to judge a city by its bookstores.

I recently wrote about the increasing need to escape from New York and San Francisco to other cities in America. Of the thousands of ways to search for substitute cities with similar characteristics, why not start with bookstores, or rather, the quantity and quality of bookstores in a city?

With data from Foursquare and the US Census, along with the usual caveats (e.g., Foursquare is not used at the same rate everywhere; Census data is segmented by administrative borders, not clusters of human activity), let’s take a look at bookstores per person in 896 cities with a population greater than 50,000.

With a simple linear regression, we can create a model of how many bookstores we expect a city to have, given its population: approximately two, plus one for every 300,000 residents. It’s a rough model, but we can use it to identify cities that have more bookstores than we expect — cities that have something in common with NYC and SF.

Cities that Love Books

Here’s another look at that graph that compares population to the number of bookstores; this time, I’m highlighting cities with many more bookstores than my model expects.

San Francisco (30 more bookstores than expected), Hayward (part of the Bay Area, 20 more bookstores than expected), and Brooklyn (19 more bookstores than expected) stand out as the cities that have the most additional bookstores per person. This suggests that bookstores per person is a good indicator for the character of SF and NYC; any city with a high number of bookstores per person seems likely to share some characteristics with those two cities.

Seattle, WA, (12 more bookstores than expected) seems to measure up to that assumption, as it’s another coastal, high-tech capital. Seattle is also home to one of the most popular bookstores on Foursquare, Elliott Bay Book Company. Other cities with more bookstores than my model expects: Austin, TX, Columbus, OH, Portland, OR, San Diego, CA, and New Orleans, LA. These cities would be at the top of my list as great substitutes for NYC or SF.

Other cities that have a high count of bookstores per capita seem to have a cluster of bookstores that service a much larger metropolitan area. For example, Elgin and Joliet, both in Illinois, appear to have more than their share of the bookstores in the greater Chicago area. Although there may be some bias from the way these communities are divided from Chicago proper, I think this measure is still meaningful. If I were moving to Chicago, I might look at these two communities as places to live. Other pockets within larger city areas include Grand Prairie, TX (part of Dallas-Fort Worth), Sandy Springs, GA (part of Atlanta), Cambridge, MA (part of Boston), Warren, MI (part of Detroit), and Garden Grove, CA (part of Los Angeles).

Cities that… Don’t Love Books

Here’s another look at the comparison graph; this time, I’m highlighting cities with far fewer bookstores than my model expects.

Unfortunately, things get a little messier when we look at cities with fewer bookstores per person. Cities lacking bookstores may simply have those bookstores in other nearby communities: for example, while Warren, MI, seems to have many bookstores per person, greater Detroit has few. Atlanta, Boston, and even Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens all have, numerically speaking, fewer bookstores than our model expects.

Other cities that seem to have fewer bookstores than they ought to: Miami, FL, Cleveland, OH, Allentown, PA, Bridgeport, CT, Tampa, FL, and Denver, CO. Denver’s lack of bookstores is especially surprising given its recent surge in popularity and population. Although there are a few excellent bookstores in Denver, such as the Tattered Cover Bookstore, it appears that there might be an opportunity for even more to open up shop.

Cities with the Greatest Bookstores

Let’s turn things around: which cities have the greatest bookstores?

It’s no surprise that cities like New York and Portland make a strong appearance on this map: New York is home to five of the top ten bookstores in the nation, including the Strand, with a high 9.6 rating (out of 10.0) based on feedback from 4,218 users. Portland, meanwhile, claims the second-most-popular bookstore, Powell’s. Other predictably bookish cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston also stand out.

What is surprising — even encouraging — is the number of cities across the country that have at least one great bookstore. Every yellow dot on the map represents a bookstore with a rating above 9.0. Lexington, KY, has one in Joseph-Beth Booksellers. You can find a great bookstore at either edge of Missouri, in Kansas City or St. Louis. El Paso, TX, has a great bookstore of its own. There are 253 cities in the above map with at least one bookstore rated at or above 8.5/10 — about 30% of the cities I analyzed.

We can look for diamonds in the rough: bookstores with strong ratings but few reviewers. Through this lens we discover Better World Books & The Electric Brew in Elkhart, IN; Winchester Book Gallery in Winchester, VA; and An Unlikely Story in Taunton, MA. A special bookstore can be the heart of a local community and bring likeminded people together, even in a town smaller than my neighborhood in Brooklyn — it can be an anchor in an unfamiliar place.

It’s really encouraging that there are so many cities with great bookstores. If great bookstores are your thing, but living in New York or San Francisco isn’t, you’re in luck. You’ve got options.

I’m interested in exploring cities — all cities, in fact, even New York and San Francisco — and telling their stories, through subjects both quantitative and qualitative. Subscribe here if you want to follow along and reach out to me if you want to chat.

Thanks for reading!

By the way: I love books, too — real books, physical books, books that you can touch and smell, books that you can share with a friend, books that you can collect and stack on your bookshelf.

I also love deals — I get a thrill when I discover a great book on the discount shelf of a local bookstore. Finding those hidden gems is a real delight for me. Maybe it’s a delight for you, too. 😄

I’m building something I call Good Books, Great Deals to help people feel that delight whenever they want — to help people read more and spend less. Check it out and let me know what you think!

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