6 Bay Area bookstores pick the 30 best books to read this winter
With winter and the pandemic both in full swing, we’re hunkering down at home and waiting it all out. We may not be able to go to the office or visit with friends, but we’re thankful there are plenty of new — and old — books to help us pass the time. Who better to recommend reads than a bibliophile? Here are 30 recommendations from the owners of some of the Bay Area’s best new and used bookstores.
(And if you need more ideas, we asked a dozen Bay Area bookstore owners for their best summer reading recs earlier this year.)
Reasonable Books, Lafayette
This cozy bookstore, which opened this fall, despite the pandemic, carries new titles, as well as roughly 20 percent used books. Betty Winnacker, who owns Reasonable Books with her husband, Rudy, says there are so many new and recently released books out that it’s hard to choose favorites, but here are her recommendations for a cozy winter read.
“The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson: Larson takes readers back to the London of the 1940s, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill struggled to hold the nation together under the German Blitz. The book’s themes resonate with the United States’ current circumstances, struggling under political divisions and a deadly pandemic. Reviewers found it to go far beyond a retelling of history because of the focus on other characters and Larson’s cinematic writing.
Rudy Winnacker and his wife Betty opened Reasonable Books in Lafayette in September, at a time when many businesses were shuttering due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
“Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America” by Maria Hinojosa: This longtime journalist tells her life story as a marginalized woman with allegiance to two countries in this powerful memoir. Hinojosa gives insight into the media world, where she often was the first and only Latina, and an indictment on how immigrants are treated in this country.
“White Ivy: A Novel” by Susie Yang: Yang’s novel centers on Ivy, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who desperately wants a boy and the wealth that comes with him, but has a lot of secrets in her past. The book has been called a “dark exploration of class and race.”
“The Best of Me” by David Sedaris: One of the country’s preeminent humor writers offers a hilarious collection of his observational humor in 46 essays and stories on the people who represent the best of him, including his well-meaning parents, siblings and partner.
“A Wealth of Pigeons: A Cartoon Collection” by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss: Martin, known for his off-the-wall humor, and Bliss, a New Yorker cartoonist, produced this illustrated book that attempts to understand how humor works in a single image. Martin shared captions, punch lines and ideas, and Bliss brought them to life in single-panel cartoons and strips, along with commentary about how their hilarious collaboration took place.
Leigh’s Favorite Books, Sunnyvale
From her first job as a teenager at Megabooks on the Peninsula, Leigh Odum has always loved bookstores. So it wasn’t surprising that she later gave up her career as an urban planner to open her own shop on Sunnyvale’s Murphy Avenue with husband Khader Abdel-Hafez. Besides offering an array of used books and new fiction, she caters to her Silicon Valley clientele by stocking lots of science and sci-fi titles.
Naturally, with a shop named “Leigh’s Favorite Books,” she had no trouble recommending some best reads for this winter:
“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab: This captivating, genre-bending novel straddles a fine line between literary, historic and fantasy fiction. Regardless of genre, “Addie LaRue” is a beautifully written and poignant novel that takes you on an adventure through time after an endearing protagonist makes an ill-fated Faustian bargain.
“Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing” by Jacob Goldstein: Ever wonder how the bitcoin economy works or why we went off the gold standard? In “Money,” Goldstein gives the reader an entertaining history of commerce. While acknowledging that money is a made-up thing, he shows how it has evolved and gives us insight into the future of commerce.
Leigh Odum, owner of Leigh’s Favorite Books, helps a customer in her Sunnyvale store. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
“Run Me to Earth” by Paul Yoon: An exquisitely crafted tale of three orphans attempting to survive the horrors of wartime Laos. Yoon paints a vivid picture of the bond between the three friends and the intensity of daily life in the midst of relentless bombing. Devastating, gorgeous.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin: So many events this year have nudged me to reflect on self-identity and compassion. In this book, Baldwin puts readers in the mind of a 14-year-old boy in 1935 Harlem, giving them a chance to explore compassion by experiencing the intensity and sensitivity of this self-awakening. With its themes of race, religion and sexual orientation, the novel is as relevant today as it was when first published in 1953.
“Secret San Jose: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure” by Cassie Kifer: Whether you are a South Bay native or zip by on your commute, you may not know that much about the history and lore of San Jose. Northern California’s largest city has many stories that are rarely told. Pick up this fun guide and learn all about the quicksilver mines, the oldest winery in California and the Rosicrucians’ beliefs in alchemy.
Moe’s Books, Berkeley
A Berkeley mainstay since 1959, Moe’s focuses on the rare, the unusual and the best literature around. There are new releases on the shelves, but the bookstore’s worth is found in its astounding collection of used books. The shop is open daily and has launched online sales and a GoFundMe effort, as well.
The book picks from Doris Moskowitz, who assumed ownership of the iconic shop after her father’s death, include some rare books for collectors and adventurers, as well as a new release.
Arctic Juvenilia Library of Books: This is a collection of books about adventures in the Arctic from the 1870s to the 1970s, with titles such as “Wildlife in the Ice and Snow” and “On Arctic Ice.” There are more than 250 individual titles ranging in price from $5 to $500.
“The Lady of the Lake” by Walter Scott: This 1842 copy (used, $25) has a lovely bookplate from the previous owner, a Ms. Margaret Kirk, and at only 4 inches tall, it fits perfectly in pockets for easy reference.
Doris Moskowitz, owner of Moe’s Books, inside her Berkeley bookstore. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
“Natural Resources of the United States” by J. Harris Patton: If you’ve ever wondered what state has the best semibituminous coal, this handy 1879 guide (used, $20) is the book for you. A fascinating look into the historical distribution and extraction of resources.
“The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” by Les Payne: Pulitzer Prize-winner Les Payne brings us a new take on the life of Malcolm X. This comprehensive biography (2020) is the product of 30 years of research and interviews and is both a moving and factual account of the activist icon’s life.
B Street Books, San Mateo
After 35 years as a private investigator, Lew Cohen and a college roommate realized a lifelong dream and opened B Street Books, devoted to the used-book trade. Then they broadened their appeal with current titles. The downtown shop was named this year to the Antiquarian Bookseller Association of America but still aims to engage readers of all ages — especially those kids with devices in their hands, Cohen says — with offerings that range from brand-new children’s books to a $6,000 signed set of the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Here are three new picks and two collector highlights from Cohen:
“Sierra Nevada Field Guide” by John Muir Laws: Written and illustrated by a San Mateo local, this is a must-have book for anyone who spends time in the Sierra. Easy to use, and the illustrations are incredible.
The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada by John Muir Laws is photographed inside B Street Books. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
“Dune” by Frank Herbert: A classic sci-fi novel we now carry anew at the bookstore, in advance of the much-anticipated movie. This book speaks for itself.
“A Promised Land” by President Barack Obama: Already one of the best-selling books of the year — a great read. Don’t miss this one.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain: Arguably one of the most important American novels, especially relevant today. We have recently acquired a first edition of this title — from the year 1885! ($4,500)
“Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart: This dystopian sci-fi novel is somewhat of a sleeper and one of my favorite books. The author was an English professor at UC Berkeley and wrote a host of novels on various California-centric topics. ($6.95)
Berkshire Books, Concord
Lynn Kuehl has sold second-hand books in Concord for several decades — and for the last 16 years at his Berkshire Books on Clayton Road. He has always loved to surround himself with old books. Their cover illustrations evoke long-ago eras, and their pages give off that slightly musty fragrance of old paper and grandma’s attic.
Kuehl’s beloved neighborhood shop is proud of a few specialties: local and regional history and science fiction and mystery novels. Kuehl also has a personal fondness for vintage paperback versions of popular fiction and nonfiction books from the 1940s and 1950s. Kuehl recommends:
“Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K. Jerome: Written in the late 1880s as a travel guide for British vacationers wishing to spend some downtime on the River Thames, the book digresses into humor about history, social customs, the imprecise science of meteorology and various other topics. Jerome’s humor is often reminiscent of Mark Twain’s, and his book was published at a time when the British middle class had the free time and money to go on vacations, so it was somewhat of a new thing. Inexpensive copies are available through online retailers and for free from copyright-free electronic sources, like Project Gutenburg.
Berkshire Books owner Lynn Kuehl searches for a book at his used bookstore in Concord. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
“Suds in Your Eye” by Mary Lasswell: This charming short novel, a huge best-seller in the 1940s, is about three little old ladies from very different backgrounds, who find they have to rely on one another to remain independent. The title comes from one of the few things they enjoy in common: drinking beer with their meals. The book was out of print for decades but recently became available online and from used-book sellers.
“Peyton Place” by Grace Metalious: Since its publication in 1956, the book has become synonymous with the idea of outwardly respectable small town citizens hiding lots of dark secrets. The book established a style of naughty, soap-operatic storytelling that was adopted by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann and kept Americans turning the pages of cheap paperbacks through at least the next two decades.
“When the Sacred Ginmill Closes” by Lawrence Block. For fans of crime and mystery novels, I often recommend the hard-boiled fiction of Block. Published in 2010, “Sacred Ginmill” features one of Block’s best characters, former police detective Matt Scudder, who is now an alcoholic private eye. He solves two cases that intersect over a period of 15 years, from the early ’70s to the late ’80s. Gritty, human and involving — I periodically reread this one to remind me of how good mystery fiction can be.
“A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” by Isabella L. Bird. In this classic of travel literature, the courageous and eccentric Bird journeyed from her home in Victorian England to Japan and other parts of Asia, before returning via Hawaii and the mainland United States. This book concerns her alternately funny and frightening adventures in the Colorado Rockies in the 1870s, where she encountered some rough-and-tumble characters. The book is readily available in paperback and online.
Books on B, Hayward
This intimate book store is truly a hometown favorite. In 2017, the community faced losing The Book Shop, its venerable downtown used bookstore, but it rallied behind the efforts of longtime store manager Renee Rettig to reopen the independent shop in another downtown location. Customers and local business owners joined in the fundraising campaign to help Rettig cover the costs of remodeling her new location, and the Hayward High marching band played at the opening ribbon-cutting ceremony that October. At Books on B, Rettig offers a carefully curated selection of new and used books.
Renee Rettig, owner of Books on B, stands inside her bookstore on B Street in Hayward. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
“Parnassus on Wheels” by Christopher Morley: In his classic 1917 novel about a traveling book seller, Morley perfectly conveys the obsessive, consuming need for books and reading. It’s still fresh and funny in the 21st century and features a love story of two very quirky book fiends.
“Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis: I love displaying this Hugo Award-winning 1992 science fiction book in the store window during the holidays. It takes place a few days before Christmas in the very near future, when klutzy but well-intentioned scientists develop a time-travel plan to rid humanity of the Black Plague and improve the future.
“The Bone People” by Keri Hulme: Back in print, the 1985 Booker Prize-winning novel is steeped in Maori culture and employs language in a beautiful way that can stay under one’s skin. The New Zealand author also explored themes of isolation, postcolonial identity and Maori, Celtic and Norse mythology but unfortunately never published another novel.
“The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell: What if we received an invitation from intelligent life on the other side of our solar system? Whom do we send to represent us? In this 1996 classic, the crew of an interstellar voyage engages in provocative and philosophical conversations as they prepare to visit a distant new world. This is science fiction for people who normally say they don’t read science fiction.
“The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent and Think,” by Jennifer Ackerman: This lavishly illustrated new book on avian behavior and society builds on Ackerman’s successful 2016 New York Times best-selling work, “The Genius of Birds.” “The Bird Way” will enhance anyone’s time outdoors this year.
“Skunk and Badger” by Amy Timberlake, illustrated by Jon Klassen: This new book for grade-schoolers is destined to be a children’s classic. Its prickly odd-couple story will leave even grownups in stitches.