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SF Report: William Stout Architectural Books

Stephen Schmidt | April 2, 2011 | Architecture, Books, Design, Graphic design, Publishing

Stout Books Montgomery St. location

The future of publishing is something that’s much discussed lately, with eBook devices becoming the content delivery mechanism of choice for many readers. Amazon now sells more best-sellers in eBooks format for its Kindle device than printed best-sellers. It’s assumed that digital publishing will dominate the market in a short period of time. This is precisely what makes the experience of visiting an independent bookstore all the more special these days. Independent bookstores are becoming exotic things, and just like in the animal world, exotic can mean endangered. Bookstores that survive must have a real connection to their community, and a unique product offering.

Using this criteria, William Stout Architectural Books excels. A San Francisco institution for over thirty years, Stout Books specializes in books on architecture, urban planning, art, graphic design, industrial design, furniture and interior design, and landscape architecture. Many of their titles are rare, and they also feature an impressive amount of out of print titles. Their selection is thoughtful, dynamic, and current. For a store that’s not all that big, they seem to have the fields of architecture and design covered. Books are stacked nearly to the ceiling, but the store is well organized. There’s no filler—it’s all good stuff. Stout Books must surely be one of the best bookstores of its kind in the country. In northern California, when it comes to books on architecture and design, it doesn’t get any better than Stout. You’d have to travel to Hennessy + Ingalls Books in Santa Monica for a selection of this magnitude.

Some of the selection at the Stout Montgomery St. and Solano Ave. locations

Stout Books has three locations—a main store on Montgomery St., a Mission St. Stout Annex, where book signings are hosted, and a Solano Ave. Berkeley store that features many out of print titles.

Visiting the main store at 804 Montgomery is a special experience. The store is located in the historic Jackson Square district of downtown San Francisco, where some of the buildings date back to the 19th Century Gold Rush era. This district is also known as the Design District due to its high concentration of design shops, as well as design and architecture firms. The building where Stout Books is located, with its Palladian façade, has a wonderful old city charm that would fit right in on the streets of London. Just stepping through the front doors, with their oversized brass knobs, and stately creaking sound, lets one know that they are entering a store with some history. Inside, the bookstore is dividing between the main floor, focusing on architectural titles, and a basement floor that carries the design books. As a graphic design student, I would head straight downstairs to look through the latest design annuals and periodicals. These days, I spend more time upstairs, as my interest in architecture has grown.

Books on the subjects of architecture and design tend to be well designed, and are design objects themselves. Having so many of them to interact with in a location with so much character is overwhelming, in a good way. It’s what makes the physical experience of visiting Stout Books so unique. For those that purchase a book, the experience extends with you all the way home—if you request a bag Stout Books’ staff will carefully package your book(s) in an elegant black paper sleeve, sealed with the Stout Books emblem, like a gift. They have done this ever since I can remember. It’s a nice touch, and leaves you feeling that your patronage is appreciated.

As a Bay Area based book designer, Stout Books is Mecca. It’s inspiring visiting the store, and it has always been a proud moment for me to spot an architectural or design book that I worked on, sitting on the shelves. On my most recent visit I was happy to see a copy of Florida Modern in the regional architecture section.

Looking toward the future of books, digital publishing holds great promise for dynamic content delivery, and publishing sustainability. In my work it’s an area of increasing focus. As a reader I enjoy viewing well designed digital book apps on my iPad, with the multimedia experience they offer. Yet at the same time I appreciate, more than ever, the physicality of printed books. One interacts differently with a printed book than they do a digital reader, particularly a large format illustrated book. Such books have texture, smell, heft, and a generous sized display of images to enjoy. The physical format of each printed book presents a different tactile experience.

Solano Ave., Berkeley storefront

A bookstore like Stout Books offers readers something they cannot get online, or onscreen. There is a great reward in coming across a unique, well designed printed book, on a subject matter of great interest to you, flipping through it, engaging your senses, and then purchasing it, right then and there, to take home and enjoy.

I encourage everyone to visit William Stout Architectural Books, particularly enthusiasts of contemporary architecture and design. If you know Stout Books and haven’t been there in a while, take a peek at the current selection, including online at If you’ve never been to Stout, stop by—you’re in for a real treat.

One Response to SF Report: William Stout Architectural Books

  1. Nate Mahoney says:

    I like your analogy of bookstores to endangered animals. However, I hope it’s not true, as I too find inspiration in well designed stores, books and periodicals. I think, the Stout bookstore serves its niche market well and provides an excellent customer experience.

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