Travellers along the historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles have no problem finding their fix of fake Native American jewellery and vintage Elvis posters.

But along this path, motorists will also discover something once declared dead: the used bookstore.

There's the Chicago bookstore with a cat and a mechanical lift and the Albuquerque shop, where lawyers and the homeless search together for Jack Kerouac's novels.

There's also the renowned Californian store that once delivered books to Japanese-Americans interned at nearby camps.


All are located on Route 66, or a block away, attracting regulars from around the corner and visitors from around the world, seeking Greek classics or a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories.

Owners say their stores are still thriving in the era of e-readers, tablets and online libraries.

Some, like Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California, have been around for more than 100 years.

Others, such as 5th Street Books in Kingman, Arizona, just opened recently.

"For whatever reason, there are still some people who want an old-fashioned book in their hands," says Laura Eisner, owner of The Book Case in Albuquerque, a shop that opened when John F. Kennedy was running for president.

"And they get that urge when they are just passing through."

Route 66, also called the Mother Road, began in 1926 after the Bureau of Public Roads launched the nation's first federal highway system, bringing together existing local and state roads from Chicago through St Louis to Los Angeles.

Small towns opened shops, motels and petrol stations to pump revenue into local economies,, just as the nation's car culture took off.

Vroman's Bookstore is the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California. Photo / 123RF
Vroman's Bookstore is the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California. Photo / 123RF

Its importance even sparked a Route 66 song performed by Nat King Cole and later by the '80s English electronic band Depeche Mode.

Yet the route changed a number of times through the years and eventually became less of a destination thanks to new interstate highways.

In 2008, the World Monuments Fund listed Route 66 on the "Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites".

Despite its endangered status, Route 66 remains an attraction for tourists who seek out its neon-lit diners and vintage motels - such as the now-defunct Albuquerque motel where Bill Gates lived while launching Microsoft.

Along the way, they can hunt through used bookstores for dusty copies of everything from John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat to Ana Castillo's Peel My Love Like an Onion.

"I specialise in nonfiction," says 61-year-old Mert Glancy, who runs 5th Street Books.

Her store is a block away from the storied road and is located in a building that once housed a newspaper office.

"There's another bookstore a block away that concentrates on contemporary fiction," she says.

No one knows just how many used bookstores are located along Route 66. The online bookstore,, recently listed 66 used bookstores near Route 66 and still faced angry comments for leaving off others.

Some used bookstore owners don't even realise they're on the famous route. Keith Peterson, 64, owns Selected Works Used Books and Sheet Music, which is a block from the beginning of Route 66 in Chicago. He admits he didn't know Route 66 started at Chicago's Grant Park. His second-floor store is across the street.

"We get a lot of out-of-town tourists, especially during the blues festival," Peterson says.

"They usually want Hemingway or [Kurt] Vonnegut and we are always out. Those are hard to keep on the shelves."

Other owners know exactly where they are because Route 66 memorabilia surrounds them.

That's the case for Scott Free, 46, a former engineer who opened Downtown Books in Albuquerque 15 years ago.

His store is a block south of the road and near Route 66 locations for scenes from the Breaking Bad TV series.

Route 66 travellers are a big customer base, he says.

Hemingway and Vonnegut books can be hard to come by on Route 66. Photo / iStock
Hemingway and Vonnegut books can be hard to come by on Route 66. Photo / iStock

During a recent afternoon, Marco Cremasco of Sao Paulo, Brazil, stumbled upon the store during a walk along Route 66 after an Amtrak train ride.

The 28-year-old had been travelling through the United States for three months.

"I had a big Route 66 sign in my room as a kid," he says, while thumbing through books in the fiction section.

"I'm glad I found this place."

But what keeps attracting customers? It's the experience of trying to find a lost treasure or out-of-print book, says Eisner. "And I think people love the smell of old books," she says. "If I could bottle it, I'd sell it, too. On Route 66."

To book your USA road trip: See House of Travel.

Further information: See

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Los Angeles daily.

What to do: Check out Vroman's Bookstore to check upcoming events.

Take the quiz, find your roadie and be in to win $10,000 towards your ultimate USA roadie!