I just came back from almost a week in the glorious city of San Francisco, and yes I had a wonderful time, visited some of the city's wonderful bookstores and came home with a suitcase full of books.
Why is it that we book lovers buy books on vacation? It's not like I didn't bring like four or five to read for the week. And I could pick up the exact same books here at home, but somehow they are more appealing, more exotic, when I find them in a bookstore far away.
Bookstores have personalities; different stores feature different displays; books are faced-out that aren't somewhere else and individual staff-pick signs draw the eye to old things in a new way. And then sometimes the mood just strikes and you buy something. When I went to England a few years ago I tried to buy things that I didn't recognize from home, things that maybe weren't released or released as widely in the US but it's hard to tell sometimes. I bought at least one book that was released in the US under a different title with a different cover. And my favorite book from that trip was released in the US about six months after I got back.
Merchandising plays a big role. My favorite SF bookstore is City Lights, owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and located in Beatnik North Beach. The store divides its fiction geographically- there is a section each for American, European and Latin American-Asia-Pacific fiction. I almost never leave the European section honestly. They stock a large variety of small presses and a pretty comprehensive selection at that so there are always tons of books I haven't seen elsewhere. And so I end up buying a lot. In NYC the store McNally Jackson also stocks its fiction geographically and I buy a lot there, too, but they go further and break it up by country. I find that this method limits my browsing a little more and I don't typically buy as much. I also don't buy as much because McNally Jackson is near where I live and I'm not in vacation-indulgence mode when I shop there. Book-buying on vacation is like any other kind of vacation shopping- I just feel freer to indulge because travel makes it special and the books themselves become souvenirs.
But the bookstore itself has to be special, too. There are lots of so-so bookstores in SF (and elsewhere) and unless the book is really something unusual, I don't buy unless the store casts its spell on me first. I'll browse anywhere of course. What makes me love a store? I don't know. I just get a feeling from the selection, from the atmosphere. I like to see big plentiful displays, lots of piles, the sense that there is a lot in the store. I don't care if everything is new or if the store is spotless (sometimes a little run-down adds to the fun) but I like the sense that they have a variety of publishers, small presses and mainstream stuff mixed together, authors from all over the world, and that their taste is similar to mine.
There is a newsletter the book trade uses to help pick stock called the Indie Next List; everyone gets it and because I work in the industry I know basically what's on it from month to month. When I walk into a bookstore and see a big display of these books and only these books, I generally walk right out. A good bookstore the way I define it will show a little more imagination and personal touch. I like to see a point of view; I like to see local or national politics mixed in, some indication that the store knows where it is. Which is not to say I go for the "local authors" shelf because I don't. I do however make a point of buying a zine or two if a selection is offered.
So the primary challenge of vacation book-buying is limiting excess. Once when we got to the airport they wanted to charge us $100 because we were 2 pounds over the weight limit on our luggage- because of books. So we were able to put a few into our carry-on bag. If you want to avoid that scenario you can always stop by the post office before you leave and send them home or ask the bookstore to do it when you buy. Or buy one of those luggage scales, which is a good thing to have anyway. But if you visit a place known for its bookstores, it may just be a risk you have to accept.