Tucson is a place for book lovers. Beyond the extensive library system, it’s not uncommon to see a little bookshelf hidden in the corner of a bar, or even on the side of the road.
Acclaimed authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Elif Shafak and Richard Siken have all been inspired by this dusty desert city, and it makes you wonder: are writers drawn to Tucson, or do Tucsonans become writers because of something in the water, or the desert air?
Whichever it is, you’ll find literary pockets wherever you look in Tucson.
“Life is good, and the sunlight warming my lap and the pages of a book remind me of Tucson.” – David Dominguez, University of Arizona MFA alumnus and editor of The Packinghouse Review
Tucson Festival of Books
Established in 2009, this enormous event brings over 100,000 people to the city to hear talks from both best-selling and emerging authors, discover new books and connect with fellow lit-lovers.
In 2020, the Tucson Festival of Books was cancelled just days before it was supposed to start, and in 2021, it went virtual. By 2022, this March bonanza should be back on the University of Arizona campus, so readers can wander from tent to tent in the lovely spring weather.
Entrance to the festival is free, but organizers have still raised over $1.6 million dollars to support literacy in the community through programs like Reading Seed and Literacy Connects. The annual Festival Founders Award recognizes exceptional literary achievement, and past recipients include the likes of T.C. Boyle, J.A. Jance and even the Goosebumps series mastermind R.L. Stine.
The Poetry Center
“The Poetry Center is the best living room in America for reading poetry” – Steve Orlen, poet, Guggenheim Fellow, co-founder of the University of Arizona’s creative writing program
In addition to being the site where the Tucson Festival of Books is held, the University of Arizona is also home to the Poetry Center. There are many ways to experience poetry, but reading it inside the bright, spacious Helen S. Schaefer Building is one of the best.
Upon entering, you move first through the airy meeting areas, and past shelves holding tens of thousands of items (books, journals, recordings, and broadsides, just to name a few). From there, it’s a straight shot into one of the cozy chairs near the slanted, floor-to-ceiling windows where you can settle in with the volumes you picked up along the way.
Bring your kids to check out the children’s corner, or ask a librarian to show you through the L.R. Benes Rare Book Room. The Poetry Center also holds a host of reading and lecture series events featuring writers from all over, so check their online calendar to see what’s going on while you’re in town.
“Their stories give shape to the mountains encircling this place.” – Ofelia Zepeda, Tucson poet, MacArthur Fellow and University of Arizona Regents Professor
The biosphere is the part of the Earth’s atmosphere where all of the living things exist. Biosphere 2 is a futuristic, 7.2-million cubic foot glass dome that contains microcosms of several Earth climates, including the desert, the savannah, and the rainforest.
These days, scientists use it to study phenomena like climate change. (What happens if we turn the heat up in the rainforest section?) Back in the ’90s, though, there were two highly public experiments that involved sealing Biospherians inside the dome to see if they could sustain themselves. T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts is a fictionalized account of the experiment that somehow makes the story even juicier.
Valley of the Moon
For the young, or young-at-heart, book lovers, there are few better places to visit than Valley of the Moon, an ‘enchanted storybook land.’ A strange, sweet man named George Phar Legler designed and built this children’s fantasy park over an eleven-year span in the 1920s and 1930s, with the goals of promoting kindness and sparking imagination. As a spiritualist, Legler believed in fairies. And after seeing a show in the park’s amphitheater or taking a tour through Pennyland and past the Wizard’s Tower, you might too.
“Have you been in a bookstore lately?” – T.C. Boyle, American novelist and short story writer, winner of the PEN/Faulkner award
The abundance of thrift stores and the culture of reusing and upcycling in Tucson is one of the most charming parts about the city. Fittingly, there is also a stellar selection of used bookstores.
Bookmans Entertainment Exchange
Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a lot like Tucson itself: there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Sure, it’s a used bookstore, but they also sell music and instruments, kitchen items and jewelry, board games and magazines. While you’re browsing through the mystery novels or cookbooks, you’ll find them joined by objects like teapots, baskets and decorative figurines, all of which are for sale as well.
The Book Stop
In this well-hidden gem, there are books on shelves and in stacks, and if they’re fancy enough, in cabinets to keep the dust off. There are handwritten signs indicating whether you’re in the literature, cookbook, foreign languages or art section. And there is a certain thrill that comes with the opportunity to peruse the drawers full of sheet music, art prints and vintage maps—like you’re clandestinely looking through someone else’s belongings. That’s the magic of The Book Stop.
Every city should have a bright purple, solar-powered feminist bookstore. Since that isn’t the case, Antigone is one more place that makes Tucson special. The two women who opened the store in 1973 named it after the character from Greek mythology who defied male authority. When they decided to sell the store in 2018, it was to three young women employees who love the store as much as they do.
For all you bookworms out there, Tucson is a literary haven that awaits your arrival. Literature tourist-ing is a game changer, and Tucson is a must-visit if you’re looking for a literary geek fest. From poetry and bookstores to full-blown festivals dedicated to all things books, you’re seriously missing out if you haven’t visited the literary gem that is Tucson.
Even though books do make up the center of our existences as literature geeks, exploring the rest of Tucson might also be a good idea while visiting (I guess). Check out our Food and Drink Guide to Tucson and A Creative’s Guide to Tucson, and you’re all set!