August 2003

Roohi Choudhry

independent bookstore profile

Green Apple Books of San Francisco

In San Francisco, you'd have to be suicidal to subjectively label any one establishment the Best Independent Bookstore. To put it mildly, this is a city that likes books. This is also a city that will rally around any little guy standing up against The Man. I like to imagine that San Franciscan indie bookstores make those Big B's (you know who they are) piss their pants, because there's nothing we hate more than a capitalist behemoth sprawling over our parking spots and plying us with bad lattés.

So you'll find an indie bookshop or two on every corner here. In such a saturated market, how can any one of them stand out, you might ask. With endless variety, a kick-ass music section and miles and miles of bargain bins. Yes, that's right, I'm talking about Green Apple Books.

Green Apple Books opened at the tail end of the beat generation of bookstores here--making a modest dent on the scene in 1967 with a small space on a single floor. Since then it has exchanged owners, reproduced, and exploded amoeba-like into its environs. Primarily a used bookstore, it now occupies all three floors of its building as well as an annex two doors down. Kevin Hunsanger, who started shelving at the store 13 years ago and is now an owner, credits this growth as one of Green Apple's assets:

Green Apple Recommends

Kevin Hunsanger's all-time favorite:

You Can't Win by Jack Black. "This is a memoir written by a vagabonding rogue at the turn of the century. Right when the West was really expanding and industrialization was tying the coasts together. He was the last of the bad men who would rob banks and use the railroads to get out of town. The book is a great canopy of the United States in that time. It's also a great book of San Francisco history. Jack Black, after his roaming days, settled down and was the head librarian for the San Francisco library system, and was a regular journalist for The San Francisco Call that Ambrose Pierce and Mark Twain also worked with. It's a San Francisco cult classic and we still sell 10 to 15 copies a week consistently."

Other staff recommendations:

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
"Cheated!! I feel robbed, let down, downright cheated that I've lived 26 years before reading A Fan's Notes."

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
"A beautiful, sparely-written tale of a young Brahmin's meeting with and later following of the Buddha. Perhaps the most spiritually compelling novel of the 20th century. Highly recommended for anyone."

Civil Disobedience by H.D. Thoreau
"Now that the war on terrorism has become a war on dissent, this classic essay on the principle 'No' is more resonant than ever."

Cruddy by Lynda Barry
"If I were pitching this book to a movie producer, I would call it a cross between Natural Born Killers and Paper Moon. It is the story of a father and daughter's cross-country road trip/bloodbath. And it's hilarious."

"You could not go out and open a store like Green Apple today--it has organically grown through the years. Like water seeking its own level, the books have just continued to fill this place and the physical landscape of the store has changed to accommodate their growth. So there are lots of little nooks and crannies--it has its own unique charm."

Green Apple's first coup is location, location, location. The main store and its annex, both facing the famous Clement Street in the Richmond, pull booksluts from all over the city and beyond. This neighborhood has not fallen prey to the hipster/yuppie infestation that has diseased much of San Francisco. The Richmond is highly gentrified, yes, but it still retains that hard-working, bargain-hunting immigrant atmosphere that is so in keeping with Green Apple's own unpretentious vibe.

Green Apple is not another bookstore filled with cashiers who frown at your Tom Clancy obsession or your late-night craving for Romance novels. It's a comfortable place where it's OK to be you, even if you're a moron. That's precisely what sets it apart from so many other bookshops here: it remains completely unaffected in a very self-conscious city. The décor adds to that feel with creaky wooden floors and doors, copious forest-green paint, hand-written recommendations and a certain organized anarchy on the shelves. Plus, this customer-based free-for-all attitude starts right at the top.

Hunsanger added, "I love the fact that everybody who comes to Green Apple wants to be here. It makes for a great work environment. Rarely do we get the customer who runs in here and says 'Oh I'm double-parked and I absolutely need to have this book.' These are people who are very content to come in and spend an hour or two hours just browsing. And if they find something, that's great; if they don't, they've had a wonderful time."

Once you've managed to resist the many lures of Clement Street and made it to Green Apple's doorstep, prepare to shiver outside in the fog for a while. This bookstore has perhaps one of the largest collections of at-the-door bargain bins I have ever seen. These bins, more like massive bunkers, stretch for nearly half a block. And for a confessed cheapskate, that is an orgy beyond my wildest dreams. It gets better: the bargain bins don't gyp you with has-been remainders and torn-cover paperbacks. Real discoveries await you here. On a recent perusal, I found Fasting, Feasting, the 1999 Booker finalist by Anita Desai, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and Winnie Mandela's Part of My Soul Went With Him, all for about one or two bucks each.

Inside the main store (devoted to non-fiction and sale books) my first impression is that the walls have somehow expanded to magical proportions--the capacity is startling. Books are crammed into every possible corner. As you make your way forward (dodging dazed hangers on), you pass through a selective section of new books. Handmade signs blare staff recommendations, pitch you canvas tote bags, or announce new titles.

If you climb the steps to the Mezzanine floor, prepare for a time warp to suck away the next hour or two. This is the clearance and sale section--hundreds, maybe millions, of titles are 50% or 75% off the lowest marked price. This area, with no pretense at organization, is less crowded and is populated by myopic bibliophiles scuttling about dusty shelves, oblivious to the outside world and clearly grateful for the lack of sunlight. This is my favorite section by far. Green Apple satisfies my deal-breaker bookstore criterion that too many others in San Francisco do not: used books are supposed to be affordable. Without overstatement, this place really does have something for every budget.

Make your way upstairs to the top floor, where perhaps the most comprehensive selection of non-fiction used books in San Francisco is housed, and keep an eye out for those hidden rooms and nooks. The Granny Smith Room opens out into a capacious history section. Sorry to disappoint; the Red Delicious Room is not a silk-curtained harem, but does contain more non-fiction, including Legal Studies--"great books to sue your neighbors (and other people you don't like)."

Then, just when you think you've covered it all, never fear, you've still got the annex to explore. This smaller space is split between a long corridor of music, broken by listening stations, a small movies section and then a huge back room devoted to used fiction by genre. Up front you'll find new fiction as well as an awesome selection of obscure magazines: from Zink to The Baffler to the International Socialist Review.

Green Apple has the kind of volume a Big B would claim to stock. With sections devoted to all genres and fetishes, you're sure to find something you've been hunting for. And that's the very reason why browsing here is a sober reminder of the importance of indie bookstores.

According to Hunsanger, "The selection is hand-picked by the people who work in the bookstores. It's a stock that's driven by community standards and needs. All of our stock is a response to our customers--what they like, what they want to see more of. That's much, much different from a standardized ordering system that's maybe done by one person on the East Coast."

I'm hoping my brazen recommendation of Green Apple Books as the best in San Francisco does not mean I'm summoning an early demise. While backs would arch and fangs bare at the naming of any other establishment to this title, Green Apple is the real thing, the ultimate people's bookstore, and no one could resist its warm, fuzzy charm. I think I'm safe.