The Bookseller Chronicles: Green Apple Books

At Libro, we are proud members of the American Booksellers’ Association, and fierce advocates of independent bookstores. We turn to indie booksellers all the time for advice on everything from marketing to what to read. So when I was in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I popped in at Green Apple Books, to chat with co-owner Kevin Hunsanger.

It turned out that Kevin was just as interested in how things were going at Libro as I was about Green Apple. So, starting out, he flipped the script on me, asking me a couple of questions. We chatted back and forth about bookselling, National Bookstore Day, and what Green Apple does with the profits from certain political books.

[Kevin Hunsanger]: Audio is a rapidly changing area in the marketplace. How are things going at Libro?

[Judy Oldfield]: It’s going well. We’re doing some really cool stuff. We have a book of the month where we choose one book to really focus on. Since we’re in Seattle, June’s was Where’d You Go Bernadette. Our first month we did Mindset by Carol Dweck, which is a psychology book. And then we chose What If. We are just going all over the place and seeing what sticks.

[KH]: Now is this chosen by personal interest?

[JO]: Yeah. Mark Pearson (our co-founder) chose Mindset because he runs Pear Press, which publishes Brain Rules and Zero to Five (a parenting book). Tracy Cutchlow, who wrote Zero to Five, wrote a HuffPost article about Mindset and it went viral. So that’s what gave Mark the idea to check Mindset out. And it’s a really cool book for the team to have read as this fledgling company. It’s all about how hard work and things will pay off eventually.

[KH]: We deal with a lot of that in the used book market, or bookstores in general. You know it’s a labor of love. I think most booksellers could work anywhere else, but we just choose not to. It’s so rewarding in so many different ways but then if you get a little financial reward too or at least a little successful you can live on what you love and that’s great—a real blessing.

[JO]: And you get to share your passion with people every day. Tell me about your history with the store.

[KH]: The store itself was started in 1967. It was owned and operated by one man named Rich Savoy for about 30 years. He was my mentor in the used- and rare book-world. And then Kevin Ryan and Pete Mulvihill came and we also worked together. We had about 40 years combined experience here when Rich approached us and said, “I’d like to sell the store and I think the three of you would make the right team.”

[JO]: When was that?

[KH]: Oh about 15-16 years ago. Right about 2000 I guess, maybe a little earlier. It was a gradual buyout over ten years because we split equity and dispersed profits.

[JO]: That must have been really scary towards the end of those ten years with the economy looking grim.

[KH]: We couldn’t have done it at a worse time. It was the best time for Rich. Independent bookselling in ’99 was probably at a high water mark. Now it’s higher because it’s come back around. But in 1999 there was no real threat from Amazon; the Internet was just something you did with email. But as soon as we signed on the dotted line . . . we were just getting punched all over the place.

[JO]: But like you said it is coming back now. Why do you think that is?

[KH]: I’d like to think that people are finally realizing that if you don’t support and shop in your neighborhood, these places are going to go away and we’re not going to have neighborhoods left. We are very fortunate that San Francisco is very neighborhood-centric so areas in San Francisco have an independent feel, have a neighborhood feel, and people really live and work and shop and play and eat and love in their neighborhood.

You hear the horror stories. My mom lives on the big island of Hawaii and Borders came in there, knocked off all the little bookstores, and then they themselves went out of business. Now there’s not a bookstore on the island. The only thing they can do is shop at some online retailers and unfortunately most people assume that the only one is Amazon. You’re losing these things that build community, losing communities, and creating what is essentially a monopoly.

[JO]: What is something that Green Apple has done that you are especially proud of?

[KH]: Our ties to the community. The high volume of used booksellers that come through here is a really unique aspect of the store. I’d say that 65% of our stock is used books. So it’s a place that’s actually being built by our customers every day. It keeps people coming back on a regular basis. Our shelves just change so fast. So I think our greatest accomplishment is keeping up with the flow of books coming in and adjusting to customer and community needs.

Also, we’re very involved in local politics. There’s a ballot on the measure now for legacy designation for buildings. The city is going to try to establish, say, a number of 30-year-old, or 50-year-old locations in neighborhoods and work with the landlords of these areas. We don’t own either of the buildings that we’re in. If things change with the landlords that might just erase any of the margin that we need to survive. Pete is very active in small business associations and regularly meets with the mayor to discuss these kinds of issues.

And we won Bookstore of the Year last year which is just an extraordinary accomplishment.

[JO]: And you started Independent Bookstore Day.

[KH]: Pete also got that notion after seeing the success of Record Store Day and wanted one for us too. He really championed it the first year as California Bookstore Day only, and now it has crossed over into the national market. It was a great success for everyone and we really look forward to continuing it. There again are stronger ties to the community.

[JO]: You talked about how booksellers are definitely in it because they’re passionate about books, so what keeps you going? What keeps you in the store day to day?

[KH]: The fact that honestly from day to day I have no idea what’s going to cross my path. In a buy yesterday I got a Nightmare Before Christmas board game. It was in no great shape and while I like playing board games periodically, I’d never seen it before. And all of the sudden there it is. Or I could get a signed first edition of some historical context. Again just having no idea who I’m going to talk to, what books I’m going to see, what fun stuff happens here. It changes all the time. I’ve been here 24 years in September and seriously every day is different. That’s what I love—the variety.

[JO]: Do you ever get into situations where somebody’s buying books and you’re saying to yourself, “Please don’t ask me my opinion on this book”? Or you’re selling a book that you don’t personally care for?

[KH]: We’re booksellers, not censors. We sell books of all types to all people as long as our customer base buys them. We’ve not profited on things we personally object to. The most recent example was Sarah Palin’s book Going Rogue. We donated any proceeds from that to the Alaskan Wildlife Foundation. For Michael Savage (the ultra-right wing radio guy) we did the same thing. We donated the proceeds to Freedom of Expression. So we’ll sell the books because we want our customers to buy the books from us, but we won’t profit from them. It’s an interesting way of doing that.

And I’m happy to give my personal opinion about books; if I don’t like something and someone asks my opinion, you know, it’s my opinion. That’s not to say that you’re not going to like it, but I’ll happily tell someone how I feel about something. I don’t just blow smoke to make a sale. That’s not sustainable and that customer won’t come back again. You have to have that level of trust with your bookseller and I think customers expect honesty. So I do sell books that I don’t like or I don’t agree with. That’s ok.


What’s your go-to brick-and-mortar independent bookstore? Let us know in the comments.

Indie Picks: April 2015

At Libro.fm, we are big fans of independent bookstores. When browsing their shelves, I always stop and take a look at the staff recommendations, most often hand written, on a shelf-talker. There’s something enchanting about a slip of paper (the shelf-talker) coming from a knowledgeable and passionate bookseller that no algorithm will ever replace. These booksellers are the best book curators out there so each month we’re going to highlight what they are reading (and listening to). Here’s what Robert, Alex, Lizzie, Emily, Pete, Kevin and Elaine are recommending right now:


third-place-books

Third Place Books

Seattle, Washington

The-DinnerThe Dinner

By Herman Koch

“This is the kind of book you are ashamed of for liking so much. You should be outraged, disgusted, and horrified by this family and their awful behavior. And you are at times. But you also end up reading along with a devilish smile as you cheer on the narrator in a story that surprises over and over again.”

Robert
Third Place Books


The-Girl-With-All-The-GiftsThe Girl With All the Gifts

By M. R. Carey

“It’s April but your favorite holiday is Halloween and you’ve a pressing need to be scared: look no further than The Girl With All The Gifts. The adults have plans for the children, but Melanie has plans of her own. Transitioning from writing graphic novels (Hellblazer, Lucifer) Carey’s debut novel is a refreshing thriller you simply need to read.”

Alex
Third Place Books


A-Tree-Grows-In-BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn

By Betty Smith

“A bittersweet tale of an impoverished girl, Francie, coming of age in an unforgiving world set at the turn of the 19th century, this novel explores the harsh realities of women in society, work, and family as seen through Francie’s eyes. Simultaneously heart wrenching, hopeful, and beautiful.”

Lizzie
Third Place Books


DelancyDelancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage

By Molly Wizenberg

“The author’s passion for food shines through in her personal and fun style, and all of the recipes sound delicious. I love the introductions to the recipes, which lean heavily on what’s on hand or in season. This isn’t just a book about food, though; her marriage and internal life carry equal weight with the development of the titular Seattle pizzeria.”

Emily
Third Place Books


green-apple-books

Green Apple Books

San Francisco, California

NudgeNudge

By Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein

“Nudge is a terrific book for anyone interested in how we make choices, public policy, politics and behavioral science. The way that governments and companies frame choices affects our behavior and well-being, often on a subtle level. A ‘nudge’: if Americans defaulted to donating organs upon death (with an option to opt out, of course) thousands of lives would be saved annually.”

Pete
Green Apple Books


I-ShudderI Shudder: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey

By Paul Rudnick

“This warm and witty memoir/fiction hits my comic sweet spot. I laughed out loud—OUT LOUD!—at least every three pages. Screenwriter, playwrite, and former film critic Rudnick, charmingly recalls detailed anecdotes from his childhood in Piscataway, off-Broadway productions, and showbiz personalities. One warning—some of these pieces appeared in  The New Yorker first.”

Kevin
Green Apple Books


book-passages

Book Passage

San Francisco, California

The-Secret-Wisdom-Of-The-EarthThe Secret Wisdom of the Earth

By Christopher Scotton

“Medger, Kentucky is a town that has been supported and then ruined by coal. Kevin and his mother are devastated. Kevin’s baby brother has died and his father blames Kevin. Fortunately, Kevin’s grandfather takes Kevin under his wing and shows him that he can be strong. Scotton brings us wonderful, complex characters including a brave hair dresser who stands up against the coal company’s removal of the mountaintops. You’ll be thinking about this book for a long time.”

Elaine
Book Passage


A-Fine-Summers-DayA Fine Summer’s Day

By Charles Todd

“It’s 1914, but Inspector Rutledge isn’t thinking about the war that is about to begin. He’s just become engaged and now he’s investigating the murder of a Dorset furniture maker with no known enemies who has been found hanging from a staircase. Soon there are more deaths. As this thriller unfolds, Rutledge has to choose between his duties to Scotland Yard and his patriotism. Charles Todd is a mother and son team who write with such clarity that it’s impossible to know who wrote which parts of their novels.”

Elaine
Book Passage


The-WhitesThe Whites

By S. M. Hulse

“Billy Graves’ problems as a detective with the NYPD got him assigned to the Night Watch. Invariably, each time his crew discovers something important, it gets referred to the day shift. Many cops speak of killers they know are guilty—yet can’t catch—as ‘whites’ after the elusive white whale in Moby Dick. When several ‘whites’ turn up dead, Billy suspects his former colleagues. Price/Brandt never hits a false note, as he balances Billy’s cop world with that of his family and old friends. I don’t know why Price has a different name here, but under either name, this guy writes a whale of a story.”

Elaine
Book Passage


What are you reading and listening to right now? Let us know in the comment section. To get more recommendations and audiobook news delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Libro.fm newsletter.