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.

Favorites from XKCD

The internet is super big—cat videos (awesome), fantasy football (a time-suck), gardening (my wife’s favorite)—you name it, you can find it. For me, there’s xkcd, which is sort of a big mixing pot of Lord of the Rings, science, and adults who want to turn their apartments into giant ball pits (minus the stale urine smell).

Randall Munroe worked for NASA before starting xkcd. Legend has it that he was going through his old math and sketching notebooks one day when he rediscovered some of his old comics. He put them online and grew it into a full-time job (if we could all be so lucky). Wanting to go more in-depth, he started the “What If?” column on xkcd, where he took more space to answer reader questions on everything from how much force could Yoda output (19.2kW) to what would happen if you had a mole of moles (things get bleak). Last year, Munroe collected the best of this column, plus some new content, in What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

What If is a fantastic book, but I have to admit that I’m drawn (pun intended) to the short and sweet xkcd comics. Here are some of my favorites.


Compiling

 

compiling

xkcd.com/303


Tech Support Cheat Sheet

 

tech_support_cheat_sheet

xkcd.com/627


Grownups

 

grownups

xkcd.com/150


Correlation

 

correlation

xkcd.com/552


Conditional Risk

 

conditional_risk

xkcd.com/795


Forgot Algebra

 

forgot_algebra

xkcd.com/1050


Duty Calls

 

duty_calls

xkcd.com/386


Wikipedian Protester

 

wikipedian_protester

xkcd.com/285


Ballmer Peak

 

ballmer_peak

xkcd.com/323


Love these comics? Be sure to check out the equally hilarious and informative What If?

10 Strange Things I Learned from What If?

Randall Munroe describes himself as “a guy who draws pictures on the Internet. I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind.” If you actually took some of his advice, well, it would be entertaining for the rest of us, but might work out poorly for you. That being said, here are some of the strange facts I learned from What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

1. One Foot Per Second

One fan wrote in to xkcd to ask, “If you suddenly began rising steadily at one foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first?” As usual, Munroe doesn’t just answer the question. He also notes that your (dead, frozen) body would take 200 million years to reach interstellar space. It’s really not all that fast when you think about it.

2. Apricity

Apricity means the “warmth of sunlight in winter.” Isn’t it a lovely word? I’m still waiting to casually drop it into conversation.

3. Dying in Rhode Island

Not much would happen if the whole planet’s population gathered in Rhode Island and jumped at the same time. Getting out of Rhode Island, however, would be a nightmare, and most people would die trying to leave.

4. Water on Mars

Whether there is or was water on Mars suddenly became even more interesting when I heard that a cup of warm water on Mars will “try to boil, freeze, and sublimate, practically all at once. Water on Mars seems to want to be any state except liquid.”

Quote-What-If-1

5. Genetic Abnormalities

Spinal Muscular Dystrophy is the most common genetic abnormality found in inbreeding (in humans). The chance of finding it in a non-inbred human is about one in 10,000. If scientists were able to take a woman’s ova and make them sperm cells so that she might impregnate herself, the likelihood of Spinal Muscular Dystrophy jumps to one in 400. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

6. Neutrinos

Munroe writes of neutrinos, “Neutrinos are ghostly particles that barely interact with the world at all. Look at your hand—there are about a trillion neutrinos from the Sun passing through it every second.” That being said, you don’t want to get too close to a supernova.

7. Orbital Speed

If you are on the International Space Station, listening to the entirety of the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers, you would travel about 1,000 miles by the time the song ends. And now we all have that song stuck in our heads.

8. The British Empire

Technically, the sun has never set on the British Empire, thanks to the Pitcairn Islands, a very tiny settlement in the Pacific still under British governance.

9. Submarines in Space

If you were to find yourself on a nuclear submarine in orbit, try reversing its missiles. You might make it back. Or, pieces of you might.

10. Base-Jumping

If your phone started ringing as you jumped off of Mt. Thor in Canada, you could miss the whole call, with three seconds to spare. It is a 26-second fall. This thought is terrifying to me, and I now have to go sit quietly but firmly on the ground for a while.


Have a fun fact from What If? or xkcd? Let us know in the comments.

Book of the Month: What If?

Last month, we selected Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck as our first ever Book of the Month. We discounted the book all month long, and brought you additional coverage of Mindset through interviews, guest posts, audioclips, and more.

This month, I’m thrilled to say that we’ve chosen another fantastic book: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. The subtitle really says it all. Randall, the creator of the hilarious comic website xkcd, tackles ridiculous hypothetical scenarios with all of the rigor of more so-called serious questions.

For example, one questions asks what would happen if you jumped into a pool of spent nuclear waste. As it turns out, this depends on where exactly you are swimming. In some parts of the pool, you’d hardly receive any radiation at all and would be just fine. But if you were to swim down to the bottom and back, you’d probably die as a result.

Another question looks at the statistical probability of finding your soulmate. It’s a pretty low chance. If the government created a sort of ChatRoulette for potential soulmates, and you spent eight hours on it each day, everyone would get matched up in a few decades.

Other questions involve a mole of moles, how fast a dropped steak would have to fall in order to cook it, an earth with no sun, and much more.

These are the sort of questions that your physics teacher would have sent you out of class for asking. But when it comes to Munroe, the crazier the question, the better. He puts in a great deal of time and effort researching his answers, asking experts, finding the answers to equations, and writing pages-long explanations. Each answer is based firmly in math and science.

None other than Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stand by Me) provides the narration for the What If audiobook. He brims with enthusiasm for the subject matter as he reads.

Check out the TED Talk Munroe did, in which he delves into baseball speeds and the plethora of Google’s data.


Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to hear all of our What If coverage this month!