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.