Interview with a Bookstore: Green Apple Books
In which you might find a 'Circus, Magic, and Hobos' section
Green Apple Books opened in 1967. From what the current co-owners know, Richard Savoy opened the 750-square-foot shop because he loved books and was sick of his job as a radio technician for United Airlines. For 47 years, Savoy stocked used books, comics, and National Geographic magazines, becoming a staple neighborhood gem in the San Francisco Bay area. Now ten times its original size, with new and used books, LPs, and 750-plus magazines and journals in stock, the store has gone through another big, behind-the-scenes change. After years of hunting for a successor, Mr. Savoy assembled a team of three long-time employees to buy the business. Their gradual buy-out, which started in 1999, enabled Mr. Savoy to monitor the store’s success and allowed the new owners plenty of time to learn from their mentor. The “new” owners are Kevin Hunsanger, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill. We spoke with co-owner Pete Mulvihill about what makes Green Apple Books the kind of store where you not only want to work, but that you want to buy.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
My favorite section, conceptually, is the “Circus, Magic, and Hobos” section. But I spend the most time and money on the cookbooks.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
On Clement, a space for events. That store is so crammed with books that there’s no space for more than, say, 25 folks to gather at once. The events at the new store, which does have such space, have been so vibrant that I realize how much Clement misses out on literary happenings within our walls.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
That’s hard to say, as there’s not a single store we can’t learn something from, but I think the used book selection differentiates us from other stores—we see thousands of used books every day from 50-75 folks, and we buy as widely as we can within reason. That’s reflected in the reliable and sometimes unusual used book selection on our sagging shelves.
Who’s your weirdest regular?
Oh, there are too many! Can boy was an old favorite. Nice Mary was the best—she befriended every Green Appler who worked there over the last 48 years, as she lived alone catty-corner from the store. Free box regular Abby cracks me up with her scooter (she’s in her late 60s but rides around the ‘hood on a Razor scooter). And you best avoid conversation with Ricardo: Who knows what’s going on behind those dark glasses?
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
The 1989 earthquake was a doozy—shelves and books everywhere. The unionization and picketing in the early 1990s was a dramatic time, too. Painful, really. We’ve had a death in the store and one out front. All of humanity has happened here, from marriage proposals to incontinent homeless folks having “accidents.” We’re open 87.5 hours a week, 363 days a year, for 48 years (218,000+ hours!), so the store has seen it all.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Perhaps strangely for a bookstore owner, I was a library kid—my parents are flinty, and the library where I grew up was pretty vibrant. I’m not sure I knew there were places you could buy books until I was in college. I do remember sneaking into the human sexuality section of the library as 4th grader in search of some insight.
If you weren’t running a bookstore, what would you be doing?
I’m blessed not to know. I went to grad school for writing and taught expository writing at the University of San Francisco part-time for a few years while working at Green Apple, so that’s possible. Given the economy here, I might have been, like many of my peers, another English major riding dot com bubbles up and down. Again, I’m happy that I have not yet had to figure that out.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
I guess how “businessy” it is, by necessity. We’re all here for the love of books, but days are often spent analyzing sales per linear foot, negotiating credit card processing fees, updating insurance policies, marketing our “products,” managing cash flow, dealing with human resources, etc. I mean, most folks get to shelve books and ring up customers and order fun stuff, but my role is pretty behind-the-scenes. So I guess it’s that there’s more to running a (successful) bookstore than buying and selling books.
SLIDESHOW: Green Apple Books Recommendations