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Green Apple Books
I am a man with many nicknames, most of them self-appointed. And while Lil’ Camus has never stuck, the few that have tend to describe me perfectly. Take for instances, 93% Cle. Bestowed upon me by a few college friends, this nickname aptly recognizes my tendency to mispronounce a word, butcher a name, or to alter the tittle of something to the point that you recognize it, albeit in an almost foreign language. This verbal talent was on full display last week when describing a favorite bookstore of mine that I hoped to visit on my upcoming trip to the Bay Area. “Man, I hope I have time to make it to Red Pepper. I always find some pretty solid vintage paperbacks there.” Of course, there is no such bookstore as Red Pepper in the Bay Area (or anywhere in the world, I imagine). There is a fantastic shop called Green Apple Books, however, which novelist Andrew Foster Altschul has been kind enough to take us to in this week’s installment of Book Clubbing. If you’re in Portland on Thursday night, make sure you stop into Powell’s to catch Andrew read from his new novel, Deux Ex Machina (He’ll be joined by Peter Nathanial Malae, author of What We Are). Also, please ask him how to pronounce his last name for me.
For lovers of bookstores – particularly small, musty mom-and-pop stores – San Francisco might be the perfect city. Most neighborhoods – at least the neighborhoods I most often find myself in – have one, and most are eclectic, welcoming, and almost always full of people. Usually they sell used books right alongside the new. There’s the trio of Dog-Eared Books, Phoenix Books, and Red Hill Books, owned by the same people, on busy corners in the Mission, Noe Valley, and Bernal Heights, respectively. The Haight’s got the Booksmith, the Sunset’s got the Great Overland Book Co., even philistine Pacific Heights has Browser Books. And there’s Bird & Beckett, in my own neighborhood of Glen Park, where on weekends you can often walk in to find a jazz combo or bluegrass act playing.
But when I really want to spend some quality time in a bookstore, when I want to make a day of it, I trek all the way across town to the Richmond District on a pilgrimage to Green Apple Books.
Green Apple is a San Francisco landmark. Not quite the teeming emporium of New York City’s Strand or the literary Mecca of Portland’s Powell’s, Green Apple is more like the immense private library you’ve always hoped to build in the enormous mansion you’ve always imagined owning. The main store, on the corner of Clement Street and Sixth Avenue, is two-and-a-half stories – counting a kind of mezzanine half-floor that I sometimes find myself in without knowing how I got there – with creaky floorboards, weird alcoves, and staff that look sleep-deprived from all that reading. In the front of the store are several long tables with stacks of interesting new books, including more titles from independent publishers and obscure authors than a browser has any right to expect. Most of these have brief but smartly written staff recommendations taped to the shelf. And Green Apple – like most SF bookstores – always supports local authors by displaying their books prominently.
You can easily spend an hour just browsing the new tables, or climb the stairs past the Staff Favorites nook, the Anthologies shelf, and the Sex Writing shelf to the second-floor stacks of books about Art, Psychology, History, Philosophy, Literary Theory, Science, Classics, Travel, and a whole wall crammed with Poetry, most sections offering both new and used titles. On one recent trip, I walked out with a new copy of Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City, and used copies of Sharon Olds’s Satan Says, Slavoj Zizek’s Enjoy Your Symptom!, and Mary Roach’s Bonk. This was an average trip.
Then there’s the Annex. Just a few doors down Clement is where they keep their used fiction selection, in a space itself bigger than many indie bookstores, with bookshelves stretching ten or twelve-feet high. I have never, never gone looking for a book here and not found it – and in most cases they have three or four copies. There’s also a huge selection of magazines and literary journals, new and used DVDs, and a long side room with thousands of new and used CDs packed into huge drawers like old microfiche collections at a university library. Here, too, you can hang out for as long as you like, pull up a footstool and read half of Bolaño’s 2666, for all they care – the fashionably disheveled staff are just hanging out, listening to music by the registers, talking to customers, or reading.
Best of all, once you’ve checked out and packed your purchases into your backpack – no plastic bags in San Francisco! – the whole Inner Richmond is your playground. I like to take my new books to the Blue Danube Café, sit on a plush couch and dig in; or maybe get some ice cream at Toy Boat, which I always remember as the place where I once bought a Sigmund Freud bobble-head doll. And San Francisco’s best Asian food is in the Richmond – particularly at Burma Superstar, where you might have to wait two hours for a table, but one bite of the Tea Leaf Salad makes it all worthwhile.
Andrew Foster Altschul is the author of the novels Lady Lazarus (2008) and Deus Ex Machina (2011). His short fiction and essays have appeared in publications including Esquire, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Fence, One Story, StoryQuarterly, and anthologies such as Best New American Voices and O. Henry Prize Stories. A former music journalist and rock DJ, he is the Books Editor of The Rumpus and director of the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. He lives in San Francisco.