Patrick Marks has a long history in Bay Area independent bookselling. He is the owner, buyer, events coordinator and clerk of The Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco. The Green Arcade specializes in books on the environment, politics, sustainability, food and farming, select art and literature, urban planning, nature, and children’s books. Patrick’s store was voted SF Weekly Best New Boosktore in 2010. I sent him some questions over email, and this is what he said.
– Dia Vergados, City Lights Staff
A little history of your store/your background in bookselling:
I started bookselling at the Tro Harper Books Inc store on Powell Street in San Francisco back in the early eighties. There were no computers and there were ashtrays throughout the store. Moe’s Books in Berkeley and Tro Harper were the last locations to hold out this service to the public. One of my co-workers would build a display of oversized art books on the counter of the service desk mid-store and hide there, puffing away. We would tell customers: “See the smoke signals rising back there. That’s where the information is.” I went to back to school at Cal and got a job at Cody’s Books in Berkeley, eventually becoming the head buyer and stayed there pretty much until its timely demise. I said to myself: “Self, you have all this bookselling knowledge. why not give one more spin to the wheel of bookselling.” While at Cody’s I had developed the first bookstore for The Green Festival here in San Francisco, and it was very successful, a distillation of all that seemed important to the planet and to ourselves as citizens. This was the model for The Green Arcade.
What excites you about bookselling? / What inspires you as a bookseller?
This is an exciting time for bookselling. I still get exciting when I open a shipment of new books, and I also sell some used books in the store and rare, not so rare and ephemera on the internet. I also do some publishing and that is a great way to be deep in the book world—from editing to dealing with authors in that way, to distribution. I partner with PM Press and we have a great relationship. The printed book is not over; it is the industry that is the House of Usher. And we don’t want it to fall. There seems to be a rush to the bottom, like so much in our late stage capitalism. The 99 cent eBook is a great example. The eBook industry is much like the nuclear industry, as the truth of the overall economic model is rarely mentioned. I am referring to the investment in printed books that is behind the eBook, much like the subsidies in the nuclear industry are ignored to make the end product seem cheap. That and the fact that it is mostly the platform that the vendors are selling. Content is needed, but it is secondary. It is also interesting that here we have one instance of a very personal experience, reading, being mitigated by the corporation. With the printed book, once you have it in your hot little hand, that is that.
What do you look forward to / hope for bookselling’s future?
Great books from great authors, in fabulously fetishized book productions.
Question about bookselling you never need to hear again:
Are you doing okay? Aren’t you going out of business? How do you compete with the internet?
Question about bookselling you wish you were asked. And then please answer your own question:
I really appreciate it when people come in The Green Arcade and get what I am doing. The question goes unspoken and then is answered and I feel like I have succeeded. Favorite quintessential ‘bookseller’ moment: Always that moment when I can direct someone to a book or subject that leads to some deep connection to an author or idea.
Three of your favorite books, or what are you willing to tell people you are reading now?
I am reading The Accidental City by Lawrence Powell, about the early history of New Orleans. At the same time I am re-reading Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans. Both great for different reasons. I am also reading an uncorrected proof of Jim Nisbet’s forthcoming Old and Cold.
What is your shoplifting policy?
I kill and maim. Actually, I designed the store with sightlines that make the place very open and most evil fucks just exit after they enter. Very little has gone missing. In decades of bookselling I have only beat up two shoplifters and one I stopped mid-roughing up as he was liking the treatment too much.
Is the stereotype true? Are you a snob?
I have a collection that evolves and follows a certain logic and I do go outside that stated profile of the store if I like a book, or an author. I do not carry anything I do not like. Snob or gatekeeper?
Words of wisdom to the youth who dream of a future in bookselling:
Do what you believe and know, but read outside your usual. Write. Don’t listen to New York. (Unless you live there; but that’s a different New York, your New York.)