Talking (Book)shop: Green Apple Books

Stephen Sparks is one of the booksellers who makes Green Apple one of the most interesting bookstores to explore in the city. A place that has so many nooks and crannies sometimes you’ll find yourself in a room you’ve never seen before, even after several visits. Green Apple is where we send customers who come to City Lights expecting used books, you might find a classic guide to foraging wild food or an out of print critical theory obscurity, or the perfect gift for your finicky relatives, plus the used poetry section is among the best.Green Apple was founded in 1967, and is one of the best places in San Francisco to get lost in…

A little history of your store/your background in bookselling?

I never intended to make a career of bookselling, but I’ve been doing this for almost fifteen years now and find it hard to think of doing anything else. I started out on this narrow-aisled path during college and, after a few years at a Borders, I got a job managing a bookstore on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore. (I cringe.) For its obvious drawbacks, which I probably don’t need to enumerate, I did benefit from working in a beach town: for most of the year, I was essentially getting paid to read.

I got a job at Green Apple on my first full day in San Francisco in 2007. The store is older than me, is older, in fact, than most of our employees, and it shows: creaky floors, organization that reveals how geologically the place has grown (all told, the store spreads across three buildings), and suspect plumbing.  Green Apple will never grace a “Most Beautiful Bookstore” feature, but for what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in charm. We’re a DIY store, full of handmade signs, recycled parts, and odds and ends that have accumulated organically over the years.


What excites you about bookselling / what inspires you as a bookseller?

I enjoy facilitating discovery. I like that selling books still has an aura of something hopelessly noble about it. (Let’s call it quixotic.) Since a book is not just a book—not in the way something utilitarian like a dishwasher is, I mean—I like to think that I’m really trafficking in dreams and solitude. I’m not selling someone the time to read, of course, but a book represents our desire (our need, really) to turn inward. To be a part of the ritual of reading—that going out into the world, exploring, flipping pages, talking to others, and then returning to a place where a reader can be alone with a book, a possible treasure!—is very gratifying. My life has been enriched by that, which I hope shows in my work and also my personal projects, one of which is writing for and co-editing Writers No One Reads, a blog devoted to exploring just what the title says. (Submissions are encouraged.)

I also really, really get a lot of satisfaction out of shuffling books around.
What do you look forward to in the future of bookselling?

Like many of us, I’m concerned about the loss of the bookstore-as-place and the book-as-object, but I think the threat of the dreaded event coming to pass is good for the industry, even if it does cause a lot of anxiety. Booksellers on their toes, harnessing that nervous energy to innovate, are much better than booksellers on their asses. (One of my favorite Onion headlines ever refers to the latter.) I look forward to seeing how we measure up to algorithms, how we continue to foster a sense of community, and how we prove our relevance in an increasingly digital world.

Question about bookselling you wish you were asked. And then please answer your own question.

Since this is a wish, I’m going to wish instead that people did not ask about the end of bookselling. Often, when I tell people what I do, especially in such a tech-obsessed city as San Francisco, I get sympathetic looks and questions about job security. City Lights and Green Apple have survived longer than most start-ups.

Quintessential bookseller moment?

I once overheard a customer say to her friend, “This bookstore is better than a lot of sex I’ve had.”

Three of your favorite books of all time?

Three of my favorites that I’ve been thinking about lately:

I read a review of A Monster’s Notes, Laurie Sheck’s haunting, fragmentary hybrid novel/poem about Mary Shelley and her circle, in which a critic complained that the author raised more question than she answered in the book. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? It’s one of the best books published in the past ten years, and though it’s not for everyone, I nevertheless wish everyone would read it.

Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine is a perfect novella. It’s got all the ambiguity and resonance of a myth and the emotional punch of a Raymond Carver story. Plus, it takes place on a boat with a greenhouse. (I recently wrote about the book for Tin House, if you’re interested in more enthusiasm.)

An Elemental Thing, which I discovered at City Lights, was the first Eliot Weinberger collection I read (I’ve since read them all) and for that reason remains my favorite of his books. Without ever seeming pedantic or dogmatic, he gives the impression that he knows everything, from Nazca lines to Modernist poetry.

Three of your favorite books you are reading right now?

This is my first year on the Best Translated Book Award jury and with the award ceremony coming up at the beginning of May, I’m currently reading through the finalists. Rather than potentially ruin any surprise, I’ll pick three books I read before turning my attention to the longlist.

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which besides being a hilarious and very human look at failure (to write, to live up to our idols, to know which books to pack for a trip), features a pivotal cameo by Green Apple; Christine Schutt’s Florida is a strange and rich novel about childhood and loss by a “writer’s writer” who’s sadly overlooked; and a book just out from MIT Press that has the most intriguing title I’ve encountered in a long time: A Topology of Everyday Constellations. As the title would lead you to assume, it was written by a Frenchman.

Words of wisdom for the youth who dream of a future in bookselling:

Ignore the talk about bookselling or bookstores being obsolete. Ignore the “–selling” part of bookselling and think instead about how books are discovered and shared and what it means to read. Don’t equate Amazon with bookselling. But that’s another story.

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