The Naked Bookseller Returns: Stephen Sparks Unpeels the Green Apple
1. Green Apple Books sits on the periphery of San Francisco. Although a couple of miles separate 6th Avenue and Clement from the mighty Pacific, for many our neighborhood marks the edge of the city proper. So it sometimes happens that when I tell people where I work, they respond by saying “I don’t make it out there as often as I should.”
What is a bookstore, though, other than a place you don’t get to as often as you’d like? And what better location for a bookstore in this tech-obsessed city than on its edge, a reminder of another San Francisco, one that appeals to those with a fondness for creaky floors, dusty alcoves, and organic growth?
2. Sometimes I imagine Green Apple as being composed geologically, of strata.
We have new books, which we diligently inventory and keep track of in our database, and we have used books, of which we see so many in a day that it would be nearly impossible to keep track of them all. This creates an interesting dynamic for customers and employees alike. It makes every book search an adventure. In an age of instant gratification and instant results, the fact that we send people off to find a book that may or may not be on the shelf seems suicidal. Yet it somehow works. Not for everyone, not all the time (even for those adventurous souls who enjoy the challenge), but often enough that it has become, for me at least, a justification of our continued relevance.
Part of what makes a place like Green Apple charming are the opportunities it presents to venture into the unknown. In a way, I think this characteristic best reflects the store’s contents. What else is a book but an unknown?
3. I’m writing this at work. I sat down at a desk on the sales floor and as I attempted to compose my thoughts on bookselling into even the vaguest shape, I was approached by four customers. I was initially a little frustrated by this, but reason prevailed. I’m here to answer questions, to lead customers to sections, to recommend, suggest, offer whatever wisdom I can.
Bookselling is a balancing act sometimes. As the pivot between the silence of the printed page—where, naturally, most of us tend to spend our free time—and the public clamoring to get to that silent space, we can occasionally feel torn.
4. Anyone who works even tangentially in the publishing industry has heard a lot lately about so-called discoverability, an awkward term for an awkward problem. Publishers, whose insecurity over being a step behind has always astonished me—if anything, a great virtue of publishing is that it is by its very nature a step behind—are desperately scrambling for the next big thing. This next big thing has taken many forms over the years; it currently manifests itself in algorithms and data aggregation.
While great strides have been made in the technology enabling publishers and retailers to launch these forays into the next step of bookselling, what I think Green Apple and other brick and mortar bookstores offer is something more authentic: true discoverability. Our booksellers’ knowledge will serve a reader well if she is asking for a book similar to Wolf Hall, but it’s the deeper, human knowledge and curiosity about the world that will lead that same reader to something completely new. To find the unknown: isn’t that discovery? In an interview with The Paris Review, Roberto Calasso remarked that “in looking for a book, you may discover that you were in fact looking for the book next to it.”
This is what we offer: the next book over.
5. A longtime bookseller once said to me, “You know, bookstores offer the best education.”
At the time, I took this as being insight about the objects on the shelves, but have since come to realize it’s as much a reflection on my fellow booksellers as anything bound between two covers. Our staff consists of writers, musicians, djs, burlesque dancers, surfers, poets, cooks, hikers, filmmakers, journalists, cineastes, and some of the most curious people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. By trade, we’re required to know a lot and I think this characteristic of the job rubs off on the rest of our lives.
6. How much does what we do reflect who we are? Do we assume characteristics of the places where we spend our time? I wonder about how working at Green Apple has altered me—not the opportunities seized, the boats missed, the physical toll of lugging boxes around, but on a subtler level. How have the uneven floorboards, the sometimes haunting presence of so many books, the occasionally slanted shelves, the bookshelf-blocked windows affected me? Am I more or less concerned with precision now? Do I think differently about the relationship between poetry and business because those sections are adjacent to each other? Has my life been enriched because the phrase “three doors down” conjures up a building full of used novels and not a band? (I can answer that one definitively: yes.)
I can’t answer all of these questions, which is part of the reason I love working here so much.
For more on LARB’s Naked Bookseller program, go here.
(Photos courtesy Stephen Sparks, CP Heiser, and Shelf Awareness.)