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Indie Bookstores Thrive


Publisher Weekly has an article about Green Apple Books in my own backyard on how bookstores survive in the Age of Amazon. Green Apple Books to San Francisco is like Powell Books to Portland. When I’m looking for hard-to-find, obscure used or out-of-print books, Green Apple is the first place off the top of my head. One of Green Apple’s co-owners, Pete Mulvihill, offers up his opinion on how they and other indie bookstores survive—or rather thrive—in the age of Amazon.

“Indie bookstores offer community, discovery, and beauty; readers feel good about keeping their hard-earned money recirculating in their local communities; and many people value the ‘third place’ enough to put their money where their mouths are.” I don’t live in the midwest where your nearest neighborhood is a mile away and where big box store is the fulfillment of shopping. I walk; I bike; I shop local. I must be living in the old times where printed word was more valued. I think e-books and printed word could co-exist, therefore independent bookstores could co-exist with Amazon. As long as there are readers who like to browse and interact, bookstores still have their niche and will thrive.

My affair with Green Apple began in high school. Like many teenagers, I had limited allowance and I had limited budget on books—even used ones. That’s when I discovered Green Apple in the quiet Richmond District, a diverse neighborhood that includes Chinese-American residents and Irish bars. Every weekend I stopped there and browsed for as long as I was free. I got some of my novels and mysteries for at least half the cover prices. Two doors down from the main store is the fiction and music annex. For as long as I can remember, customers are so diverse that they represent a slice of the city. They range from families who drop their kids off, to Asians, to geeks, to little old ladies buying paperback mysteries, and the collectors. They like the sense of discovery and serendipity at the store, and I find Green Apple a beautiful place.


50th Big Book Sale


Benefiting the San Francisco Public Library with its proceeds, the Big Book Sale turns 50 this year (Sep 23-28). The Fort Mason pier will turn into a book emporium with miles of books set on tables. As a proud member of the Friends of SF Public Library, I’ll help out set up the tables next week and get to preview the 500,000 books. Everything is $3 or less, with a 3-2-1 scale: $3-hard cover books; $2-paperback books; $1-DVDs, CDs, books on tape, vinyl and other forms of media. All items remaining on Sunday are $1.

It’s fun to shop, to pick and choose. I never have a list because everything is so random. Books are categorized by genres but within each genre they are in no particular order. I always browse to see if the blurb interests me. This giant book sale is almost a test to your book and author knowledge. That book recommended to you by your coworker. That book you read about in New York Times Book Review but never got around reading it. All the titles that have bombarded your head—they must all be there buried in the tables. It’s a literary déjà vu awaiting.



How can you not love a bookstore that recommends your all-time favorite novel?

Yesterday power was off in the entire block of Market Street in the Castro. The contains boutique, coffee shops, restaurants, and most of all, my local bookstore. I walked into a dark gym in the morning and later a dark coffee shop. Our favorite cake shop was closed and I hope they could salvage the cakes from the refrigerators. By dusk the power was out for almost 12 hours. The sushi place was serving dinner in the dark with candles, like “opaque dining”—dining in the dark to raise money for the blind. Anyway, the bookstore was open, with camp lights all over the store so customers could browse. It was their big 30%-off-coupon shopping day but unfortunately some of the books off the top of my list were not stocked—like Thomas H. Cook and Elizabeth Haynes. The recent Into the Darkest Corner drove me to the edge of the seat. I had made it a point to look for all of Haynes’ books. The Chatham School Affair had left me yet a new favorite author, one who is grossly underappreciated.

The very friendly and helpful staff informed me that the books could be ordered and be shipped to the store by next week at the latest. Perfect. And they would even honor the 30% discount if I paid yesterday when the order was placed. You know, this is the experience that I would miss the most shall e-tailing will take over. But I have noticed that independent bookstores, especially in urban and educated neighborhoods, have made a comeback. Although e-books are a big part of the industry’s future and even indies embrace the technology, bookstores have existential values—they drive community together, a melting pot of exchange in ideas. Bookstores keep the old pleasure of browsing and reading alive. The power outage didn’t deter the readers and browsers, in fact, the fact that it was dark out like a ghost town brought people together for some good bookish conversations in front of the shelves.

Noir, Mystery, Horror


At the bookstore a whole wall of noir stories by cities greeted me. My immediate response was a question: What’s the difference between noir, mystery, and horror? I remember bookstores used to shelve them all together under mystery. According to the clerk, noir is a style, horror and mystery are genres. Incidentally, the modern mystery genre actually originated from horror, more specifically from Romantic horror. The noir style is usually associated with early- to mid-20th century mystery stories that tend to share some elements of some of the more realistic horror stories. Whether you should buy them depends on what you like. If you’re a fan of horror, you could do worse than a collection of noir stories. If you like mystery, it’s probably a good investment.

So complete and straight-forward. This is why I love my local bookstores.

City Lights Bookstore Turns 60


San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore just celebrated its 60th birthday last month. Founded in 1953, City Lights began as the nation’s first all-paperback bookstore with an all-access inclusionary vision. What once served as a space for Beat literature forerunners like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs to freely express their radical ideas, City Lights continues to function as “a literary meeting place,” as its masthead still proclaims. The establishment at the corner of Broadway and Columbus is well tread by tourists, who come in to take pictures and to check off their list. The place evokes evokes an air of scholarly erudition as well as an anarchist freedom. Interesting signs delivering imperatives such as “Read A Book Now” and “Sit Down and Read” flank the store. Their selection reflects the bookstore’s taste for high-brow literature, which is divided into two sections: European and non-European. The non-European fiction sections circles around the main floor of the store against the wall. Once I overheard a conversation between the clerk and a customer, presumably a tourist, who inquired about a hit supermarket mass paperback. The clerk gave her this condemning look as if saying why you are reading this crap and politely directed her to anther store.

Although City Lights remains at its original location in the heart of North Beach, the bookstore’s initial modest-sized storefront has expanded to now occupy three floors of the entire building. It carries a mix of paperback books and hardcovers from both major and independent publishers, including City Lights’ own publishing house, which is two years younger than its bookstore counterpart. From the pictures posted around the store, in terms of the ethos, the aesthetics and the spirit of the place, City Lights remains pretty much untouched. It’s like a cultural oasis that sits there witnessing the vicissitude of the neighborhood, which is where Chinatown borders Little Italy. The heart of City Lights truly gives it a rich cultural relevance.

Nickel-and-Dime Sale


I almost forgot the $1 book sale at the donation center of Friends of the San Francisco Public Library today. The monthly sale attracts book lovers and merchants. Lots of books for a bargain. I’m mostly interested in the ARCs, Advanced Reader’s Copies, that publishers sent to the library and somehow seeped through the hands of staff. You will be surprised the titles you’ll find here, big-name authors and bestseller titles. Not that I’m a fan of Dan Brown, but I picked up an ARC of The Inferno. Beautiful Ruins is now available in trade paperback so I wasn’t surprised to find the proof. Also available in proof is the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son. Ian McEwan is hit-or-miss in my book. But I picked up the proof of Sweet Tooth without a second thought. So if you want new books for a bargain, try the book sale or step sale at your local library. You’ll be surprised.



I have always wondered about a culinary bookstore in this foodie town. Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table would feature seasonal cookbooks. While walking my dog I stumbled upon Omnivore Books on Food, a cute neighborhood store that features new, antiquarian, and collectible books on food and drink. I like to eat but I am a far cry from a capable cook. I can toss a quick salad and marinate a steak but I’m no chef. Omnivore can help remedy my shortcoming. A closer look reveals that they don’t just have new cookbooks, but 19th century agricultural guides, vintage cookbooks, and—this is the part that makes me drool—food events! They invite chefs and food writers for talks, culinary demonstration, and lectures on food, with food! Omnivore really completes the bookstore scene in my beautiful town.

Deviate from Books

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

What’s your favorite hobby OTHER THAN reading?

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Work. Does browsing the bookstores count? (Chortle) I make a stop at the neighborhood bookstore on the way home. Buying books is like making a grocery run—it’s life-sustaining. Anyway, when I’m not reading, I like to work out, to hike, and to make day trips. The Bay Area is home to many beautiful trails that are within an hour drive from the city. The world renowned Napa wine country is just an hour north of the city. You can read my post on Château Montelena yesterday—the winery that put Napa to the forefront of wine making in the world after a panel of French judges picked their chardonnay over the French in the celebrated 1976 Paris Tasting. Closer home I like to take my dog to one of the gems of city parks and open spaces that are unknown to tourists. On the weekend, I also like plane spotting at the water park near the airport. I’m an outdoor guy so you’ll find me sitting outside with a book.

Treasure Mine or Rubbish Pile


“As much as a man may who has no money to spend. Now and then I pick up something in the rubbish heap; and I go and look on at the big sales.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

The Community Thrift in the city is a treasure mine for those who are up for a bargain. They’ve got lots of books for under $2. From time to time I pick up something in fairly good condition from there. Books are grouped under categories and genres, in alphabetical order of author’s last name. They have new arrivals every week, thanks to the hoarders living in small quarters in a small city.

O Library!

Working in an academic institution makes me forget how depressing a visit to the public library is. Public library is a place for the community to learn, to research, and to read. I have been a firm supporter of our public library–in terms of donation and patronage, and will continue to show my support. But I can’t help feeling sad about how the nature of library use has deviated from its intended cause. The Main Library has become not so much a library as it is a haven for the homeless, the crazy, and obnoxious kids. Plan on using the computers, especially the public internet stations? Bring some Lysol, Purell, and a face mask. You’re going to be sitting next to crazy people who haven’t seen a bar of soap, shampoo, or, likely, toilet paper in quite some time. If the stink doesn’t get you, then the ranting will. Now that summer has arrived and that school is out for break, joining in the competition for these computers are kids. I don’t really care for the computers since internet has never been my purpose for a library visit. But it’s their noise that unnerves me. I guess the parents are not teaching them about self-entitlement–the need to purge it. Isn’t it ironic that you’re learning–in a library–that so many of today’s youths have absolutely no future?

The best part is about complaint. If you talk to someone at the information/reference/help desk, they would just shrug apologetically and smile. They’ve heard it all before and will have no solutions whatsoever. What can they do, really? I actually feel sorry that their professionalism is inevitably reduced to handling with guests whose interests are far cry from what library is created to function. The whole floor is filled with people from the streets who hang out there all day, with their luggage in tow and phones charging at the study tables. If anyone has to brace against the filthiness, the smell, and the madness, it’s the poor staff. Now I map out my visit and get out as soon as I’m through. No lingering around to read and to work on the laptop–I’ll go find a cafe.

Now the bright spot of my library visit is the weekly step sale in which every book is $1. There are great treasures to be had here if you’re patient to work your way through the tables because it can be blustery. I scored five books in excellent condition.