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Indie Bookstores Thrive

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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.

[678] Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan

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” All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. ”

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fantasy novel that explores a jumble of questions that confront our digitalized society. Robin Sloan imposes the question whether books are merely stories and ideas, or in some ways irreducibly physical objects. The debut novel is eptly set in San Francisco, Google’s backyard, where its hero, a tech-everyman who is just out of a job from a failed start-up, goes to battle about whether books are precious objects or simply collections of data.

Clay Jannon stumbles across a bookshop (Columbus at Broadway, where the famous City Lights Bookstore is!) in which gains employment as the graveyard clerk. The mysterious Mr. Penumbra doesn’t mind he has no experience. In the front of the store are a few shelves with a tiny selection of well-known books. (Not bestsellers. Mr. Penumbra doesn’t care for them. He makes no allusion to pop culture.) Customers sometimes drop by to browse, but few ever buy anything. The true nature of the 24-hour bookstore is soon revealed to Clay. In the back, where, on several tall, laddered shelves, are thousands of books that are completely unique, but unreadable—nicknamed Waybacklist, which contain long, unintelligible strings of characters. It’s accessible only to a handful of eclectic patrons who seem to belong to a strange book club, but which reveals to be a secret society dedicated to cracking a code and decrypting hidden messages in those books.

There is no immortality that is not built on friendship.

Clay and his tech-savvy friends decide they could scan the books, turn the type into bits, and then let computers solve the puzzle. This endeavor, however, wreaks havoc of the secret society. But, to the utter shock of all of them, none of the Google computers around the world yields any result. “Great Decoding fails.” Genius depleted. The code is either non-existent or too complex to decrypt. Computers, ancient printing presses, secret societies all overshadow this novel. Mysterious buildings and shadowy rumors move and revolve around each other to create an intriguing story that moves back and forth across history, cleverly showing the essential truth of the aphorism about secret hidden in plain sight.

Who do you love books so much?

But the debate turns into an idea Sloan keeps ruminating throughout the book. All of Clay’s associates dedicate to building representations of the real world, and they have different opinions about which factors make for realistic representations. Sloan is not debating between the readiness of digitalized book vs. the nostalgia of textile pleasure, because technology will never replicate the feeling of reading a book. Technology at best mimics the information in books. Sloan, however, does appeal to readers about preserving words and ideas, and how human intelligence transcends the capability of machines. Surprisingly, and a bit of an anti-climax, the answer to the puzzle of the secret society’s books is one that pitched against the very process of scanning and copying. The idea behind that puzzle was to prevent something to the extent of Google’s endeavor—to make old knowledge available to everyone in swift electronic streams. But knowledge and wisdom in people’s head is way beyond the reach of any computer intelligence.

This is a heart-warming book about books, typography, and technology. It reminds us how often we take our surroundings for granted.

288 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Indies

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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.

City Lights Bookstore Turns 60

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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.

Omnivore

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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.

Extra: Book Bloggers’ Visit

Danielle’s blog was among the first book blogs I read on a regular basis. When she informed me of her San Francisco visit with her sister, I couldn’t wait to meet them. I’m glad “Fogust” (foggy August) didn’t diminish their pleasure to sightsee. By the time I met Danielle and Vicki at their wonderful studio rental in the Castro, they had tread through Muir Wood, wine-tasted in Napa Valley, had dim-sum in Financial District, and picked up a few books from City Lights Books.

Mindful that seafood was not their priority and they craved ethnic flavor, I made a reservation for three at Limón Rotisserie, a Peruvian restaurant that specializes in tapas. Over sangria we chatted and had delicious dishes like Lomito saltado, strips of sirloin marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and spices, then stir fried with red onions, parsley and tomatoes; pollo a la brasa, truffle macaroni and cheese, empanadas, and yuca fries.

The evening concluded with a visit to Dog Eared Books—where most new NYRB classics are half off. The sale table also featured works by James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. That meant more shopping for Danielle, who actually brought a luggage a size bigger than her sister’s. It was a wonderful evening and I felt like I have known them for a good time. We exchanged anecdotes about life in Omaha and San Francisco. Friends, good food and books–what more can you ask for!

[472] Babycakes – Armistead Maupin

” Michael Tolliver had spent rush hour in the Castro, the time of day when the young men who worked in banks came home to the young men who worked in bars. He watched from a window seat at the Twin Peaks as they spilled from the mouth of the Maui Metro, stopping only long enough to raise the barrels of their collapsible umbrellas and fire at the advancing rain. ” (12)

The fourth book in the series (thankfully) shifts the focus back on Mary Ann and Michael Tolliver who, respectively, experiences relationship mayhem. The previous book–its adventure to Alaska with DeDe’s kidnapped children, is fun but Maupin has outdone himself a bit in the adventure. Yet I recognize the book’s necessity to provide a basis in Mary Ann’s plunge into the media business. In Babycakes, after much effort in making baby has proved to be futile, and Mary Ann hides the fact from her husband that he is sterile, the ambitious career wife, with some egging from her friend Connie Bradshaw, has outdone herself in a pregnancy scheme that involves a British lieutenant stationed on the Brittannia by which Queen Elizabeth sailed to San Francisco.

She turned her head slightly and waved at several people assembled on the street corner. They waved back vigorously, holding aloft a black leather banner on which the words GOD SAVE THE QUEEN had been imprinted in silver rivets. It was not until she heard them cheer that she realized they were all men. (2)

The run-away lieutenant ends up swapping apartment with Michael, who, with a stash of money that is courtesy of Mrs. Madrigal, spends a month in London. The trip is more of a therapeutic nature since Jon Fielding, the gynecologist lover, had died from AIDS three months ago; and Michael has been in a bedlam of grief and aloofness. Least of what he expects is a reunion with Mona Ramsey, who has been in London for the trade of international mail-order brides.

“This marriage. It’s just an arrangement to satisfy the immigration people. So Teddy can get a green card . . . ”
” . . . and wag weenie in San Francisco. ” (185)

The series continues to shine as Maupin takes readers on a heartfelt romp celebrating the hodgepodge of absurdities that make modern romance. His trenchant wit and keen dialogue continue in this installment, offering humorous but also compassionate insight into the human condition. Babycakes is also among the very first batch of fiction that chronicles the arrival of AIDS, which ravaged the gay community.

336 pp. Harper Perennial Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Looking for Mrs. Madrigal

I have only started to read the Tales of the City series, which famously describes a skein of characters, native and transplanted, to which Armistead Maupin thoroughly lays claim as an author. The dynamics of his tales and his uniquely etched characters truly up live to an Oscar Wilde’s saying that Maupin himself quotes at the beginning of the book: “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” What amazes me even more is that the main setting of the series is actually in my own neighborhood. Macondray Lane is a small pedestrian lane on the south-eastern side of Russian Hill in San Francisco. A wooded enclave in the heart of the city, and very inconspicuous, it was recast by Armistead Maupin as Barbary Lane. I just had the pleasure to visit this wonderful literary landmark (not known to tourists).

The entrance of Macondray Lane is on taylor Street between Green and Union, up the scaffold of wooden stairs.

At the top of the wooden steps I was able to grace the cobble stone and the lane opened up to have historic buildings on both sides. This is a mythical place, one of those places that make San Francisco the most wonderful place to live. As to Mrs. Madrigal’s house, I cannot really find it since there is no Number 28.

What a beautiful, romantic, out-of-the-way place! While I wouldn’t suggest going too far out of the way for this place, but if you like Tales of the City, you would love what Macondray Lane has to offer. I enjoy the tiny pool and the bench where I can sit and read, and enjoy the quietness.

[468] Further Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

Michael grinned. “Just a new theory of mine. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are really only two types of people in San Francisco, regardless of race, creed, color or . . . what’s the other one?”
“Sexual orientation,” said Brian.
“Thank you,” said Michael.
Mary Ann rolled her eyes. “So what are they?”
“Jeanettes,” answered Michael, “and Tonys. Jeanettes are people who think that they city’s theme song is ‘San Francisco’ as sung by Jeanette MacDonald. Tonys think it’s Tony Bennett singing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ Everyone falls into one camp or another . . . in a manner of speaking.” (The Breastworks)

_________________________

The third book is the series is the most grotesque and action-packed to date. Most of the drama revolve around DeDe Halcyon Day, who returns from Guyana via a boatload of gay Cuban refugees; but her problem has only just begun. In San Francisco she has to remain a ghost, for fear of publicity about her half-Chinese twins, heirs of a grocery delivery boy who has now taken over the business in Telegraph Hills. Social columnist Prue Giroux falls for a derelict living in a tool shack of Golden Gate Park.

Then Michael said: “Do you ever get tired of all this?”
“The nursery, you mean?”
“No. Being gay.”
Ned smiled. “What do you think?”
“I don’t mean being homosexual,” said Michael. “I wouldn’t change that for anything. I love men.”
“I’ve noticed.”
“I guess I’m talking about the culture,” Michael continued. “The Galleria parties. The T-shirts with the come-fuck-me slogans. The fourteen different shades of jockstraps and those goddamned mirrored sunglasses that toss your own face back at you when you walk into a bar. Phony soldiers and phony policemen and phony jocks. Hot this, hot that. I’m sick of it, Ned. There’s gotta be another way to be queer.” (Gaying Out)

To the quote above may I add Atlantis this, Atlantis that (Atlantis Events is a gay vacation company). The same words could have spewed out from my mouth. Despite the twists and turns of DeDe’s Alaska adventure, in which she must track down some psychopath who is threatening her half-Chinese twins, and in spite of Michael’s foray into the grandeur of a Beverly Hills castle of which the owner is allegedly Rock Hudson (Maupin actually left his name in a blank), the charm of Further Tales of the City lies in Michael Tolliver whose many sharp and dead-on one-liners constantly steal the show.

“She told me about the cop.” said Jon. “And the movie star. And the construction worker. You’re not having a life, Michael—you’re fucking the Village People, one at a time.” (The Way They Were)

I share the joy and the pain of Michael, whose self-deprecating humor is what primarily drives me on reading the series. I resonate with him the depression (in some gay men) is born of loneliness, boredom, and a pervasive sense of the immense triviality of life. The book really sheds light about the dilemma between desire for stability (and dependability) and libido. This volume also sees Mary Ann tying the knot and advancing in her career as a TV reporter.

384 pp. Harper Perennial 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[467] More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

” I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who doesn’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being. ” (Michael Tolliver, “Letter to Mama”)

More Tales of the City continues with the adventures of the tenants at 28 Barbary Lane. Spanning three months between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in 1977, the magically contrived coincidences continue to reign. Following the death of tycoon, Edgar Halcyon, who left behind a legacy for Mary Ann Singleton, she goes on a cruise with Michael “Mouse” Tolliver to Mexico. Despite humorous bouts of social missteps, and that they find it easier to pass as a married couple, Mary Ann finds love at sea with an amnesia-stricken stranger, Burke Andrew. Thought he has lucked out on love for life, Michael bumps into his favorite gynecologist, Jon Fielding, in an Acapulco bar. The encounter rekindles his hope for a happily-ever-after life with a lover.

It seems like every time I start up with somebody new . . . I don’t know . . . I see the beginning and the end all at once. I know how it’ll die. I can play those scenes in my sleep. This time, though . . . well, I don’t wanna know the end. Not for a while, anyway. (Michael Tolliver, “Table for Five”)

Back at home the venerable landlady, Mars. Madrigal, has no choice but to reveal her past as Mona Ramsey stumbles upon her destiny on a Greyhound bus to Reno. She is left to mull over the secret anagram in Mrs. Madrigal’s name. Meanwhile, Brian Hawkins, the top-floor tenant for whom libido has taken everything, begins a “long-distance” affair with a woman in a nearby Deco apartment tower—with the binoculars!

He raised the binoculars again and zeroed in on an eleventh-floor room that was suffused with a dim, rosy light. Seconds later, a woman appeared.
She stood near the window in a long gown of some sort, a dark form against the fleshy warmth of her room. She was motionless for a moment, then her hands went down to her waist and up again suddenly to her face.
She was wearing binoculars.
And she was looking at Brian. (“The Superman Building”)

This second book in the series has set the wheels in motion, pursuing secrets and relations introduced in the first book. The many adventures, and misadventures, often fun, black, and breath-taking at the same time, are choreographed so fluidly that one can lose track of time, thanks to the cliffhangers galore. Mary Ann’s quest for the cause of Burke’s amnesia takes on a course of a thriller. Equally bizarre but satisfying is Mona’s trip down memory lane as she learns about her parents. Most touching of all is Michael’s reflection of his life as a gay man who found true kindness, passion, and sensitivity from people who never judge him by his sexual orientation. Now I’m hitting the third book, Further Tales of the City, right away.

352 pp. Harper Perennial 2007 edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]