The Floors of a Book Store
Green Apple has grown a lot in the 45 years since we first opened our doors. The store has expanded up, out, back, sideways, and even a few doors down. We’ve never had trouble keeping the shelves full as we grew, but our poor floors have had a hard time keeping up. At last count, we agree that there are at least seven types of flooring across both of our storefronts. This number is subject to prolonged and hair-splitting debate, which we’ll not subject you to now. But if you ever get a drink with any of our more exegetically inclined booksellers, you’ll likely hear about it.
Read more about LARB’s Naked Bookseller program here.
The Legend of Mergatroid
It’s hard ignore the gnome on wheels we call Mergatroid. Each morning, we roll him out with the sale bins and each evening we roll him back in. He’s a quiet type, our long-suffering sentinel in the fog, the rain, and the (rare) heat. During the Christmas holidays, he dons a Santa hat. On St. Patrick’s Day — it’s more like an entire week around these parts — he’ll inevitably end up sporting a rakishly angled green bowler. If the Giants are in the playoffs, it’s not unusual to find him in a cap left behind by an exuberant fan. He poses gracefully with authors renowned and unknown. He once lost an arm, is cracked in a few places, and has gotten wobbly with age, but we think there’s no better emblem for Green Apple than Mergatroid.
When I went digging for his origin story, I hoped for some magic. Just what was this thing? Where did he come from? What connection did he have with the bookstore? The answer wasn’t exactly magical, but in its own unvarnished and slightly salty way, it much better represented Green Apple.
As it turns out, a few years ago we received an unsolicited email from Mergatroid’s maker, a man named Richard Mansfield, that explains everything, or as close to everything as we’re likely to get:
My name is Richard Mansfield, I carved the Punccinello that stands outside your door. (The one you guys continually abuse with your idiotic paint schemes.)
Let me tell you something about that:
I walked into Richard Savoy’s little hole in the wall bookstore (best guess 1973 or ‘4) and asked him if he needed any signs. He said, “No, we don’t use signs.”
He assured me that his customers enjoyed stumbling around through the place with the hope of eventually discovering some order in the apparent madness. While I was there, maybe eight, maybe 10 people interrupted him to ask where they might find one thing or another.
“Maybe I could just do a chart, you know a floor plan.” “No, thank you. I really don’t want signs in here,” he said just as if he owned the goddamned place — which he did of course.
So, I went down the block a bit to a bookstore — not yet then called The Jabberwock (and I wish I could remember that guy’s name…Bob, I think…had a house on 2nd Avenue, bird watcher.) But that guy, whatever his name, looked at my work and said, “Yeah, give me some large signs for each section and some shelf-size signs.” He made up a long list.
So, I made the signs and sold them to the guy and he put them to use and, after a couple days, called me, declared the signs effective, and asked for more.
With that encouragement I stopped in at The Green Apple on my way home and hit Savoy again. I told him that the guy down the street was using my work and he said, “Really…?” From the way he said it I got the idea that other guy had shattered some kind of sacred trust by using signs in his joint.
Couple days later, I deliver the signs to Robert (I’m beginning to think that was his name) and he tells me that (his) competition down the street wants to see me.
So, I stop in and Richard Savoy tells me that he’s seen what I’d done down the street and he ordered a few small signs. From that moment on Savoy was sign crazed: I didn’t stop making signs for him for almost a year… steady employment, filling up that entire goddamned place with signs.
And I guess that’s all I have to say about that.
This weekend, the Mergatroid’s in charge of the LARB Tumblr. Stay tuned for more posts from the amazing people at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
For more on LARB’s Naked Bookseller program, go here.
WORLD PREMIERE! GREEN APPLE’S 35th FILM!
We started making promotional videos for our Book of the Month selections about five years ago. Our initial and as yet unfulfilled dream was actually to make a spoof commercial for our sale books — our remainder buyer was to appear from behind a cloud of smoke, decked out in wizard attire. Unfortunately (for us), it’s illegal to obtain smoke bombs in California, so we shelved that idea and instead focused our energy on making low-quality, low-concept videos featuring books we loved.
At the time, we were one of the best, if not the first, at promoting books through videos. I think the combination of our irreverence and DIY aesthetic really conveyed what Green Apple was all about. We like to have fun. Our staff is willing to look silly. And, of course, we love spreading the word about great books.
Some of our hits (to use the term loosely) include the epic Little Bee video, our take on Werner Herzog’s Conquest of Dreams, and our 10-part series pitting the book against the Kindle, which includes the unsurpassable (again, to use the term loosely), Icebreaker.
This weekend, we handed over the keys to the LARB Tumblr to the folks at Green Apple Books. Then they went and made their 35th film, just cus. Stay tuned for more posts from the incredible Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
For more on LARB’s Naked Bookseller program, go here.
Directions for once you’ve arrived (at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books)
“Head down the main aisle, turn right at the Staff Picks, go up the main stairs. When you get to the top, follow the red apples on the floor into the Red Delicious room. You’ll find Sports in the third alcove on the left.”
“Go up the double set of stairs and when you get to the top, follow the wall on your right into the Granny Smith room. Turn right into that room, then right again. Women’s Studies is towards the back, near Military History.”
“Go straight back, up the mezzanine stairs and you’ll find kids’ books.”
“You actually have to leave this building for fiction. It’s in our Annex, three doors down.”
“Take the seven steps up into the mezzanine, turn right, find the stairway in the corner and once you get to the top, you’ll be in Photography.”
“Excuse me! You’re taking the wrong stairs.”
“We keep travel in the Annex, three doors to the right of this building. Yes, with fiction, though we believe travel is true.”
“We send people to the Toy Boat Dessert Cafe at 5th and Clement. Tell them you came from Green Apple and you can use their restroom.”
“You must’ve gotten turned around. Poetry is all the way back, adjacent to Business.”
“Take a u-turn and you’ll see a catwalk. Just past that catwalk is an alcove on your left where you’ll find Metaphysics.”
“No, we don’t have a secret tunnel to the Annex. No, there was never a hallway connecting the stores. Let us know if you find one, though.”
“You see that giant red balloon hanging from the ceiling? It’s right under that.”
One of the things we hear a lot of, in praise and sometimes frustration, is that it’s very easy to get lost in Green Apple. While we make an honest effort to keep our customers on the right path — we’ve stenciled apples on the floor, printed maps, named different parts of the store, slapped up signs, and learn very quickly to give concise directions and interpret a quizzical gaze — it’s inevitable, given the labyrinthine nature of the store, that sooner or later, you’ll get lost. And, we hope, that you’ll want to. Because getting lost is the best way to find something unexpected.
LARB’s Naked Bookseller Series is back! This time it’s Green Apple Books in San Francisco taking over our Tumblr. Stay tuned for more posts.
Read what we believe about bookstores here.
Lapsley’s bookis the definitive history of the Golden Age of “phone phreaking” in the 1960s and 70s, when these quirks in the system were the basic tools used by dedicated network explorers to keep in touch and share knowledge. It documents a strange time when the most complex single machine on the planet could be controlled with bird whistles.
Janáček reading Tolstoy listening to Beethoven: An Influential Evening with Mona Simpson and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Get a discounted ticket to see “Westside Connections 3,” courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and LARB.
Author and professor Mona Simpson lends her insights to the Beethoven Violin Sonata that inspired Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, which in turn inspired Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1.
“I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his ‘Kreutzer Sonata,’” Janáček confided in a letter to his young muse Kamila Stösslová.
Single tickets were originally $50 each, but for LARB readers they are $37.50 each up to a total of four tickets. To get tickets at the discounted price, call Andrew or Megan in the box office at 213-622-7001 x 1 and give them the discount code: LARB25.
“Kalaj is the rough draft of who I am. I am the finished copy. The one where the erasures have been made, where the rough spots have been polished. I’m as roughshod as he is, except I’ve learned to hide it. I also have a singular advantage: I am legal, he is not. I go to Harvard, a patrician institution; he’s a cab driver, a servant. That makes us very different. The young man I was then didn’t care — or at least a good part of me didn’t care — that he was a cab driver. He spoke my language, we understood each other totally, we shared centuries of common history.”
A Tale of Two Viruses
By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Despite public concern about the emergence of H7N9 bird flu in Shanghai, only a handful of pedestrians walking along the waterfront Bund on Monday, April 8 chose to don face masks. Those who did opt for the protective gear likely did so not out of pandemic-related fears, but because of the light smog hanging over the city; at 5pm, when this photo was taken, the air quality was rated as “Unhealthy” by the U.S. Consulate’s Twitter feed. Image © Maura Elizabeth Cunningham.
April, 2003 - I am almost finished with my junior year of college, working evenings and weekends and any other hours I can squeeze out of the day as a clerk in the emergency department of a South Philadelphia hospital. I am desperate to escape Philadelphia and have signed up for a summer course in Beijing; I’ve never been to China before and am not even entirely sure I want to go, but am drawn by the fact that Beijing is literally on the other side of the world from my hometown, precisely twelve time zones away.
I arrive at the hospital one weekday evening and take over from a co-worker, who calls me from home an hour later. She’s been watching the news and has just seen a report about a deadly respiratory virus that’s hit Beijing—maybe I should reconsider my summer plans, she suggests. My co-worker is an excitable woman who sees catastrophe everywhere she turns. I humor her, assure her I’m sure the news program is making a mountain out of a molehill, and get back to work. There’s no way in hell I’m not getting on a plane to Beijing in early June.
Of course, I am wrong. The disease my co-worker has warned me about is SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which would eventually kill hundreds of people around the world and sicken thousands. Authorities in Beijing have tried to cover up the extent of the disease’s spread, but journalists have ferreted out the truth, and everyone I know warns me about the danger of traveling to China. For weeks, I stubbornly insist that SARS doesn’t scare me; I refuse to cancel my summer plans.
In the end, the decision is out of my hands. SARS spooks everyone, and the center where I was supposed to study closes and sends all of its foreign students home. I fill my summer with 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks at the hospital so I’ll have money to go somewhere other than Philadelphia once I graduate from college. Eventually, in early 2005, that “somewhere” did turn out to be Beijing after all; but that’s another story.
April, 2013 - On the odd occasions that I think about it, that summer of 2003 represents a Great Unknown in my life: maybe going to Beijing then would have turned out to be a huge mistake, an overwhelming encounter with a sweltering city and a totally unfamiliar language. Maybe that would have been my only trip to China. Or it could have gone in a different direction, pulling me in so completely that I’d refuse to return to Philadelphia and college and the emergency department when the summer term ended. So many possibilities, made unknowable by SARS.
Ten years later, I sit in my Shanghai apartment and scan stories on the Internet about an outbreak of H7N9, “bird flu,” the epicenter of which is in my city. Six people have died (one at the hospital up the street from my home) and another dozen or more have fallen ill. Coinciding with the anniversary of SARS, this new threat renews fears that the Chinese government is hiding the truth about the disease, that it will turn out to be far more widespread than officials will admit. But while online chatter is full of these concerns, they seem to evaporate when I step away from the computer and walk around my neighborhood. Street stalls and supermarkets continue selling chicken, though the virus has been linked to diseased poultry and the sale of live chickens banned, and the vast majority of the people outside eschew wearing the surgical face masks that are popular attire on especially smoggy days. I stand in line for breakfast at a food stall and realize I’m surrounded by people coughing, sneezing, and spitting on the sidewalk; no one gives such behavior a sideways glance.
Are we all fooling ourselves, stubbornly pretending, as I did a decade ago, that this too will pass and there’s no need to alter our plans or acknowledge the threat of a potential pandemic? Or will this bird flu outbreak turn out to be more consequential than it seems today, a viral mutation that will somehow affect my life, and those of millions of other people in this city, in ways that we cannot imagine? I hesitate to make any predictions—after all, I was totally wrong about SARS.
But I am reasonably confident when I say this: it’s harder for the government to hide things in China today than it was in 2003. A decade ago, the country did not have an active population of Internet users dedicated to unearthing official malfeasance and obfuscation, as it does today. The SARS experience made everyone more sensitive to the need for government transparency, and if the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders are smart, they recognize that another public health-related debacle could be ruinous to the party’s legitimacy. SARS subtly shifted the course of my life (maybe. Who knows?), but it had a tremendous effect on the willingness of the Chinese to accept at face value the stories their government told them. Strange as it may sound, I’m increasingly relying on the party’s fear of falling from power to guide it into doing the right thing. That might be the best medicine we have in our arsenal.
Check out Pallavi Aiyar’s Chinese Whiskers, a fictional account of the SARS crisis (and other headline events) as seen through the eyes of two Beijing cats, which I reviewed for the Asian Review of Books in 2011.
“Why do I feel so manipulated?” Jen Vafidis on Top of the Lake:
Well, because I am being manipulated, in a special Jane Campion sort of way. Her archetypes, like Harvey Keitel’s noble savage in The Piano or Abbie Cornish’s romantic playgirl in Bright Star, grow spines, but they’re still replicas, albeit imperfect ones. It’s not that Top of the Lake is posing as a detective thriller, as some critics have suggested. It’s that the writing on the show is particularly self-conscious. There’s an echo effect. Campion plays a much larger game of bait-and-switch. You are watching a procedural drama that refuses to be simply that, often comporting itself as a meditation on trauma and recovery. The series is miming its detective thriller predecessors while it throws a wrench in their gears. All while looking distractingly gorgeous.
“So what do you miss most?”