Before there was the Internet, there were books. And decades before even the first dot-com boom, there was Green Apple Books.
The store opened on Clement in 1967 under Rich Salvoy. At first it was just used books and just the left half of the ground floor that there’s today, for a total of around 750 square feet. Since then, things have changed. Green Apple Books has three new owners, for starters, who were handed the baton in the ‘90s.
Around that time, Salvoy was looking to get out, but he didn’t want his exit to be the end of Green Apple Books. So, he compiled a dream team of three long-term employees -- Kevin Hunsanger, Pete Mulvihill and Kevin Ryan -- and convinced them to take the store over.
“He kind of put us together as a team and figured at least two out of the three of these guys can make it work,” Pete said. “He owns the building and it was important to him that whoever bought the store would keep the store alive.”
“This was during the rise of Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Border’s and eBooks. It was a little dodgy to buy a bookstore,” he added.
While it may have been dodgy -- and while Pete admits it sometimes feels like they’ve always been running around thinking independent bookstores were doomed -- Green Apple and its new owners have weathered the challenges just fine. They have additional square footage on Clement and, as of just a couple years ago, another location on 9th Ave in the sunset. Plus, Green Apple continues to be awarded honors like Publisher’s Weekly Bookstore of the Year.
The owners attribute that success to the relationships Green Apple Books has with its customers. As Kevin put it: “What I really like about the relationship between the customer and the store is that they’re actually building our store for us with the collections of books they bring in. I can’t think of any other business that is built like that. The physical nature of our store changes on a daily basis based on what they bring in. It’s their store too, and not just in words.”
Put another way, Green Apple Books was built on customer relationships before “CRM” was a term, much less a stock ticker (and before it became synonymous with and symbolic of tech, currently building what will be the tallest building in San Francisco).
Pete agreed, adding: “There’s a lot of humanity in the walls. People have met their spouses through the store -- I met my wife through the store. People have died in the store. And people have had all their bodily functions in the store! During (one of our manager’s) first nights closing alone, a homeless guy sh*t all over the poetry section.”
The end of that story is a good reminder that it’s not all just words and warm and fuzzies. “There’s also a lot of unglamorous stuff,” Pete said, “like negotiating a credit card rate. That’s the kind of stuff that is uninteresting and uninspiring, but it can make the difference between whether a store survives or not.”
Small details can make a big difference partially because competition is indeed stiff, and because running any small business is anything but easy. “I can always give you ten things to worry about,” Pete added. “There are just certain ones you can control and certain ones you can’t.”
As mentioned already, the relationship with customers is one thing Green Apple can control, so the store takes it quite seriously. And it’s not just a matter of what customers bring in. “If something’s selling really well, get more of it,” Kevin said simply.
When September 11th happened, for example, Green Apple only had a handful books on the Middle East. Months later, in response to customer demand, it had an entire bookcase. Young adult books have also been on the rise recently, thanks to Harry Potter, while vinyl’s also made a comeback and has thus tripled its section in the store over the last two or three years.
What’s next? Swing by Green Apple Books in the next few months and your used books or purchases will help decide.
Before It Was Cool is a series showcasing the original San Francisco startup scene. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for ideas & inquiries.