Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books gets a chance to be funny, even as he talks about books, authors, and so much more

Another great indie bookstore co-owner, Pete Mulvihill, weighs in on why the store wasn't called Honey Crisp Books, good loser novels and why he has a cookbook problem. Love this interview. Thank you so, so much, Pete!

Green Apple Books started way back in the sixties, when San Francisco was deep in the Summer of Love, and "logging $3.42 in receipts" the day the store opened. How do you think the store has changed with the times?

Well, if we only logged $3.42 for a day even once a year, we'd probably have to close the doors.  The store has changed in many ways.  We have expanded sideways and back and up, and even a few doors down the street, from about 500 square feet to around 8,000.  Our product mix has evolved over time (LPs came and went and came back, e.g.), and the balance between new and used books has shifted back and forth.  Staff members, regular customers, store cats, computer systems have all come and gone. They've died, gotten married, become obsolete.  But something or someone always bring fresh life to the store.  And the books themselves change, of course.  With hundreds of fresh used books coming in the door every day, Green Apple is never the same store two visits in a row.  There are also many behind-the-scenes changes, from the store's ownership to our union contract, from our use of videos to changing advertising practices, from our service to organizations (SFLOMA, NCIBA, Litquake) to our "Cafe Green Apple" model of selling used books on consignment to local cafe owners.  And we've adapt by selling eBooks (and soon Kobos), by starting a subscription service, exploring partnerships with Goodreads, and by partnering with a vendor at SFO airport to bring our book selections to international travelers.  We really do try everything we can to stay relevant and dynamic.  But it's ultimately up to our customers.  If enough people walk in the door (or shop our website) each day, we'll stay at it. 

Beyond all this change, though, the consistency and timelessness of Green Apple is obvious to anyone who has been to the store more than once.  We (the owners and staff) are passionate about books, and we love connecting books and people, be it in-store, online, at out-of-store events, etc.

If you prefer the 2-minute video version, it's here.

Just out of curiosity, where did the name come from?

That's less easy to answer, as the previous owner never seemed to answer this directly.  To the best of my knowledge, it stems (sorry!) from the Adam and Eve story, wherein the apple represents the acquisition of knowledge. Why it's green, I have no idea. Perhaps it just has a better ring to it than HoneyCrisp Books. . . .

Indie stores have a passionate fan base. What's the main thing you do to ensure the community finds even more community in your store, and what can readers and writers do to thank you for this?

We're fiercely proud of our indie-ness, of course, and consistently impressed by our many worthy peers in the indie bookselling community. The vibrancy of this tapestry of bookstores is inspiring in the increasingly homogeneous retail landscape of America.  As for ensuring community, we just do what comes natural--connecting books and people--and try everything else, from selling eBooks to supporting local schools, charities, literary festivals, etc.  As far as reaching beyond our walls, we've tried GroupOn, Living Social, singles night, selling books at block parties, and so on.  Our goal is to take that indie "mindshare" and turn it into indie marketshare.  We're not here, after all, to break even.

And no one needs to thank us for what we do.  We're not a charity, we're a business.  So to keep Green Apple thriving, it's pretty simple: readers need to actually buy books from us (not just like us).  And the entire publishing ecosystem needs to remain healthy enough to nourish good writing.  We hope authors will list us (and other indies) as an option when pitching their book directly to readers.  And we always LOVE when an author drops by to sign books--it's something our, um, major online competitor can't offer.  Without good books, we've got nothing to connect all these good readers to.

 I love that you have on your website, the three books you are liking. What other books do you tend to want to press into every customer's hands? 

Ask that of 28 different Green Applers and get 28 different answers.  We recently tried an experiment on Facebook (see the 10/17 Book Valet string) that was too successful to stay on top of.  We asked readers to list the last 3 books they liked, and we pitched them what to read next.  We do this in-person every day.  Personally, my favorite books of the last few years are Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein.  One of my favorite perennial handsells is A Fan's Notes by Exley.  I love a good loser novel.  I also have a cookbook problem, but let's not go there.

What's obsessing you now about the book business and why?

I guess it's the consistent doom-and-gloom, despite hope and success everywhere.  Maybe I read too much about the industry, as almost every bookseller I know had a great 2011, a good 2012, and has real hope.  Not that's it's not a struggle, or that thousands of stores have not gone out of business over the last 20 years.  But many have opened, too, and many are thriving.  And Green Apple is healthy, thanks to several hundred customers still walking in every day and buying real books from real people in this real place.  

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Ooh, this is my chance to be funny!  But whatever I say will likely make my wife roll her eyes, so I best stay earnest here.  How about "What advice would you give to someone considering opening their own bookstore?"  My answers is: have partners. Getting away from the store is essential, be it for vacation, active parenting, exercise, or a cold beer, and good business partners make that happen.

Thanks for asking (and reading and writing!).

Pete Mulvihill, co-owner

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as
though you relied on the video to make your point. You obviously know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos
to your blog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

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