E.H. Mann flips through a huge stack of books as if it were a deck of cards, adroitly placing them in three separate piles: Buy, Maybe and No Way. Mann, assistant manager at Green Apple Books on Clement Street, has been the storeâ€™s principal used book buyer for the past 19 years. Up to 50 people a day bring in books to sell.
For the uninitiated, Green Apple is a beloved local institution and to my mind one of the worldâ€™s best indies. It belongs on every tourist map of top San Francisco attractions and for any book lover is worth at least half a day of treasure hunting.
If youâ€™re like me, your favorite books look, well, used. My beloved â€œJoy of Cookingâ€ proudly wears its chocolate stains and oil splatters, fond memories of birthday cakes and dinner parties. And my â€œOne Hundred Years of Solitudeâ€ has marginalia that bring me right back to my college-age self.Â
Those arenâ€™t the books Mann and his crew buy. Theyâ€™re looking for clean books, no highlights, no stains, unbroken spines, dust jackets. Donâ€™t be like the guy who left his books for sale in a hot car with some goat cheese, which stank up the whole store. They were rejected.Â
An exception was made recently for a book by Charles Bukowski because who can imagine Bukowski, whose favorite drink was reportedly a boilermaker (beer with a shot of bourbon), without some spillage?
Most of the people who sell books are downsizing, or dealing with divorce or death. Mann has also seen evidence of the Marie Kondo effect: Kondo, the superstar professional declutterer and author of â€œThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,â€ tells us only to keep items that spark joy. Apparently, for many people, that means getting rid of books.Â
Readers may remember I deacquisitioned my huge library only because I moved to a much smaller place. When I think about applying Kondoâ€™s philosophy to books, I want to clutter up her sleek minimalist outfits with some big chunky jewelry. But I digress.Â
If youâ€™re planning on hauling in a pile of books to sell, hereâ€™s a guide to what goes in Mannâ€™s buy pile: recent titles in fiction, poetry, current events; classics if theyâ€™re not already in stock, and cookbooks by celebrity chefs like Samin Nosrat and Yotam Ottolenghi.Mr. Bostonâ€™s Bartender Book is a perennial seller.Â
The most desirable books bring about 20 percent of the list price. And at Green Apple, you can get paid in cash or trade. Iâ€™ve traded thousands of books back to Green Apple over the years and never failed to spend every dime on more books. Iâ€™m the kind of customer they like.Â
On a recent afternoon, among the books getting the green light were â€œWhere the Crawdads Sing,â€ Genki Kawamuraâ€™s â€œIf Cats Disappeared from the World,â€ Butlerâ€™s â€œLives of The Saints,â€ â€œA Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer,â€ Valeria Luiselliâ€™s â€œThe Lost Children Archiveâ€ and â€œThe Moosewood Cookbook.â€Â
Forget about selling your outdated travel guides and current affairs books. Mann gave Hillary Clintonâ€™s â€œHard Choicesâ€ and Willie Brownâ€™s â€œBasic Brownâ€ a thumbs down without missing a beat. How the mighty have fallen.Â
Donate your old hardcover John Grisham, Robert Ludlum and Jeffrey Archers to the library. Mass-market paperbacks, Mann explains, killed their value.Â
Every once in a while, a treasure comes through the door: a first edition of â€œCatch-22â€ signed by Joseph Heller. A 1920 review copy of â€œSouthâ€ by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Lewis Carrollâ€™s â€œThe Hunting of the Snark,â€ signed by illustrator Barry Moser. A first-edition â€œBabarâ€™s Picnic.â€ Those go on sale behind glass in a special section of the store.Â
On occasion, Green Apple buys entire collections, including renowned chef Paula Wolfertâ€™s cookbooks and New York School poet Bill Berksonâ€™s poetry books. How I would love to make a tagine from a recipe scribbled with notes from Wolfert.Â
Strange stories abound in the book-collecting world, perhaps none stranger than the collection Green Apple bought from a retired schoolteacher who had obsessively chronicled the Third Reich. His apartment was bursting with books, allowing space for only a small cot where he slept and a collection of pistols. The books were grouped into categories like Third Reich Sports and Third Reich Pets. After heâ€™d exhausted that passion, he moved on to collecting books that dealt with lynchings in the U.S. I can just see the movie starring Willem Dafoe.Â
Even one who literally handles as many books a day as Mann regards them as much more than commodities. Every Dec. 24, Green Apple drastically reduces the price of used books for its employees. One year, after much consideration, Mann forked over $100 for a limited edition â€œMoby-Dickâ€ for his own very special Christmas present.Â
After perusing whatâ€™s come in over the transom, I, too, am thinking about the holidays. Itâ€™s a toss-up between a first-edition copy of Patience Grayâ€™s â€œHoney From a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apuliaâ€ and a first edition of Mailerâ€™s â€œArmies of the Night.â€
Unless someone gets there first, I have a little time to think about which to choose.