San Francisco's Book Smarts

Sunday, October 19, 2003

One of the best ways to get a read on San Francisco is to brush shoulders with the locals over current best sellers and cult paperbacks. And we're not talking about a rendezvous at the neighborhood Borders.

San Francisco has more independent booksellers within a 100-mile radius than any other city in the country, according to Hut Landon of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

One of those, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's famous beat bookstore, City Lights, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, but there are dozens of other great book nooks. Here are a few lesser-knowns worth visiting and the neighborhoods they're in.

• The Booksmith (Haight Ashbury)

Just east of Amoeba Music and west of Mendels Art Supplies in this tie-dyed neighborhood, the Booksmith radiates a love of ideas and the printed word. Inside, the mood fuses hip and reverent. There is the literary version of stained-glass windows -- colorful monographs about Picasso, Titian, Frida Kahlo and da Vinci floating in glass cases.

If you want to talk philosophy, travel or quantum physics, Booksmith's staff is a multilingual group of artists, musicians, journalists and computer nerds with news to share. They can recommend new titles, obscure texts or the best local cappuccino.

This may be the only bookstore with author trading cards. Modeled after baseball cards, they carry a writer's picture and the "stats" of his or her career. Owner Gary Frank prints a new one for each author who reads on-site. There are more than 500 to date, including Walter Mosley, Howard Zinn, Fran Lebowitz, Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson.

1644 Haight St., 800-493-7323,

• Green Apple (Inner Richmond)

Nestled among Asian restaurants, an Irish bar, a German bakery, a feng shui supply shop and the Club Hong Kong karaoke bar is Green Apple Books. On the shop's exterior are murals of Mother Goose, Dashiell Hammett and a small green alien leafing through cookbooks and volumes of poetry. At the front door, a wooden jester has been welcoming visitors for more than 20 years.

Inside, there are three levels of new and used books, and the few feet of wall space that aren't stacked with hardcovers or paperbacks are covered with carved and painted masks that founder Richard Savoy collected over decades. Savoy opened Green Apple in 1967 with a collection of used books, comics and National Geographic magazines, in what he referred to as a "workingman's-artsy neighborhood." Twenty-five years later, Robin Williams declared it his favorite San Francisco bookstore.

Like everyone at Green Apple, owner Kevin Hunsanger loves to talk books. Tell any of the literate staff what you've read recently and loved. Chances are they can recommend three or four books you've never heard of, and put new or top-quality used copies in your hands.

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