From Whoopi to the Mob: 35 years in used bookselling

Acorn Books

One of San Francisco’s most respected used booksellers, Joel Chapman, owner of Acorn Books, is bowing out after 35 years in the business and serving countless customers ranging from Whoopi Goldberg to an apparent "Good Fella."

“I don’t think I would have changed a thing,” said Joel, who has been one of AbeBooks’ original Heritage booksellers since 1996 and is closing his bookstore. “It’s been immense fun.”

Joel’s career has spanned four decades. In the used bookstore world, he has been an employee, a co-owner, and then operated Acorn Books from three different sites. He estimates he has made three house-calls a week for the past 35 years to purchase books – that’s 5,460 visits and a lot of mileage in his Volvo station wagon that has traveled the west coast and most of California.

“I was an English major at William & Mary, and then taught in a high school before being drafted into the military for four years,” he said. “I somehow ended up in San Francisco and sent my resume to dozens of places. The only one to reply was a used bookstore in the worst part of town. Customers had to be 21 to enter and I was paid $2 per hour to fill the shelves.

“The guy who ran it took a liking to me and eventually offered me a 50/50 split on the ownership if I did all the work. It seemed like a good idea so I stayed there for 10 years. Then I made a six-figure offer to become the owner and he said no, and a few days later I was out of a job again.

“I started Acorn Books in a tiny hole in the wall in a slightly better part of town. Eventually, I lost the lease and moved to much larger premises – 5,000 square foot instead of 500. Then that building was sold and again I moved, but this time to a much nicer part of town - on Polk Street - and I’ve been here for about 10 years.”

Acorn Books became one of San Francisco’s largest and most popular used bookstores with eight to 10 staff. It has always been a general used bookstore that often reflected trends in Bay Area book-buying, from Western Americana to historical books on World War II to art and architecture, and the wide variety of genres preferred by San Francisco’s book-hungry gay community.

Some of the notable books for sale in Joel’s closeout sale are an $18,000 mint, apparently unread, first edition of Gone with the Wind signed by Margaret Mitchell and a $20,000 copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.

Joel’s most memorable moment in bookselling came when Whoopi Goldberg walked into his bookstore one afternoon dressed in a nun’s habit accompanied by her entourage.

“She was making some movie and was in costume,” explained Joel. “She bought a large number of books, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Haggard, but took interest in a box of books on the floor that I hadn’t priced up yet. The box contained L. Frank Baum Oz first editions with dust jackets. She asked if she could return the next day and if I could close the shop. Of course, I agreed.

“She came back, looked at the books, and said: ‘I’ll take them all’ and that was $14,000 worth of books. She clearly knew a lot about turn-of-the-century fantasy novels.”

And then there was the time the Mob paid a visit…

“One day this huge stretch limo pulled up outside and a young dude came in with a secretary in a three-piece suit,” said Joel. “They bought a large number of books and paid in cash – I’m sure it was the Mafia.”

Joel Chapman

Joel’s retirement will see him splitting time between San Francisco and Thailand – his wife’s homeland. Reading material should not be a problem: “I have about 40 boxes of books I want to read,” he said. “I personally collect books about Maine, my home state, and also Thailand and India.

“I’ve made a lot of friends in this business. I have known some customers for 35 years. I’ve driven up and down the coast, seen some amazing collections and filled that Volvo to the roof with books, and had boxes of books on the roof rack while driving through a snowstorm. I’ve been inspired by working with so many young people who have kept me young for so long.”