From Whoopi to the Mob: 35 years in used bookselling
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
“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
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 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
with the Wind signed by Margaret Mitchell and a $20,000
copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino
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’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.”