BOOKS | MARK MITCHELL
In a time when so many people live nose deep in their electronic devices, opening a bookstore seems almost like a subversive act.
Still more subversive is opening a used bookstore. No screaming bestsellers. No fresh off the presses celebrity memoirs or political apologies from disgraced officials. Just a room full of books that have already passed through someone else’s hands.
Nonetheless, Forest Books is now open in Japantown at 1748 Buchanan Street.
The store itself is not new, but was displaced from its 24-year tenure in the Mission District by rising rents. Owned by Gregory Wood, a tall, Zen-trained poet and artist, the store seems to slip easily into its new location.
“I’ve been a lifelong Japanophile and Sinophile, and it seems like a complete fit,” Wood says. “And my wife works in the neighborhood.” Clare Young-Wood is a familiar face behind the counter at Bay Bread Boulangerie on Pine Street.
While many used bookstores consist of teetering towers of books awaiting sorting or shelving, even in the process of getting settled, Forest Books gives off a sense of purpose. The space is bright, sunny and spare. “I like the idea of a clean, well-lighted place, and I like the idea that books should be presented in a way that shows respect for the people who buy them,” Wood says. “I don’t have any junk here. More than half of my stock is out of print books, and a good proportion of that is collectibles.”
Wood started his store long ago in response to a religious urge. “I’ve been a lifelong Zen Buddhist practitioner,” he says. “I’ve been in and out of the monastery all of my adult life. That’s what monks do; they go in and out periodically to refresh their understanding. And at one point I just thought, what am I going to do that’s going to reflect my life unobtrusively and do the least harm. I thought a bookstore would be a good way to do that. The whole idea is to give people a chance to feel at ease, to be at peace in the more or less public atmosphere of a bookstore.”
The neat stacks at Forest Books offer sections on art and technique, the humanities, African American culture, Native American culture, local history and world history, among many other subjects. Browsers come across the old edition of a book they once owned, books they have only heard of — and many that have been long out of print, or at least long off the shelves of the still-standing large retailers.
“I’m trying to represent a longer reach of cultural value that fosters peace and values education and that has things you’re not likely to see twice,” says Wood. “It’s a very, very carefully curated selection of books and that means that we make a very clear distinction of what we want to have on the shelf. Every book is cleaned and wrapped with a dust jacket cover and researched in some cases to find the context for its particular value. I’ll explain with little identification cards that tell the customer why a book should be especially appreciated.”
In addition to carrying used books at reasonable prices, Wood stocks rare and collectible books. There are early, small press editions of San Francisco and Beat poetry as well as beautiful editions of Asian classics and first editions of world and contemporary literature. One section is devoted to literature in English translation. Arranged by the original language, it’s invaluable for someone who wants to explore French, German or Japanese literature or other source languages.
In many ways, the bookstore’s move to the neighborhood seemed destined.
“Quite literally, all the shelves actually fit — we didn’t have to redesign anything, they just fit like the place was made for it,” says Wood. “A number of my friends have said to me, ‘You’re home.’ ”
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