The Best Books About San Francisco, According to the Co-Owner of Green Apple Books

From cookbooks to must read novels

April 18, 2023 6:40 am
A spread of book covers
Memoirs? Novels? Music? We've got you covered.
Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA/Vintage Crime/Black Lizard/Weldon Owen/Globe Pequot/Must Have Books/Rutgers University Press/HarperCollins Publishers

It goes without saying that America is drastically different than it was 100 years ago, so to understand what’s going on in any American city right now, you probably want to familiarize yourself with how that city was shaped. Speaking with Green Apple Books co-owner Kevin Ryan about some of the books that best represent San Francisco, it’s clear that there’s no better way to contextualize the current Bay Area environment.

Green Apple has been serving the Bay Area for nearly 50 years. Regularly voted the best bookstore in the city, it stocks over 100,000 new and used titles, and we asked Ryan to recommend a book for every type of San Francisco-curious reader.

If you’re going to read one book about San Francisco

Ryan’s first recommendation came instantly. When asked about a book he’d recommend for the lifer, without hesitation he recommended Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco by Gary Camilla. “He used to write a column for the Chronicle every Sunday,” Ryan says. “He’d find a different historical part of San Francisco and write about it. He’s a really good writer. He walked the entire city — it’s 49 chapters in the book, and each chapter is set in one of the 49 square miles of the city. He covers history, he covers geology, he covers architecture, he covers social history. Nobody knows [so much] about San Francisco that they wouldn’t find some pretty interesting things in there, all the way back to prehistoric times, through the natives and settlers and the tech boom. It’s just a really fantastic book.”

If you’re going to read only one novel

Ryan took hardly any more time to point us towards a classic work of fiction. “It would have to be The Maltese Falcon. It’s such a great book, and it also just captures that time and place in San Francisco [1930].  It’s really an iconic San Francisco book. I love all of Dashiell Hammett’s books. I’ve read everything, and I just feel like it all holds up.”

If you’re looking for something a bit more modern, Ryan also raves about Bay Area author Kathryn Ma — specifically her newest work, 2023’s The Chinese Groove — and Pulitzer Prize winner Andrew Sean Greer’s 2008’s The Story of a Marriage, which is set in the Sunset District in the 1950s.  

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If you like to learn through your stomach 

When we asked Ryan what he’d recommend to a new resident, he went with a cookbook: A Little Taste of San Francisco by Stephanie Rosenbaum. “It’s a little book with really beautiful little illustrations,” he says. “And it’s got recipes from a lot of the famous restaurants in the city.”

If you like to learn through music 

In case you enjoy too many of the recipes in Ryan’s last pick, you might want to take a few long walks around the city. His music pick would make for a good tour guide. “There is a book called the Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area by Mike Katz and Crispin Kott that came out just just a couple of years ago [2021]. It covers music history and the spots where important things happened.”

If you need to know the San Francisco of 100 years ago

The other book Ryan raved about as much as his first rec happens to be the oldest book pick. Originally released in 1926, You Can’t Win by Jack Black, Ryan says, is a must-read. 

“It’s the great hobo novel,” Ryan says. “It’s really about the American West. It’s about riding the rails and the hobo jungles and all that stuff all around the West. But the author, Jack Black, ended his life as the city librarian of San Francisco. It’s a great history — a great evocation of a certain time and place.” 

Conversely, if you’re looking for a somewhat modern version of San Francisco history, Ryan suggests San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval, Punk Rock and a Third-Place Baseball Team by Lincoln A. Mitchell. (The titular year is 1978, and the team in question is the Giants.) 

If you need a memoir 

Ryan’s final pick may be the most reader friendly. 2020’s Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco by Alia Voz seems the ideal book for a movie or TV adaptation. “Her mom was a hippie who came to San Francisco in the late ’60s and wandered around for a little bit,” Ryan says. “She ended up having a very thriving marijuana brownie business. This book recounts that very colorful history. It just kind of happened that she was in the Haight when the AIDS epidemic hit. She knew all the drag queens — Sylvester, etc., that whole community — and she was the one providing marijuana brownies to these poor, sick guys. It’s a nice book about the golden age of the pre-AIDS Castro and the devastation that hit that neighborhood in the ’80s. It’s a really sweet book.”

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