Green Apple Books: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

Beloved bookstore Green Apple Books is celebrating its fiftieth birthday this weekend, September 9-10, 2017. (Get over there for discounts and free beverages.) The current owners, Kevin Ryan, Kevin Hunsanger, and Pete Mulvihill, also threw a nice party at the Great American Music Hall earlier this week, and many people fondly mentioned the old creaking floorboards of the rambling store at 506 Clement Street.

Different customers trod those same floorboards before Richard Savoy opened his Richmond District institution in 1967. In the late 1940s, the building’s storefront was shared by Ed’s Togs, dealing in men’s’ clothing, and Vincent Belmonte’s Coliseum Furs.

Clement Street at 6th Avenue, late 1940s.
Clement Street at 6th Avenue, late 1940s. 2-Clement streetcar #241 eastbound. Ed’s Togs and Coliseum Furs occupy what is today Green Apple Books. (wnp27.3994, negative courtesy of a private collector)

That the building is old should not be surprising to anyone who has climbed the wood staircases inside Green Apple, but what shocked me was how different the structure looked originally.

504 Clement Street, late 1890s. Courtesy of Jean Portello.

At the turn of the century, 504 Clement Street occupied the site, the home of Hippolyte Cuneo and his family. Cuneo was a foreman at the Joshua Hendy Machine Works in North Beach. He had moved with his wife, Julia, and their six children to the corner about 1895, and it’s possible the house was built about 1897.

One of Hippolyte’s granddaughters, Jean Portello, returned to Clement Street earlier this year with her granddaughter. Jean was able to find the bedroom she slept in during the 1930s (upstairs in in what I believe is now the Philosophy section of the store). I was lucky enough to be making my weekly trip to the store and met them. This week, Jean’s granddaughter forwarded to me the image above of the Cuneo Family home in the late 1890s. I believe Jean’s mother is one of the girls on the steps.

How can this peaked-roof Victorian match up with the familiar stucco-clad façade we all know so well today? If you look at an aerial view of the building now, the roof is flat all the way across. Those double-front windows are in place when Ed’s Togs dealt seersucker suits in the 1940s. Even earlier, as you’ll see in the postcard view from the 1910s below, the windows were the fronts of two bay windows before an Art Deco remodel flattened the front, but no Victorian home is seen.

Colorized postcard view of 6th Avenue and Clement, about 1910.

Ah, but you’ll note that Hippolyte Cuneo’s house was set back from the sidewalk. Perhaps less than ten years after the home’s construction, a storefront addition was put in the front. The Richmond District’s population boomed in the first years after the 1906 earthquake, when so many were dislocated from the burned neighborhoods on the east side. Sixth and Clement was a center of activity and a transfer point for streetcar lines, so a candy store and soda shop in front of the house made eminent economic sense. In this 1909 photo, we can see the peak of the old house is poking up above the Quality Inn candy store run by Miss L. B. O’Neil at 504 Clement Street:

Detail of a United Railroads photograph (#U02412) taken of 6th Avenue and Clement on October 20, 1909. Courtesy of SFMTA Photography Department and Archive.

Even neighborhood institutions that we know intimately, like Green Apple, can hide historical surprises. As the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Great thanks to Jean Portello and Jean Minton for being kind to a strange historian accosting them on the sidewalk.

Jean Portello and her granddaughter visiting the family home earlier this year.