Patrick Marks Sees a Bright Future in His Bookstore

By Kate Conger
SF Weekly
June 22, 2011

100 Profiles
SF Weekly interviews 100 people in San Francisco arts and culture.

No. 84: Patrick Marks

Three decades ago, Patrick Marks set off from St. Louis on his bicycle, bound for Los Angeles. He took a haphazard route, riding through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oregon, before traveling along the Pacific coastline and arriving in San Francisco after four months of pedaling. Seduced by the city, he never made it to Southern California. He set up camp in Golden Gate Park and earned a living as a bike messenger. Eventually, he crossed the bay to attend UC Berkeley and work as a buyer for Cody’s Books.

Now, Marks leads a more sedentary lifestyle: He owns and operates the Green Arcade bookstore, sings in the lounge act Lars Mars and His Men, publishes noir literature, and lives in the same San Francisco apartment he’s had for the past 27 years.

That’s not to say he’s lost his piquancy. He’s maintained the same daredevil attitude that brought him halfway across the country on a bike. Despite Cody’s closing, Borders’ bankruptcy filing, and Barnes & Noble offering itself up for sale, he decided to open his own bookstore.

“I didn’t want my skills to go to waste,” he explains. “I figured I might as well give it one last stand.”

And so he did, opening the Green Arcade in 2008. The bookstore, which features titles catered to Marks’ eclectic and rebellious interests, opened its doors on the corner of Market and Gough, in the heart of what was once bike messenger mecca. Now, Marks looks out from behind his register at the same landscape he biked in those days.

“This area is a springboard to so many areas of the city,” he says.

San Francisco is a pivotal force in Marks’ life. As the name of the bookstore suggests, environmentalism is important to Marks, but he’s particularly interested in the urban environment. The “Arcade” half of the name is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a lengthy philosophical study on the nature of city life.

Marks views his store as a representation of the city itself: simultaneously a refuge and a crass commercial space. His taste in books reflects it, with selections ranging from noir literature and art to urban planning and politics. Bay Area author Rebecca Solnit is allotted her own section, including her most recent work, a collaboration with SFMOMA and various authors and artists called Infinite City. It’s a multifaceted atlas of San Francisco—and Marks’ favorite book in the store.

When he’s not presiding over his books, Marks assumes the alter ego Lars Mars and performs new arrangements of old lounge tunes. His Men are Durand Begault, Mic Gendreau, and Nate Furgason, who he terms “sound scientists.”

His other passion is noir. He founded a publishing imprint, also named the Green Arcade, in partnership with Oakland’s anarchist publishing house, PM Press. He tracks down out-of-print novels, such as Sin Soracco’s Low Bite, and reprints them. He publishes new works as well (Soracco’s Edge City is forthcoming).

“Noir is the shadow cast by the urban studies section,” he rhapsodizes, circling back to his fascination with the gritty side of city life. The Green Arcade’s newest publication is an English translation of Against Architecture by Franco La Cecla, which explores issues of “brandscaping” in modern cities.
For Marks, publishing and selling books is an exciting frontier, not a fading art. He intends to digitize his business, selling books online and making books available for download on the Green Arcade’s website.

“Reading was always my way of dealing with reality,” Marks says. “They say the truth will set you free— well, reading is a big aspect of that. It’s an important part of citizenship.”

As he makes reading more accessible online, he’ll also maintain his store in the hub of the city, serving up conscientious rebellion to the residents of San Francisco.

Visit Patrick Marks and the Green Arcade on Sunday, June 26, at 5 p.m. for the release party of Summer Brenner’s new book, Ivy: Homeless in San Francisco. Like Marks, the heroine Ivy begins her adventure in Golden Gate Park. Following a reading by Brenner will be a talk by the Community Housing Partnership of San Francisco about ways to reduce homelessness and support those who are currently homeless.