Postcards: In Pursuit of Indie Bookstores
By Anthony Head
Wherever I travel, I make a point of dropping a few dollars at independently owned new and used bookstores. It helps me check off the volumes on my ever-growing “To Read” list, plus my money supports the local economy. In April, however, I learned that one of my favorites, Prospero’s Books, had closed after two years of business in downtown Marshall.
Independent bookstores face stiff competition. Fortunately for bibliophiles like me, Texas still boasts many exceptional indie bookstores—it’s a matter of knowing where to look. To find Berkman Books in Fredericksburg, for example, look for the lavender-colored house on Washington Street, southeast of downtown. This former bed and breakfast feels cozy—it occupies about 1,000 square feet and is filled with mismatched bookshelves, original art, and plenty of comfortable seating. The hardwood floors creak, and the aromas of vintage books and fresh coffee fill the air.
“I’m as much about the bookstore experience as I am about the books,” says owner David Berkman, sitting among several tall stacks of Texas history books that he recently purchased from a private collection. Rather than competing with chain stores and online merchants to sell new books, Berkman’s emphasizes collectibles, such as signed copies of novels, first editions of important history books, and volumes of Texana lore.
Berkman tells me that he recently acquired a first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it remained in the store less than 48 hours. The overjoyed woman who bought it said that for years she’d visited bookstores wherever she traveled in search of just such a treasure.
“These books are beautiful commodities,” Berkman says. “It’s fun selling rare books person-to-person, but it’s also hard seeing particular books leave the store.”
Never knowing what literary gems I might find is the main reason I seek out indie bookstores—but it’s nearly impossible to miss Recycled Books in Denton. This 100-year-old former opera house, painted purple, anchors Denton’s downtown square and remains as much a city landmark as it is a book lover’s destination. With 17,000 square feet of bookshelves inside, Re-cycled boasts more than 300,000 books, the vast majority of them second-hand (or third- or fourth-hand), representing nearly every genre imaginable—from world history to children’s literature, religion to cooking, contemporary science fiction to classic poetry.
I enjoy getting lost in Recycled’s stacks, surrounded by the wonderful, slightly musty aroma of old books. During my last trip, I discovered a tattered paperback of the excellent 1954 novel Lucky Jim by the late British satirist Kingsley Amis. It cost three bucks, and unearthing it stoked my curiosity about what it’s like to work at a bookstore.
“It is a wonderful job, of course,” admits Recycled employee Lauren Tift, whose areas of expertise include children’s books, women’s studies, and photography. Tift says the majority of customers come in just to browse, but many arrive with a mission to find a particular item. This is especially true of the store’s extensive music section.
“Because of Denton’s reputation as a music town, I think our music section is one of the best in the state that’s not directly tied to a university,” Tift tells me. “Whether you’re looking for sheet music, country and western biographies, music-history texts—we have great selections.”
Recycled also carries music by local bands, and on some evenings the bookstore becomes a performance space for local musicians, which is a novel way for stores to connect with new customers and stay relevant within a community.
More traditional events, such as author talks and book signings, remain mainstays of independent booksellers like Austin’s BookPeople. This beloved downtown store features a regular lineup of national and local writers. In February, mystery fans gathered on BookPeople’s second floor to meet Texas author Milton T. Burton and learn about his latest release, Nights of the Red Moon (Minotaur Books, 2010), a crime novel set in East Texas. After Burton answers several questions covering plot, characters, and the writing process, I ask if he likes the public side of being an author. “Writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, but I enjoy coming out to meet my readers,” Burton answers, his bearded grin widening as he faces the audience. “I like seeing the shining eyes of my admiring throngs.”
Later, on the phone from his home in Tyler, Burton explains that even with the convenience of having booksellers on the Internet, bookstores—especially the independents—remain vital for getting his books into readers’ hands. “The people who work at the independent stores go out of their way to read and follow the careers of local authors,” he says. “When I meet them at an event, like the one at BookPeople, I like knowing that they’ve actually read my books.”
Having access to such intimate knowledge of books and authors is another reason to support independent bookstores, where well-read employees act like liaisons between customers and authors. That’s certainly the case with Claudia Maceo Sharp, manager of The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio. “As an independent bookstore, we’re especially mindful about which books we order, and that comes from always keeping our customers’ interests in mind,” she says.
Established in 1972, The Twig relocated from its former Broadway Street location to its current space at “the Pearl” (a redeveloped, mixed-use development at the historic Pearl Brewery site) nearly two years ago. The sunny, airy space benefits from plenty of drop-in foot traffic, but customers also return for The Twig’s specialties. “We have a wonderful Texana collection,” says Sharp. “And we have a very well-attended Friday-morning children’s event—Miss Anastasia’s Storytime.”
When I tell Sharp that I like hearing that the younger generation not only reads but also loves going to bookstores, especially in this digital age, she assures me, “I can’t imagine a time when books as we know them will disappear. We have such support from avid readers and collectors. We are going to see the book around for a few more years.”
Hopefully, that means Texas’ independent bookstores will be around for a few more years, too.
From the July 2011 issue.