By Alicia McClung-Hetz
With their quirky one-liner satire and conflicting, often dueling, combative characters, it was nice to see America’s sweethearts Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks of Sleepless in Seattle fame together again in You’ve Got Mail. While Hollywood left us all warm and fuzzy with their incredible ability to appeal to our inner Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennet, by the end of the film I couldn’t help but wonder what it actually felt like to be the little bookstore owner around the corner. Or even small businesses, in general, for that matter. How do they fare when competing with big retailers, and, ultimately, will they go out of business too? In recent years the competition has grown even greater, with exclusive online only retailers adding to the mix.
Houston has been besieged by a large number of national retail brand bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble, also downsizing as of late, but still heavily outnumbering and outselling the smaller “ma and pop” stores. So I thought it would be a nice change of pace to venture out and explore some of the local privately owned treasures while lending support to small business. In doing so, however, I stumbled upon the fact that there are only handfuls left. A few popular, prominent and private stores had closed, or their books were available only for purchasing online. While it is unclear who the culprit is—larger retailers, the economy, e-books, the green movement or online accessibility as a whole—one thing is for sure: they’re not going to kiss and make up or ride off into the sunset together at the end of this particular movie. Instead, this is playing out as a sad possible end to an era.
In visiting some of these smaller bookstores, the experience was far from anything that you would see online or at a big retailer. These bookshops offer more personable encounters, as well as weekly book signings, art, movie screenings, special events and superior one-on-one customer service. An experience. Blue Willow Bookshop owner Valerie Kohler put it best: “You are going to get opinions, help, and suggestions for any book from picture books to adult books.” Kohler goes on to explain that many bookstores’ business models just simply aren’t like theirs in that any of the staff at Blue Willow can sincerely help you because they’ve actually read such a wide array of the books they sell and enjoy what they’re doing: ”… helping you find your next great book!”
In life, all good things must come to an end though, right? Wrong! Maybe they can simply coexist. Many of the ma and pop bookstores do have websites. Just as technology has evolved from eight track, vinyl record, cassette tape, and cd , to iPod or radio to television, so can the way in which we receive information evolve. Things change eventually. Just look at the magazine Newsweek. After having been in publication for some eighty years and ranked second only to Time magazine in readership, Newsweek is currently not available in print in the U.S. but is available online only as Newsweek Global. There will always be those customers who are looking for more of an experience than latte with their book and who would prefer to walk into a location and experience something real. Having a friendlier, warmer, more knowledgeable interaction is all the better. Also, a lot of the ma and pop bookstores carry rare first editions that are hard to come by or are specialty stores that focus on a particular genre.
In addition to adding a more personal experience and intimate point of view, I found that the ma and pop bookstores expand the idea of community. Brazos Bookstore General Manager Jeremy Ellis supported my experience by adding, “The local bookstores are somewhat like community centers now. They allow us to come together for various events and overlap with other parts of our city or neighborhoods.” When asked what an independent bookstore had to offer over big chains or the internet, Ellis’ response was similar to many: ”The loss of contact and experience.” If you haven’t had a chance to visit one, you should before they’re all extinct! Go out and show your support by checking out a few of the bookshops I found here in town and online.
Blue Willow Bookshop
By far my youngest daughter’s favorite. Full of crafts, stories and great ideas for the American Girl dolls and books. The American Girl Club meets the second Saturday of each month at 10:00 a.m. from September through May. And of course there are more book clubs available for adults, too,and even teens! In fact, there is a bit of something for all ages. Complete with author signings, storytime and access to shop and purchase books online. Be sure to check out their informational blog too!
14532 Memorial Dr
Houston, TX 77079
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9:30am-6:30pm, Sat. 9:30am-6pm, Sun. Closed
Not mainstream in the least. They offer lots of local art on the walls and a diverse array of books on both shelves and tables. Complimentary movie screening night. The book selection here is mostly counterculture nonfiction of all varieties. Often referred to as a writer’s dream, and also great for people watching!
Houston, TX 77246
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9:30am-6:30pm, Sat. 9:30am-6pm, Sun. Closed
Second-hand books with over a million books to choose from on every subject imaginable; also, rare editions and hard-to-find books.
7405 Westview Dr
Houston, TX 77055
Neighborhood: Spring Branch
Hours: Tues.-Sat. 11am-6pm
Call toll-free to order 1-800-340-5454
Named for the Biblical individual Cush, the son of Ham and the grandson of Noah. This website is the most highly-trafficked African American e-commerce site. With more than 60,000 customers in the U.S. and worldwide, this started out as a local bookstore here in Houston and currently receives over 60 million hits per month! Specializing in African American books, art, toys, calendars and more.
Murder by the Book
Many book signings with big and small names alike. Specializing in mystery, suspense, and thriller genres. Small and cozy with friendly, knowledgeable staff. Their favorite picks and suggestions are noted throughout the store.
2342 Bissonnet St
Houston, TX 77005
Neighborhood: West University
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10am-6pm, Sun. 12pm-5pm
Brazos Bookstore supports the communities’ writers and readers and is owned by a group of twenty-seven Houstonians who came together and purchased the bookstore when the former owner announced his retirement. They collaborate with many of Houston’s premier cultural organizations, including Houston Public Library University and American Institute of Architects, among others.
2421 Bissonnet Street
Houston, Texas 77005
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11am-8pm, Sun. 12pm-6pm
Alicia McClung-Hetz is a contributing writer and proud wife and mother of three who works in the legal industry with a marketing and promotions background and a love for the arts.