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Valerie Koehler: Literacy Advocate

Owner of Houston’s iconic Blue Willow Bookshop, Valerie Koehler extends her love of reading to the community with story times, book festivals, plays, and monthly book reviews for Houston Family Magazine.

Interviewed by Sara G. Stephens

HFM: How did your passion for books develop into your opening the Blue Willow Bookshop?

VK: ​ I’ve always loved reading. It was my favorite pastime growing up. But I never thought about opening a bookshop. We got all of our books at the West U ​library or the school library. When we moved back to Houston in 1995, I remembered the little bookshop on Memorial as we moved into Nottingham Forest. I came to work here and then bought the shop and changed the name to Blue Willow Bookshop. And I’ve been doing this for nineteen years.

HFM: You have two kids, both of whom are now in their late 20s. Did they “grow up” at the shop?

​VK: Yes my children will tell you that it’s a love/hate relationship with this shop. They never formally worked here but they did put in significant time helping. They wore character costumes, hauled lots of boxes and chairs, counted money, and more.​

HFM: What were some pivotal books you can recall engaging or influencing you growing up?

VK: ​The first book I remember reading by myself was SNOW by Roy McKie which was and still is in the Dr. Seuss collection. I love history so in grade school I read all of the Childhood of Famous Americans. I also adored The Little House On The Prairie series. While in high school, I devoured the gothic romances​ by Mary Stewart and loved Gone With The Wind.

HFM: For years you have written the “Book Bites” column for Houston Family Magazine. How do you choose which books to recommend to readers?

VK:​ My staff is always reading what is forthcoming for all ages. We are always in conversation. I keep a file going all the time for suggestions of great books.​

HFM: I can’t help but see you as Meg Ryan’s character in the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” where she plays the role of owner of a neighborhood bookshop that’s being squeezed out by a “big box” bookstore. How much of this character’s situation relates to you and your shop?

VK: ​That’s funny because a week does not go by without someone making that comparison! I’ve only seen the movie once when it was still in the movie theaters. I did tear up when she was in the Fox bookstore and ​helped a customer with books. At one time the indie bookstores felt pressure from the big box stores but now we are all feeling the most pressure from the big behemoth Amazon.

HFM: How did you feel about how the movie ended?

​VK: Didn’t she get together with Tom Hanks? That can’t be all bad. I was sorry the little shop closed but rents in Manhattan can be awful.​

HFM: Can you walk me through a typical day for you?

VK:​ I work out first thing before I talk myself out of it. Then I read the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times with my coffee. I really think it’s important to stay on top of local movements and trends, as well as national business information. Then it’s to the shop where I spend way too much time with email. My favorite part of the day is talking with customers. I have a good sized staff, and we spend time talking about how to help our customers, how to improve our procedures of ordering and receiving books, what to buy both in books and gift items. Since the shop is small, we have a storage unit nearby which usually gets a visit from me almost every day. I go out to groups to speak about books and host groups coming in the shop. We have a jam-packed author event calendar. We counted over 350 events this year alone. Then it’s back home to a glass of wine and a good book.​

HFM: What are some of the shop’s other events?

VK:​ We host weekly storytime. We partner with Main Street Theater For Youth on presenting readings from the book/play. We host three city wide book festivals for kids: TeenBookCon in April, Tweens Read in October, and for the little ones Bookworm Book Festival in February.​

HFM: Texting and the internet tend to cater to the quick-read, shot-in-the arm delivery of information. How do you see this affecting kids of this generation?

VK: ​I think it’s affecting everyone. The long form takes concentration. The good news is that I see kids reading books all the time. They come in and talk about them with us. They want the sequel. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are so many kids in Houston who have no one to advocate for their early literacy skills, they have no library at their school with no librarian to put good books in their hands. Thank goodness for local groups coming to their aid.

HFM: What are you reading now?

VK: ​ This will change by the time the article goes to print but I’m reading Good On Paper by Rachel Cantor, Underwater by Marisa Reichardt, and listening to Brave Companions by David McCullough.

HFM: What makes a good writer?

VK: That’s a hard question. I think there are a lot of good writers today. But being a good writer doesn’t always mean they are going to write something that will thrill or inspire you. People read for so many different reasons that we are not going to agree on what is good or isn’t good. ​

HFM: Do you judge a book by its cover?

VK:​ Absolutely! And sometimes I’m wrong.​

HFM: I understand you’re a big Astros fan. Do you go to all the games?

VK:​ ​I am a big fan. We have group season tickets so we try to get to Minute Maid whenever we can.

HFM: What do you think about Craig VK: Biggio’s being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame?

VK:​ What a wonderful honor of Mr. Biggio. Hopefully it makes getting hit with pitches too many times to count all worthwhile.​

HFM: What else do you like to do in your spare time?

VK:​ There is no spare time in retail. And I can’t stand not being at the shop if I’m in town and we are open. Now when I go out of town, I can relax. I love renting a house in Surfside and being with family.​

HFM: What are some of your favorite Houston family hang-outs?

VK:​ All of the museums! We still love going to the Natural Science Museum even now the boys are grown. When they were young, we had Houston Symphony Pops tickets, and I would take each one separately out to dinner and the show. It was a fun way of having some personal time with each one. ​

HFM: If you weren’t a bookshop owner, what other profession would you consider?

VK: ​ I have a degree in drama and at one time thought that I would be a famous actress. I would love to work in the theater again.

 

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