Brazos Bookstore Celebrates 40 Years in Business

Karl Kilian, the founder of Houston's premier independent bookstore, reflects back on four decades at the center of the city's literary scene.

By Holly Beretto April 4, 2014

Brazos Bookstore 40th Anniversary Celebration
April 4, 6–9: Honoring Karl Kilian with light refreshments from Houston Dairymaids and Dixie's Dessert Delivery

April 5, noon–6: Honoring Brazos's customers with BBQ sliders from Gatlin's and beer from Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co.

April 6, 5–8: Meet the current Brazos owners and enjoy tacos and drinks from Berryhill

All events free
Brazos Bookstore
2421 Bissonnet St

In the late spring of 1974, Karl Kilian was in a rush to open his new bookstore before what he figured to be his main clientele, River Oaks residents, Rice University faculty, and people working in Houston’s museum district, headed out of town for summer vacations. He made his deadline, but that first summer at the newly christened Brazos Bookstore was so lean, customer-wise, he admits to spending a lot of it reading Proust.  “Well, I had to do something,” he told me recently. “And I did finally read Remembrance of Things Past. I’d never made it through the first part of it; I always started with the second.”

In that spirit, Brazos is marking its 40th anniversary this week with the “Summer of Proust,” a three-month-long series including readings and discussions of books by and about the author. But it’s just one part of what’s planned to acknowledge the milestone. This weekend features three parties, including wine and hors d’oeuvres on April 4; beer, barbecue, and kids’ activities on April 5; and a cocktail party on April 6.

“All of this is a testament to Karl’s vision,” said Brazos’s general manager Jeremy Ellis, waving a hand around the store’s interior, its gleaming white shelves bright in the afternoon sunlight. “He had the idea to make this place about the smartest books of the day.”

Ellis, who became GM in September 2011, calls Brazos a “curated” bookstore, emphasizing that he and buyer Danielle DuBois Diamond hand-select each of the 15,000 books currently on the shelves. There’s more to it than that, though. In 1980, in collaboration with Inprint, Brazos helped launch the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, which quickly became the city’s top reading series and continues to attract marquee authors, such as this year’s appearances by George Saunders, Colum McCann, and Anne Carson (on April 28). Brazos was always a favored place for writers in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program to read and sell their work, and the store itself has hosted some of the greatest writers of the past four decades, including Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Edward Albee, Larry McMurtry, and Richard Ford.

I caught up with Kilian, who retired in 2006 to become the director of public programs at the Menil Collection, to discuss his memories of the bookstore and his thoughts on its 40th anniversary.

Karl Kilian

Houstonia: What were those first few years like?

Kilian: I had one staff member when we opened, who came in for two hours a day, Monday through Saturday, so I could go have lunch and deposit the $10 we might have made that day. And when we opened, it was with a ridiculously low investment, probably half of what everyone told me you needed. I raised all I could from family and friends. I think it might have come from 15 families, and I paid them all back, plus a little more. At the time, there were a lot of bookstores in Houston, but there weren’t any that had architecture books, and there was very little poetry. Almost no one sold translations of foreign books. I had this idea that I wanted to have a place where I’d sell books by the authors you’d see in The New Yorker magazine.

What was your inspiration behind that idea?

I was in graduate school at New York University [Kilian eventually earned an M.A. in English literature] and I was looking for a job one summer. I went to work for The New Yorker Bookstore [no relation to the magazine], at 89th and Broadway, and asked if they had any work. And the guy there told me that the manager had left to go grow green beans on his farm or something and I could be manager if I could start tomorrow. It was the kind of place where Susan Sontag came in and shopped, and there was this bunch of old lefties whose conversation formed the background sound. So, when I moved back to Houston in 1973, I thought opening a bookstore like that seemed worth a try. I think we did a pretty good job in reproducing that. Our original location was on Bissonnet, just beyond Kay’s, and about as close to Rice as I was comfortable getting—the parking in Rice Village was just terrible. We moved the store to its current location, which is on a little higher ground, about three years later, so I could stop worrying about storm drain flooding.

You set out to make Brazos a community gathering place, and part of that was the decor of the store.

Yes, other than the kinds of books we sold, it was always beautiful. Some friends I knew had Matisse’s Jazz book [a collection of limited edition prints based on the artist’s paper cut-outs], so I borrowed those to hang in the store for a little while. There was a complicated piece of floor art that came from the Barbara Q. Sack Gallery. And a Charles James leather sofa—one of only three in the world. It just knocked my socks off every day to come in and see all that. And then, we made it a point to be a place in Houston where book lovers came. If anybody was doing anything related to a book in the city limits, we invited them in. Vanessa Miller, the first poet in Houston to be published by a national press, came in. If professors at Rice or the University of Houston published books, we hosted parties for them. The hardest thing at the beginning was to get nationally known authors on their US tours to stop in Houston. Their publicists would ask what the city was like, what our readership was. And they were always very pleased and surprised to find out what our book scene was. 

You owned Brazos for 33 years before you joined the Menil. Tell us some of the highlights you remember.

I remember the ongoing expansion. Not only moving from down the street to the present location, but expanding when we needed to carry more inventory. Every fixture that wasn’t built in, I had on platforms with rollers. That way we could not only change up displays seasonally, but could move things out of the way for readings. I’m most pleased with our investment in poetry, and a lot of different literary magazines. I remember a lot of the writers from UH would come in and look at not only their work in those publications, but see who else of their friends or enemies was published. Paul Forsyth, who now runs the Menil bookstore, built our art section. I could see within the first five years that this was going to work, that we were going to more than just break even to pay my salary and buy insurance.  Launching the Inprint Reading Series, which was born out of the UH Creative Writing Program, was something else I’m proud of. We were the place where those writers could come and read their work, and we sold their books here. There was a community feel to it all.

What made you decide to retire and sell the store?

It was so much work. And the Menil wanted me to be director of public programs, which was exactly like what I was doing at Brazos, so I liked the idea of being able to go to work doing something I loved and not worrying about a leaky roof. When I sold, I think it was 15 families that came together to buy it. That store introduced my wife Kathy and me [Kathy helped host many of the store’s early author events, making dinner and inviting around 30 of the couple’s friends to the store for readings] to such a great variety of people who started out as customers, then became, and remained, close friends.

How did the advent of big box bookstores affect your business at Brazos?

I remember the day that Barnes and Noble opened in Houston the bottom fell out of the petroleum market, and all of a sudden books became this luxury purchase. And Barnes and Noble was selling books at discount prices, so we worried about that a little, but we just saw it as one more hurdle. The thing about buying books at Brazos was, we were trying to change perceptions, that buying from this bookstore, supporting this kind of bookstore, was a way of life. It wasn’t just about price. It was about being part of the literary pulse of the city. I felt it was like a crusade in a way, and I got such help from Kathy and the great staff. We did do some discounting, but not really a lot. And I’ll never forget, years and years later, Kathy and I were on our way to somewhere, and we were at the light on West Alabama and Kirby, and there was a big ‘Closed’ sign on the Borders Bookstore. I mean, who would’ve thought they’d go under and we’d survive?

What does it feel like for you now, when you come into the store?

It’s a nice feeling. I’m glad someone else is doing the work. And I think the place is in very good hands now, which makes me feel very good.

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