When it comes to shopping local as a social concern and lifestyle mantra, Houstonians have got it going on. Our big city boats a bunch of independent shops that sell everything from eyeglasses to wearable art (seriously—check out our May cover story detailing the city’s 100 Best Little Shops).
But this Saturday brings Independent Bookstore Day, and all four of our major Bayou City book shops are joining in on the festivities. They’re among more than 500 bookstores nationwide taking part in the annual event, which is part block party and part book club. Giveaways, contests, food, drink, and books (natch) are integral parts of the various celebrations in town.
“There are so many places you can buy books,” says John Kwiatkowski, event coordinator at Murder By the Book, which kicks off IBD with a champagne reception at 1 p.m. “You can buy a book at the grocery store, but they’re a certain kind of book, mostly best-sellers. When you come into an independent bookstore, you can find those, and you can find things that are maybe a little older, a little different—you really get to uncover some hidden gems.”
“IBD is the quintessential bookstore experience,” explains Sara Balabanlilar, director of marketing for Brazos Bookstore, which will host events for kids and adults this Saturday. “Indie bookstores’ greatest strength is our small size and personal touch.”
Both stores agree that the personal dimension is a hallmark of the independent bookstore experience. Kwiatkowski says working at MBTB—where he ended up after jumping ship from Borders eight years ago—has allowed him to learn not only what his customers read, but who they are. In many cases, he and the staff have set aside new releases of customers’ favorite authors and called them to let them know the books arrived—something larger stores would rarely do.
“I have 14 people on the staff, and we are all huge readers,” says Valerie Koehler, the owner of Blue Willow Bookshop. “People here are overflowing with ideas about what to read next.”
One of those suggestions might be a local writer, which is something Michael Jones, the manager of River Oaks Bookstore, says he feels is an important aspect to an indie shop.
“In the first place, any local business matters, but bookstores are all about promoting literacy and reading,” he says, “and they are places where a local writer might be able to find a following and get his or her work out there, which might be harder at a larger store.”
Local authors will feature prominently in IBD events around Houston. River Oaks will host D.F. Brown, who Jones describes as a war poet. Meg Lelvis will sign her books at Murder By the Book at 4:30 p.m., while over at Blue Willow, Marshall Cobb, who Koehler says lives in the subdivision across the street from the shop, will sign his children’s titles.
The other events planned are as eclectic as each of the bookstores. Kwiatkowski says each member of the MBTB staff has selected two of their all-time favorite mysteries to gush about. (His are The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye and The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte.) Balabanlilar says Brazos will have face painting and something called Drunk Coloring, with a limited-edition themed activity and coloring book available for sale, as well as beer from 11 Below Brewing Company (wine, beer, and coffee figure prominently into all of the shops' festivities). Blue Willow will have story time with Clifford at 10 a.m. and a bag giveaway at 1 p.m.
No matter which celebration—or celebrations—you decide to attend, Houston’s indie booksellers are in agreement: Just go and support your local bookstore.
“We’re all in this business because we love books,” says Kwiatkowski, “and we all want each other to succeed.”
For specific events and times, check out each bookstore’s website and calendar.