This spot has always been a bookstore—ever since the West Houston strip mall was built in the early 1970s. 

TUCKED INTO A RUN-OF-THE- MILL STRIP MALL at the corner of Dairy Ashford and Memorial in West Houston, this shop is like a gift. The tiny, cheerful spot has been a bookstore since 1973, with Blue Willow taking root in 1996. And it recently garnered national attention when Publishers Weekly named it a 2020 National Bookstore of the Year finalist, an annual recognition of the best bookshops in the country.

In keeping with the decorum of gracious contenders for all major awards, Blue Willow owner Valerie Koehler says she’s thrilled just to be nominated. We won’t know whether she’s won the prize until next month, but for now here’s a short rundown of why this particular store deserves all the kudos it’s getting.

It's perfectly snug.

The light and bright shop has a lived-in look. With a cozy rocking chair parked alongside a bank of windows at the front of the store, kid- and adult-sized tables piled with works, and roughly 8,000 books wedged into the dark wood shelves lining the walls, this could easily be your bibliophile grandmother’s living room. “Everything is right here, and you can see everybody,” Koehler says. “And believe it or not, you can pack an awful lot in this little store.”

You can see a ton of writers here.

The shop has one or two weekly author events, and has brought in some pretty big names over the years: Think Jeannette Walls, Rick Bragg, the Bush sisters, and even Chelsea Handler (twice). And whenever an author comes in, they sign the walls. Koehler estimates there are more than 950 signatures scrawled in azure ink above the bookshelves.

There's a thoughtful selection.

There’s something for everyone, since the inventory is half kids', half adult lit and nonfiction—unusual compared to most bookstores. While Koehler says she hasn’t read everything on the shelves (except the picture books), every volume is carefully curated by the staff, and the best feeling is when they can recommend something new. In lieu of that, they all have a great time chatting about what they’re reading. “I just like to talk to people about books,” Koehler says.

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