Mention the name Karl Kilian to just about anyone in Houston's literary community, and they’ll come back at you with a story about the Brazos Bookstore founder.
“Karl seemed to have read every book he ever stocked,” recalls Matt Henneman, co-owner and current chairman of Brazos’s board of directors, “and he never failed to have a great recommendation handy.”
Adds Blue Willow Bookshop owner Valerie Koehler: “He was the consummate bookseller, knowledgeable in every way. Karl was a staunch supporter of the literary arts in Houston; a legend in the Houston book scene.”
Houston's book community is now mourning the passing of Kilian, who died Wednesday at the age of 77 after a long illness, as they remember the titan who helped establish the Bayou City as a player on the national literary stage.
"The Houston literary community is what it is today thanks in large part to Karl’s years of tireless work and dedication,” says Inprint Executive Director Rich Levy. “As owner of Brazos Bookstore, he brought the world to Houston and inspired others to do the same.”
A touchstone of the Houston literary community, Brazos has been a haven for book lovers for more than four decades, fostering the careers of burgeoning writers and bringing in local, national, and international writers to share their works. As the store’s team likes to share, Larry McMurtry, Edward Albee, and Donald Barthelme were all regulars during their times in the Bayou City. The store’s central place in the Houston book scene has been so pivotal that 14 Houstonians pooled together their money to save the store after Kilian retired in 2006. The number of community owners has since grown to 27.
“The goal is to keep Karl’s legacy going as long as the community will support it,” says Henneman, who first began visiting the store in the '90s, “and, the level of community support for Brazos has never been greater.”
This continued devotion from readers young and old goes back to the bookstore owner’s original vision.
After studying art history at the University of St. Thomas under Dominique de Menil, Kilian, a native Houstonian, ran a bookshop in New York City while attending grad school. When he came back home, Kilian, then 27, opened his own bookstore in the sleepy neighborhood along Bissonnet Street near Rice University in 1974.
In keeping with its founder’s goal of bringing the cosmopolitan reading sensibilities of the Big Apple to Texas, Brazos didn’t focus on current best-sellers, instead stocking its shelves with a variety of classics, poetry, obscure literary journals, and art books.
Soon after, he began hosting store events and readings as a way to advertise the business. The gamble paid off. Even without major literary connections, Kilian began booking national authors for appearances at his store within the first few years, starting with Max Apple, who was teaching at Rice at the time Kilian tapped him to give a reading, in 1976.
Kilian quickly became something of a literary tastemaker, introducing the H-Town community to the local and national writers they needed to know—like award-winning poet Sharon Olds and humorist David Sedaris—long before they rose to prominence.
As years passed and Brazos’s reputation grew, so, too, did the size of the store, which eventually moved from a one-room space on the north side of Bissonnet to a larger one on its south end. By the time Kilian sold the shop to become the Menil Collection’s programs director, everyone from John Updike to Anne Rice to Ernest J. Gaines had signed inside the store.
“Part of Karl's legacy is that Houston is now a necessary stop for writers both beginning and established,” notes author and UH professor Nick Flynn. “It’s hard to imagine the the world without his brilliance.”
But Kilian’s importance in sowing the seeds of Houston’s future literary success went deeper than Brazos. In 1983 he helped found Inprint, now one of the country's premiere literary organizations.
Originally created to help fund UH’s graduate program in creative writing, Inprint now serves more than 15,000 readers and writers annually and has provided more than $2 million in fellowships to the college since its founding. Kilian, says Levy, remained involved in the program up until last year.
And, of course, he also kept in touch with the store that started it all—attending readings, stopping by on surprise visits, and calling to check in with his beloved literary community—even after moving to Austin with wife, Kathy, in the last few years of his life.
“The Houston literary community as we know it would probably not exist without Karl; in a very real sense, he created it out of his own imagination and force of personality,” says Henneman. “He started Brazos to bring something of the literary feeling of NYC to Houston, but it evolved into so much more under his guidance.”