After nearly half a century of hosting authors; selling books about anything and everything, from Texana to espionage; and serving Tom’s “famous” lemon bars, made by a team member, the Westheimer stalwart River Oaks Bookstore will permanently close at the end of this month.
With its elegant, burgundy walls and stuffed bookshelves that almost touch the ceiling, it has been a refuge for generations of book lovers all around Houston. However, with increased popularity of online shopping, along with the devastations the pandemic’s wrought on independent businesses, the bookstore is not alone in its situation.
River Oaks co-owner Michael Jones says even before the pandemic, business had been on a steady decline—as it has been for most brick and mortar and local businesses—due to the ease and expansion of online sales.
As Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop, explains, small businesses don’t have the same the same support or benefits that larger, corporate entities, like the multinational seller Amazon, have to stay the course when times get tough.
“Amazon has continued to be a very formidable competitor and they’re not just competitors with bookstores now, but every kind of small business,” Koehler says. “And with the pandemic, people have been ordering more online, so that makes it more difficult for local businesses.”
As a result, industries across the board are struggling. More than 160,000 small businesses across the country have shuttered in 2020, according to Forbes. And the book industry has been hit particularly hard. During the first 10 months of this year, bookstores’ sales fell 31 percent, more than $2 billion, from 2019, according to Publishers Weekly, leading many, including River Oaks Bookstore, to reach their final pages.
“We’re always sad when our colleagues close their shops, and the River Oaks Bookstore has had a very long and storied career as booksellers,” Koehler says. “I would love to have more independent bookstores in Houston, so it’s always really sad when someone decides it’s time to close.”
River Oaks Bookstore opened in 1974. After half a decade, co-founder Jeanne Jard took over running the store. A longtime lover of books, she managed the store for a while before eventually buying it in the early ‘80s.
“As an only child, I grew up with books and always wanted to read,” Jard says. She speaks fondly over the many memories she has in the store, including having a line down the street for Stephen King’s book signing and going to dinner with John Grisham after he had come to the bookstore unannounced with his trunk full of copies of his second book. Jard agreed to let him do a book signing and had around 30 people come.
“At dinner, [Grisham] told me he’d ‘do anything to not become a lawyer,’ which of course he is now,” Jard says, laughing.
In 1996, Jard’s son Michael and daughter-in-law Josie Jones took over the business. And while the pair have continued the traditions, Jard’s remained “the face and the heart and the soul of the bookstore,” Jones says, which only makes the store’s final chapters more bittersweet.
“The bookstore is a thing we love, none of us are in it for the money, so yes, we’re going to miss it, but the truth is, the world has passed us by,” Jones said. “We understand that right now, the store is just not going to work out and it’s sad, but there’s a time for every season.”