Store manager Jane Moser strolls in the back room of Brazos Bookstore, thumbing a stack of specially ordered titles for its devoted customers. Above her hangs a framed black-and-white photograph of Tom Wolfe, one of many authors who had recently signed his latest for long lines of customers at this hub for the city's bookish sort.
If numbers tell the truth, Houstonians love a good read. In this city, bookstores – mega to mini, specializing in genres from out-of-print to best-seller – number more than 60 strong.
Customers Bought the Bookstore
Three of several independent stores reflect the city's love of books, including Brazos Bookstore, 33 years young at 2421 Bissonnet. Specializing in literary fiction, art, and architecture, Brazos also stocks children's books and literary journals. The store keeps a sharp eye out for rising Texas authors and schedules author events.
This pillar of literature nearly toppled a few years ago. In 2005, dreadfully in need of a miracle to keep the doors open, its own customers stepped forward.
"Twenty-five regular customers joined together and bought Brazos," Jane says, still brightening up at the mention. "It's now owned by its neighborhood. The story of that sale makes me feel good about the city of Houston."
They Love Mysteries
Just down the street at 2342 Bissonnet, the mystery-lover clientele of Murder by the Book remains similarly devoted. What a great store for a rainy day, with its stories of Russian moles, cloaked London sleuths, and puzzling crimes. Houstonians who crave cryptic twists to plots head to this playfully creepy mainstay.
When she opened the shop in 1980, "Only New York was doing the mystery store," claims Martha Farrington. It feels friendly and a little spooky at the same time. Martha's Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Archie, snoozes in a chair beside the True Crime section. Scattered like clues here and there are ravens, bones, vintage poison bottles, and deerstalker hats.
More than 25,000 books of espionage and romantic mystery find short shelf life here. Devoted customers quickly pluck the works of Martha Grimes, James Patterson, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Texas's own Sandra Brown and Kinky Friedman. Add to those names Dean James, the store's former manager, who now is a writer and winner of two Agatha Awards for short story and nonfiction. He's built his own fans among longtime customers.
"Ma'am, how long have you been coming to Murder by the Book?" asks David Thompson, current assistant manager, of a loyal reader. She ponders and replies, "Martha, how long have you been open?"
First Editions and Toy Soldiers
Jim Taylor owns The Book Collector in a former firehouse at 4106 South Shepherd. He surrounds himself with antiquity of print and play in this combination shop of rare books and toy soldiers. His voice booms regally, his face roses up at an inquiry from a curious customer, and the antiquarian stacks surround him like a make-believe fort.
Behind his cozy desk, his shelves are lined with classics such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A rare, first-edition copy of The Great Gatsby, a set of first editions of Ian Fleming's Bond novels, and dozens of history volumes cast an air akin to that of a china shop.
Jim holds a signed first edition of Hemingway's Torrents of Spring. "This one is $24,000," he says. He then launches into a lengthy soliloquy about the store he loves so much. He is equally enthusiastic about his antique toy soldiers as part of a store within a store, The Toy Soldier & Old Tin Soldier Shoppe.
Jim displays an excellent array of children's literature, too, including his line of first editions of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. He taps a Mother Goose volume. "Humphrey Bogart's mother, Maud Humphrey, was its illustrator. Did you know that?" He moves on to the rare Texana shelf. "Ranching, Indian wars, the Alamo," he announces, tapping the bindings with his finger.
For half an hour Jim spins stories about writers in Paris and World War II, like a good grandfather with the youth of a proud boy. "If someone reads to a child, 99% of the time that child will grow up with the love of books," he states. His eyes widen, and he dots his point in the space between us. "Read, read, read."
With good booksellers such as Jim, Houston's generations-to-come will.
Book a Trip
Visit one of these stores.
Brazos Bookstore: 2421 Bissonnet, Houston, TX 77055; , www.brazosbookstore.com or (713) 523-0701.
Murder by the Book: 2342 Bissonnet, Houston, TX 77005; www.murderbooks.com or (713) 524-8597.
The Book Collector: 4106 South Shepherd, Houston, TX 77098; www.oldtinsoldiershoppe.com or (713) 661-2665.
"Houston by the Book" is from the March 2008 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.