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Page against the machine: Bookstores try to keep indie spirit alive

Paul Combs inside his indie bookstore, The Last Word, on the south side in Fort Worth
Paul Combs inside his indie bookstore, The Last Word, on the south side in Fort Worth pmoseley@star-telegram.com

A bathroom is not usually a highlight when a business owner offers a tour. But, for Paul Combs, who opened The Last Word bookstore on Jennings Avenue in Fort Worth’s Near Southside in May, it’s indicative of how he’s setting himself apart.

Decorated colorfully by local artist Indi Butler with quotes from authors on the walls, the room — like the rest of the 2,700-square-foot store that used to be a hair salon — is meant to be more than strictly utilitarian.

“We decided to make the bathroom something a little more interesting,” he said. “I’ve had people come in and take pictures of the bathroom.”

If that’s not something that would be encouraged at a more corporate retailer, that’s exactly the point. With an emphasis on knowledge, service and helping foster a literary community, Combs is hoping to buck the perception that the world no longer has a place for a brick-and-mortar book retailer.

And he’s in good company in North Texas. With the opening of The Wild Detectives in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood in 2014 and Deep Vellum Books — an outgrowth of the nonprofit Deep Vellum Publishing — earlier this year in Deep Ellum, there seems to be a mini renaissance of small, indie bookstores.

“People just miss them,” Combs said of bookstores. “And, here [in Fort Worth], it was felt more acutely than some other places in the Metroplex. The Barnes & Noble that was on University was an amazing store. It wasn’t run like a normal Barnes & Noble. It was almost run like an indie and people loved it. I would drive from Mansfield to go there.”

Its closure three years ago left many with “a sense of loss,” he said.

Ink strikes back

The Barnes & Noble’s store closures (the downtown Fort Worth location was also shuttered along with others across the country) seemed to be indicative of where the book world was headed: online. A decade ago, everyone was planning a funeral for the traditional book-publishing and retail enterprises. All that was left was the shoveling of the dirt.

In the 2000s, the industry found itself convulsed by what seemed to be a reader revolution as e-book sales took off, surging 1,260 percent between 2008 and 2010, according to The New York Times.

Demand for hard-copy books faltered, and even those readers who opted for pages over pixels could easily get them from Amazon. Major brick-and-mortar chains found themselves underwater, with Borders finally succumbing in 2011.

Barnes & Noble has nearly 650 stores but plans to have only 450 by 2022, according to a report on goodereader.com. In North Texas, the sprawling, three-level Legacy Books in Plano opened with fanfare in 2008 but closed its doors two years later.

And if a behemoth like Borders, which had more than 500 locations, couldn’t survive the digital armada, what chance did the mom-and-pop indies have?

But the corpse is twitching with signs of life.

E-reader sales have nosedived. While that can be explained away by more readers opting to use tablets and smartphones instead, e-book sales also have slipped 10 percent in the first five months of 2016, according to the Association of American Publishers. In fact, sales of digital books seem to have leveled off to around 20 percent of the market in the English-speaking world.

Earlier this year, a study by the Codex Group, a firm that researches reading habits, found that the book industry appears to be taking a different path from the music, film and newspaper industries. According to Codex, there seemed to be a higher level of “digital fatigue” setting in among book buyers.

In concert with that, publishers such as Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster are expanding their print production and the number of independent bookstores has, if not exploded, quietly been growing. The American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independently operated book shops, now has 1,712 member stores, around 300 more than just five years ago.

“Some really great bookstores have opened,” Combs said. “Literati in Ann Arbor, Avid Bookshop in Athens [Georgia]. … For the town of Fort Worth not to have an independent bookstore was kind of crazy.”

Born book lover

Books certainly have an enthusiastic cheerleader in Combs, who has wanted to own a bookstore since he was a 6-year-old in Arlington.

“It just took me years after that to actually get to it,” said Combs, 50, wearing a T-shirt honoring British fantasy author Neil Gaiman.

Combs, who has self-published two novels, spent 19 years with a medical management company but, after his department was outsourced, he decided to take the plunge and open a store.

Like The Wild Detectives and Deep Vellum, the emphasis is on literary fiction and nonfiction works. There’s also a small section of vinyl albums, stocked by HD Vinyl and HiFi, the Fort Worth record-store pop-up.

He carries some young-adult titles but no children’s books (he refers those customers to Monkey and Dog Books on Vickery Boulevard because “I’d rather not do it poorly and compete with another indie”) and no books just because they’re popular (“We’re certified free of Nicholas Sparks … and things like that”).

“I have a lot of big readers who come in from all over — Keller, Watauga, North Richland Hills, Arlington,” he said. “People just want a local bookstore and they’ve been super supportive.”

He puts a big emphasis on international literature with a concept called Around the World in 80 Books, which he says offers a different perspective on the globe from what’s seen on CNN or Fox.

“You’re going to find out a lot more about what’s really going on [in Beirut] if you read a Lebanese author about what’s going on,” he said. “It’s a different view of the world.”

Combs wants to make The Last Word a home for various writers’ groups, book clubs (The Harry Potter Book Club next meets Sunday) and author visits (local writer Mark Nobles, who penned Fort Worth’s Rock and Roll Roots, appears Saturday).

Though The Last Word is in a part of the Near Southside that doesn’t have much foot traffic, Combs is expecting that to change. Originally, he looked at Magnolia Avenue, the retail heart of the area, but soon realized that was an impossibility.

“It wasn’t a case of cost. It was a case of there wasn’t anything open,” he said. “I think it’s going to be totally different [here] once Main Street is done [with construction] and these apartments are done. You’re going to see a lot more congregation of people.”

So far, he says, business has been better than expected. “There are some days that are so busy you won’t be able to eat lunch until you get home that night and there’ll be days if you wonder if the rapture has happened and everybody was taken,” he said with a laugh.

“On the whole, it’s been a lot better than I was prepared for. … I think this is one place where social media has helped me. Between Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, I’m pretty active and people share that stuff. I’ll post and people will come in and ask about it.”

Building Rome

Call Anne Hollander the accidental bookseller.

She took over the operations of Deep Vellum Books during the summer, almost on a whim. Will Evans, who had launched the for-profit store in late 2015 as an outgrowth of his nonprofit Deep Vellum Publishing, found himself overwhelmed with the two ventures, impending fatherhood and what would turn out to be his involvement with the just-announced Cinestate, a Dallas-based film/publishing/audiobook/multimedia company started by producer Dallas Sonnier.

Evans posted on Facebook that he was looking for a partner to take over the bookstore. “I saw [Dallas Morning News editor] Robert Wilonsky sharing it on Facebook,” Hollander recalled recently. “I was sitting at my kitchen counter, scrolling through my Facebook feed. I come across this and I end up sharing it and say, ‘I’d like to raise my hand for this. Who wouldn’t want to own a bookstore?’ Within 15 seconds, a guy I’d been on a date with a year earlier said, ‘I need to put you and Will together. This is the most perfect partnership I’ve ever seen.’ 

Hollander, who had been working as a marketing-technology consultant, met with Evans, not thinking anything would come out of it. “I had talked myself out of it before that first meeting,” she said. “We sit down … and we both had the same crazy vision that we were going to do something really big here in Dallas. It was so strange to hear that same vision echoing from across the table.”

Hollander took over July 1 and immediately began to reorganize the 1,200-square-foot store. The kitchen is being expanded and a beer/wine license should be in place soon.

“In the last 90 days, we’ve gone from selling 30 books a month to selling 322 a month and this month we will definitely be above 500,” she said.

She’s also reached out to various groups and organizations, such as the Dallas Public Library, which is hosting a book club. Hollander says poetry events have done really well, with one, Other People’s Poetry (sort of an open-mike night where participants read the works of a selected poet), attracting a capacity crowd of 120.

“I love the fact that we’re able to create this space where people can create strange, innovative things,” she said.

Tourists are stopping in, some of whom may be lured by the neighborhood’s history and others by the Deep Vellum Publishing brand. The company specializes in translating foreign-language literature into English and has made a mark in the publishing world, selling close to 10,000 copies of French author Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, a large number for a small imprint.

Deep Vellum the store stocks a lot of translated literature but its universe is much broader, including a variety of literary fiction and nonfiction titles. Now, business is good enough that Hollander and Evans are considering a second location somewhere in north Dallas, Lakewood, Richardson, north Tarrant County or Denton. A decision may be made before year’s end.

While the stereotype of the Metroplex is one of shopping and eating, as opposed to more bookish pursuits, Hollander thinks it may be time to put that image to rest.

“North Texans absolutely read,” she said, though noting that many institutions have to be built from the ground up.

“I don’t know if it’s the influence of people coming into Texas from everywhere else but we have to create [something] here and that attitude is running through the arts and culture community right now. [They say,] ‘OK, it’s not here, we’re going to build it. We’re going to build Rome.’ 

Upcoming events

The Last Word

  • Saturday: Mark Nobles, author of Fort Worth’s Rock and Roll Roots, 4 p.m.
  • Oct. 27: Road Kill: Texas Horror By Texas Writers book launch, 6 p.m.

Deep Vellum Books

  • Friday: Launch party for social group Nawkr
  • Nov. 3: Reading with Eduardo Rabasa, author of the novel A Zero-Sum Game and founding editorial director of Mexico’s Sexto Piso, an indie publishing firm, 6:30 p.m.
  • Nov. 13: “Other People’s Poetry” event featuring the work of Sylvia Plath, 4 p.m.

The Last Word

Deep Vellum Books

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