Tablet Life & Arts

Indie bookstores: A tale of underdogs

My first encounter with a bookstore — or at least the first I can hazily remember — came about thanks to aliens living at the center of the Earth.

They were the subject of a book that offered proof extraterrestrials were underfoot, the ad in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed, and that certainly captured my 6-year-old imagination. Begging my parents usually fell on plea-resistant ears, but surprisingly, this time, Dad took me to buy it.

That meant a trip to Pickwick Bookshop, a sprawling, three-level wonderworld of the written word, with a history as rich and romantic as the titles on its many shelves. Founded in 1938 by a Russian immigrant and named after Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, the store on Hollywood Boulevard became a hangout for such literary lights as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, Christopher Isherwood, John Fante and Aldous Huxley.

To this day, I still don’t know why my father agreed to purchase that book, the name and author of which I’ve long since forgotten. Maybe it was supposed to be an early lesson in don’t-believe-everything-you-read. But what I do remember is being impressed by the sheer immensity of Pickwick, a shrine to everything ever committed to print.

But even the mighty Pickwick couldn’t stand up to the power of progress. Sold to the now defunct B. Dalton chain in 1968, the store, by then a slim shadow of its former self, closed in 1995.

Nearly 20 years later, I live in North Texas and the days of discovering wonders on bookstore shelves seem to be even more fleeting. Smaller, regional bookstores have mostly fallen to the body blows of competition, first from such big-box chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders and later from Amazon and e-readers. Today, Borders has gone belly-up and Barnes & Noble is struggling with declining revenue. Just a couple of weeks ago, Fort Worth’s most prominent Barnes & Noble locations — in downtown and University Park Village — closed their doors.

At this pace, it might seem that the funeral for the bound, printed page is at hand.

But don’t start the eulogy just yet.

A couple of micro-trends suggest that The Bookstore is not going down without a fight.

In 2013, indie booksellers across the U.S. reported an upsurge in traffic, with sales spiking eight percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit trade group.

Membership in the ABA has risen 16 percent in the past five years, indicating that more people may be actually opening bookstores. In fact, DFW will have a new indie bookstore, colorfully named The Wild Detectives, perhaps as early as the first week of February.

While this may seem counterintuitive, ABA CEO Oren Teicher says that trends such as consumers wanting to support local businesses, as well as bookstores using technology, social media and special events to connect with buyers and nurture a niche audience, are working.

So, while current bookstore economics may not bode well for general-interest, big-box stores like Borders, tailoring a smaller space to a more targeted audience may still find a way to survive. He also says Borders’ fall may be indie stores’ gain: Some of their orphaned book buyers may be turning to independently owned retailers.

It’s analagous to what’s happening in the music biz, where sales of vinyl albums, while still a small percentage of music sold, have soared 32 percent since 2012 while sales of digital songs and album have taken a hit, according to Billboard.

Certainly, the heydays of places like Pickwick are gone, but the emergence of a new kind of boutique bookstore — small but mighty — is alive and kicking.

“This is happening everywhere,” Teicher says. “There are buyers who like shopping in a store.”

Fostering a culture

Talk to those involved in the North Texas literary community and there’s guarded optimism that brick-and-mortar stores can survive, and perhaps even thrive, in the age of the e-reader. (In fact, sales of e-books, after a meteoric rise since 2009, seem to be slowing down, according to the Association of American Publishers. In the first quarter of last year, sales were up only five percent over the prior year.)

Sure, they can rattle off the names of all the good bookstores that have closed over the years: two Barnes & Noble stores in Fort Worth, the huge and ambitious Legacy Books in Plano, Books on the Square in Granbury and the smaller, more specialized stores such as Black Images, The Mystery Bookstore, Dicho’s and Crossroads in Dallas.

And they can mourn the fact that, despite the best efforts of a used-book retailer like Half Price Books or the remaining Barnes & Noble locations to foster a sense of literary community, DFW lacks a store that serves as a focus in the way that Austin’s BookPeople, Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, Miami’s Books & Books or L.A.’s Book Soup do. There also isn’t a large festival like Austin’s Texas Book Festival here, so the region doesn’t get as many author visits or book signings as it used to.

“There’s less of a reason for major authors to come and less of a reason for a publisher to send them,” says Dallas literary agent and editor David Hale Smith, whose multi-writer short-story compilation, Dallas Noir, was published last year. “We run the risk of being a flyover area for big authors.”

As well, some say the literary scene is so diffuse that it can be hard to pin down. Just ask Will Evans, who moved to the area seven months ago from North Carolina to launch Deep Vellum, a small publisher specializing in English translations of foreign-language fiction. “I have been to one poetry reading since I got here and it was at a Cajun restaurant in Plano, which was hilarious because a Saints game was playing in the background while she was doing a poetry reading,” he says, with a laugh.

Yet all of this also offers an opportunity, a less crowded slate on which to make an impression. After all, there is literary culture here, ranging from the number of book clubs to University of North Texas’ annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine and the sheer number of writers who call North Texas home — Ben Fountain (his 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was a finalist for the National Book Award) and Matt Bondurant (his The Wettest County in the World became the movie Lawless) among them.

“And, of course, several universities in the area have excellent writing programs and so do other organizations, such as the DFW Writers’ Workshop, which has been around since 1977 and has produced many New York published writers,” says author and agent Jim Donovan, who once worked in retail at the long-gone Taylor’s Bookstore chain in Dallas.

“[Literary culture] doesn’t seem as prominent in the way it is in places like Minneapolis or Seattle,” concedes Evans, whose company’s first release, Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft, comes out this fall. “[But] there are readers here and a reading culture waiting to be given voice to, but they need a place to go and see each other and exchange ideas. I’ve lived all over the South and this area is a lot more progressive and modern than a lot of places, and that’s going to work to its advantage in the long run.”

Walk on the Wild side

Counting on that optimism are the two guys — engineers by day, bibliophiles by night — who’ve pooled their resources to open The Wild Detectives, a name that sounds more like an indie band than a bookstore.

I find them — Javier Garcia del Moral and Paco Vique, in addition to store manager Carlos Guajardo — in their space on a cool and quiet Saturday morning on a street lined with small residences and houses turned into offices in the heart of Oak Cliff’s funky Bishop Arts District. But the silence is broken by the bang of remodeling coming from their white 1940s craftsman bungalow, the type of place with a porch where one can imagine sipping a sweet tea while greeting passersby.

If all goes as planned, they aren’t going to have a lot of time for people watching.

Tentatively set to open the first week of February, The Wild Detectives won’t just be a place to buy books from a small but well-chosen selection, but also somewhere to hang out, grab a coffee or a beer, hear an author, or see a performance.

“What we are trying to achieve here is a place where people can come and share their interests,” says Garcia del Moral. “It’s a place where, if you have nothing to do, you can come and find something interesting.”

The bookstore idea came to Garcia del Moral and Vique, both Spanish immigrants and friends since meeting on an engineering project in Ireland a few years back, while the two were traveling in Australia. It would be a chance to flex their creative muscles in a way their day jobs didn’t allow. But then Vique took a position in Dallas while Garcia del Moral stayed in Ireland, so the store remained in the realm of fantasy.

Eventually, Garcia del Moral relocated to Austin and then North Texas two years ago. They tiptoed into the creative arena by approaching Oak Cliff’s Texas Theatre about launching a Spanish film series. That led to reviving the bookstore dream.

“We love the neighborhood and we saw a lot of synergy with the people here, like [those at] the Texas Theatre,” says Garcia del Moral. “We saw the opportunity to do something.”

They are not deterred by the flood of pessimism washing over the book industry in the past few years.

“Selling books is antibusiness,” admits Vique with a laugh. “What we would like is to have people buy lots of books, but we are realistic. There are going to be people coming here for books, but there’s a lot more coming for coffee and drinks. Hopefully, that is what will pay the bills at the end of the day.”

He’s emboldened by what he has seen happen back home. “In Madrid, there are bookstores/cafes like this all the time and the economy is worse than here and the situation [with the book industry] is not much better,” he says. “But there’s still room for these bookstore/cafes. They provide a community space for interaction.”

Guajardo, who once worked for Borders, was brought in to run the day-to-day operations. “We’re keeping [the inventory] narrowly focused, almost like a curated selection of fiction,” he says, noting that up to 25 percent of their stock may be Spanish-language. “We’re not trying to make the mistake of being everything to everyone.”

In the future, they envision perhaps partnering with the large Lucky Dog used bookstore, part of the small, local Paperbacks Plus chain, that opened just west of the Bishop Arts District in 2012, creating a literary nexus of sorts in Oak Cliff.

For now, though, they just want to get The Wild Detectives (the name is inspired by the title of a novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño) up and running. And both Gabriel del Moral and Vique are keeping their day jobs as engineers.

“Carlos will be the main person here and he’s running the whole show,” says Gabriel del Moral. “As far as Paco and I, we will pretty much just be coming in [like everyone else] and enjoying the place.”

What’s up, Dock?

The setting may be different for The Dock Bookshop, which sits in a timeworn strip mall in east Fort Worth, far from the city’s trendiest quarters, but its ambitions run parallel.

Donna Craddock says that when she, her sister, her brother and her mother decided to open Fort Worth’s The Dock Bookshop in 2008, just as the economy was going into freefall, some of their friends thought they were insane.

“The capitalist friends were discouraging because they knew there was no money to be made in a bookstore,” she says with a laugh, seated near the back of the store. “They were like, ‘Are you crazy? Why?’ My community-oriented friends were like ‘Yes, go for it.’ ”

Craddock says that The Dock Bookshop, which focuses on African-American culture and literature, fills a void left by the closures of The Black Bookworm in Fort Worth and Black Images in Dallas. (Though Dallas still has Pan-African Connection near Fair Park.) Like The Wild Detectives, the point isn’t just to sell books but to be a community gathering space, a place where books provide the rhythm, but shared conviviality plays the melody.

To that end, the store hosts special events, like a recent screening of the new movie Four of Hearts, starring Darrin Dewitt Henson ( Soul Food, Stomp the Yard); author appearances like a book signing from California’s Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, for her new work Swirling; and a monthly book club for young people called Youth Kick Back that not only involves reading but music and food. On Saturday, the store will host the gospel-themed Sounds of Saturday with music, poets and comedians. It also rents out space for special events.

Craddock says that financially, the store can be a struggle. The family wants to add a coffee bar and more food options. And they’ve started stocking clothing and other items. They’ve also reduced the number of fiction titles in favor of nonfiction history and culture books. “A lot of your history and culture books are not on e-readers and a lot of those customers want to still have the book, the actual book,” she says.

If she’d known just how difficult the bookstore business would be, Craddock says, she might have had second thoughts.

“This has been a labor of love and a learning experience,” says Craddock, who maintains a full-time job at Grand Prairie’s St. John Church. “You know how God gives you just a little bit because if he gave you the whole thing, you wouldn’t do it? It’s very hard to market and keep open. That’s why we had to diversify and that’s why we added events. We have to be innovative to keep the bookstore going.”

I contacted author Littlejohn, an acquaintance I’ve known since my L.A. days, about why she wanted to appear at the store earlier this month. “There is a sense of community and connectiveness that I feel when I go to black-owned bookstores,” she says in an email. “And, most oftentimes, as was the case at The Dock, audiences tend to be interested in actually buying the book. And readers are always happy you came to visit.”

Craddock says being an independent bookstore is about more than selling product.

“Because we’re unique, your community is going to expect more from you,” she says. “I don’t think this is just with black bookstores. If you’re an independent bookstore, you’re in the community and they’re going to come ask you, ‘Where can I find a good therapist? What’s going on for the kids?’

“They expect you to be a resource center, too.”

Family matters

Husband and wife Larry and Angie Granados can relate.

In 2007, they discovered they had such a large book collection that they might as well open a bookstore. And so was born the cozy, two-story The Book Carriage & Coffee Shop on Roanoke’s Oak Street, the avenue that has developed a reputation in recent years as a Denton County restaurant row.

But they quickly realized that their venture was much more than a lark.

“I didn’t realize how much the community needed a place like this,” Angie Granados says on a recent afternoon. “I did it for myself because this is what I love to do. I love to talk to people. … [But] people have really embraced it.”

Still, they found out shortly after opening that they would need to find their particular niche. Yes, being a coffee shop where people can browse, sit and do work on their laptops, or enjoy an occasional music performance meant the couple didn’t have to rely solely on book sales. But that still wouldn’t be quite enough.

“There were certain genres that just didn’t sell,” says Larry Granados. “Health, travel — for all those genres, people go online.”

The solution: young-adult and children’s literature.

“I touched based with the schools to see if we could provide some of their library books,” Angie Granados says. “From there, we went to author events and got into book fairs.”

For example, they’re involved in Saturday’s YAK Fest, a teen literature festival put on by Keller school district librarians.

In the process, they’ve managed to earn a loyal fan base among adults in the community.

“I visit the Book Carriage even though it’s a 45-minute drive from my house because I love the atmosphere of the store,” says Fort Worth resident Dana Harper via email. “I like it better than the chains because it has personality. It’s not some cold, cookie-cutter, corporate atmosphere. It has heart.”

Wise County resident Deb Terrell makes the drive because she says the Granados support the arts. “It’s not just a bookstore. It’s like a community center,” she says. “I’m a book person, so I like to go and browse, and she offers interesting titles. She’s done poetry readings. It’s just a nice community gathering.”

Ask Angie about what things might be like in a decade and she’s sure Book Carriage will still be around.

“We’re still going to have books and I know that people are still going to want books,” she says with certainty. “We still get that feedback from people who still like books. We have grandparents who want their children to experience a book.”

A bookstore near you

It’s too soon to declare a bookstore resurgence. It’s still a precarious financial tightrope bookstores need to walk — and the new technologies and delivery systems are only going to continue to make it more convenient to read without ever setting foot in a bookstore.

But there may be enough room for all.

Deep Vellum’s Will Evans sees The Wild Detectives as an idea that could take root and signal a new forest of choices.

“There could be bookstores opening in every neighborhood and they would tailor their selections to [that neighborhood],” says Evans, who would like to open a bookstore in Deep Ellum. “They won’t be offering everything at the cheapest price, but offering things you can’t find anywhere, things you would never know about on Amazon and events and activities that you could never find online. That’s what’s going to be the real value.”

If that indeed happens, then at least the spirit of Pickwick will have survived into the new era. Which is probably more than can be said for those aliens.

Cary Darling, 817 390-7571

Twitter: @carydar


314 W. Eighth St.


Opens in February


6637 Meadowbrook Drive

Fort Worth



304 N. Oak St.