Thompson’s Bookstore, one of the most distinctive small businesses in downtown Fort Worth, is not a bookstore. Its owners, who opened up shop eight years ago in an atmospheric old building, borrowed the name from the bookstore that occupied the space from 1972 to 1993. What the new Thompson’s is is a bar, with stuffed bookcases and literary-themed cocktails. It has proved so popular that its owners just completed a $4 million expansion, adding an event space whose marketing touts “the aroma of aged books and the warmth of wooden shelves” and redoing the basement speakeasy (on a recent visit, the password was “Gatsby2023”). The bar’s owners have smartly tapped into our love for bookstores without having to weather the piles of remainders or the minuscule profit margins (as little as 2 percent on the sale price of each book, according to one analysis).
The romance of the bookshop is strong. People have feelings for it that they don’t for other kinds of businesses that have been swamped by big-box chains or Amazon—Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks don’t star in rom-coms set in indie hardware shops. Part of our longing is because many of us have assumed that independent shops were passing into history. But suddenly that seems wrong—indie stores are roaring back. The American Booksellers Association reports having about three hundred more members now than it did in 2019, before the pandemic. And the trend may be especially pronounced in Texas.
This summer three independent bookshops opened in a single month in greater Austin: First Light Books in the Hyde Park neighborhood, Alienated Majesty just north of the University of Texas, and the Book Burrow in suburban Pflugerville. But perhaps more remarkable is the number of shops sprouting up in smaller cities and towns. In the past four years, the West Texas towns of Abilene and San Angelo got their own independent bookstores selling new titles. So did Rockwall and Seguin, Waco and Waxahachie, Georgetown and Longview—and that’s leaving out a few. Belton, Grapevine, Keller, Rockdale, and Selma joined the club just this year.
Heather Duncan, executive director of the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association, which is based in Denver and serves Texas and twelve other states, says she’s always discovering new stores and fears she’s missing some. “When I took over in 2018 I think we had eleven members [in the state], and now we have seventy-nine. And our members are not all the bookstores in Texas.” (Her count includes used book stores.) “I’m not sure,” she says, “but it seems like Texas has seen the biggest boom.”
Many of the new shops that I sampled around the state to assemble our Big Map of Texas Indie Bookstores did not have the breadth of decades-old outfits such as BookPeople in Austin and Brazos Bookstore in Houston, where I worked for six years in the eighties. Dallas’s full-service Interabang Books and the Boerne Bookshop, which debuted in the little Hill Country town in late 2019, are examples of newer shops that do pack a broad stock into a small space. When I first embarked on a quest to visit every indie bookstore I could find, I sometimes wondered why it was harder to find the nonfiction books on my list. As I visited our state’s innovative offerings, I realized I had been thinking, like a gatekeeper, that anyone who opened an indie needed bookselling experience and strong publishing-industry knowledge, and that their stores had to be the comprehensive, one-stop-shopping destinations I was accustomed to.
But the business model of the indie bookshop is expanding, and Duncan credits “the new diversity and new energies of bookstore owners.” In most stores we frequented before this boom, “curation wasn’t the point. [The philosophy] was ‘something for everyone.’ ” But the new entrepreneurs are filling needs in their towns, sometimes with particular readers in mind, and bringing new visions of what a bookstore can be. “Now really it is more about something for my community, whether that community is a diverse community or just a small town,” Duncan says. They’re creating the spaces they wanted to see in their neighborhoods, as Claudia Vega did with Whose Books, in Dallas’s Oak Cliff. Vega opened Whose expressly to serve an area of Oak Cliff she considered a bookstore desert, creating the shop she felt the neighborhood needed and filling it with titles tailored for it—inclusive children’s books, nonfiction on relevant political and social issues, adult fiction from diverse authors.
“Very few people are going to open a bookstore to make money. The profit margins are very tight,” says Arlene Kasselman, co-owner of Abilene’s Seven and One Books, which just celebrated its first anniversary. She launched her store, after dreaming about it for years, to “add depth and quality” to Abilene’s revitalizing downtown. “I’m not sure I would have done it if it was in a strip center across town.”
Owners of some newer stores emphasize on their social media feeds and in their shops that a big part of their purpose is to oppose attacks against books from local school boards; from the State of Texas, which recently made it harder for indie bookstores to sell books to schools, a major source of revenue for some; and from politicians at all levels who rail against “critical race theory” and often seem to oppose any book that touches on race or LGBTQ issues, or even depicts or discusses Black or LGBTQ lives. Some Black entrepreneurs got into bookselling after the Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in 2020: Katrina Brooks opened a permanent location for Black Pearl in Austin and Terri Hamm debuted Kindred Stories in Houston, both in 2021, joining Nia Tayler-Clark’s Blacklit in Farmer’s Branch and the venerable Black-owned stores Pan-African Connection in Dallas and the Dock in Fort Worth. Pflugerville’s the Book Burrow and South Austin’s Reverie Books, both owned by gay women, announce that they are welcoming to all and promote LGBTQ writers and titles.
Many of the new shops have started very small, some with the intention to stay that way—as pop-ups, in trailers, or in incubator or coworking spaces. Vega and her family first opened Whose Books, in Dallas’s Tyler Station collaborative space, with a bathroom shared with other businesses and temporary walls separating her store from other shops. Whose has now moved a few blocks north, to the Bishop Arts District. In Blanco, two women have opened Paper Magic, a small “bookish boutique” set in a 1967 Shasta camper and open only on the weekends. In Keller, a Fort Worth suburb, interior designer and book lover Hayley Smith expanded her lifestyle blog, A House With Books, into a bookstore with the same name. She describes her small general-interest shop as a “permanent pop-up” and shares her storefront in Keller Town Center with a coworking space.
One popular model is a bookshop combined with a wine bar, or even a full restaurant (the margins are significantly better on rosé than on paperbacks). In Seguin, Pecantown Books and Brews is drawing customers in part with an adorable little cafe room, complete with little bistro tables, hip floral wallpaper, and a menu of small plates, craft beer, wine, and coffee drinks. In East Austin and also in Longview, new combination bookstores and wine bars have opened. In Rockwall, a lakeside Dallas suburb, Fable & Fire: A Bookshop Bistro is a full-service restaurant and bar, with a $68 ribeye and cocktails like Catcher in the Chai, along with a few books for sale in the front. And Belton now has a bookstore speakeasy in its downtown; at Blackbird Books & Spirits, you walk through a small pizza joint, slide open a door covered by a life-size framed portrait of Ma Ferguson, and find yourself in a dark, moody bar and hangout lined with new books for sale.
Even when new shops are traditional in format, some have small stocks that lean heavily on the most-popular fiction—Dixie Frechette, who opened her Sunday Bookshop in Dripping Springs in June, has said her focus is “book club fiction,” with lots of Emily Henry and Colleen Hoover, though I bought a biography there; Ghoulish Books, in Selma, outside of San Antonio, is devoted to horror. “Literary fiction and genre fiction are really thriving—escape reading is thriving right now,” Duncan says. “It’s very normal. It happens not only in times like we’ve just gone through but whenever the world is in turmoil.”
Many of the shop owners, like Kasselman, who had worked in administration at Abilene Christian University, are career changers, several of them former educators, such as Brooks of Black Pearl in Austin, and Vega of Whose Books in Dallas. The pandemic, for various reasons, gave them the impetus to open a bookstore, and it worked in other ways too. “People saw coffee shops and little stores struggling to make it” in their communities, Kasselman believes. They thought, “People around me are losing income and jobs, but Jeff Bezos is talking about space travel,” she says. Readers were motivated to support local shops, and it helped lead, she argues, to a “reimagining of what the local bookstore can be.”
Established bookshops (BookPeople, Brazos) and new ones (Fabled in Waco, Nowhere in San Antonio), received Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government to help keep them going early in the pandemic. Another important factor was the launch of bookshop.org, in January 2020—fortunate timing for small indies everywhere. The organization raised money to support stores during lockdowns, but most important, the website made it easy for small stores to launch online sales, with an almost instant sign-up process, so they could start operating as mini Amazons. Many small stores, including Boerne Bookshop, which had its ribbon cutting that same month, did not yet have their own websites. Thanks to bookshop.org, they were able to get into online bookselling and combine that with curbside sales. At the same time, Duncan notes, Amazon suspended shipping of books for a time while it concentrated on sending out essential supplies, and people stuck at home were perhaps reading more. “It was a perfect storm,” she says. Some indie bookstores did close as a result of pandemic lockdowns, but Duncan says more eventually opened.
Gabrielle Calvery’s story exemplifies several of these trends. Calvery had been working as a counselor in psychiatric hospitals and saw the waning of the pandemic as an opportunity to make a career change. She opened Paper Leaves, in Waxahachie (population about 45,000), in early 2022, with a distinctive model in mind: a combination bookshop and plant store. The store’s individuality, like that of the two-story 1881 house it occupies, strikes you right away. Architectural details are intact, and the bookcases feel right at home amid the high ceilings and warmth of the old place. There are plants throughout, but they’re concentrated on the front porch and in a sunny upstairs space. One good-sized room is dedicated to children’s books, another to several genres of adult fiction. The front parlor is mostly nonfiction, though on our visit a table was covered with books mentioned on Gilmore Girls, from Jane Eyre to 1984. “I figured we’re in a Gilmore Girls town, so it makes sense,” Calvery says. On a recent Sunday afternoon, she was getting ready to host 25 to 30 locals, she said, for a monthly book club meeting in the back-of-the-house lounge area furnished with tables and chairs.
In Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story, set in a dystopian near-future, the protagonist, an author, has a younger girlfriend who is repulsed by the smell of books in his apartment—she finds them noxious as objects. It’s a funny bit, but Shteyngart may have gotten this prediction wrong. Today, Duncan says, “young people don’t read ebooks, for the most part. They want books on their shelves.” Calvery agrees. “My customer base is young women,” she says, and she credits #BookTok and other social media efforts for helping make physical books more popular with these real-life Rory Gilmores. The in-person bookstore experience “is an aesthetic,” Calvery says. As the canny folks behind Thompson’s Bookstore obviously knew.