How It All Began
“When my mother and Ken started this company, they just wanted to provide a safe and fun place to work where everyone would feel welcomed and where reading was affordable and accessible.”–Sharon “Boots” Anderson, CEO of Half Price Books
On July 27, 1972, bibliophiles Pat Anderson and Ken Gjemre began the first chapter of a journey that would lead their little bookstore that could, founded in an old laundromat in the heart of Dallas, Texas, to become one of the most beloved retailers in the nation.
From the very beginning, Pat and Ken were committed to serving the community, supporting literacy, and helping to make the world a better place, a mission that included recycling and donating millions of books and refusing to censor products sold in their store. Ken could often be heard reciting his renowned motto, “Books should fill our lives, not our landfills.”
From its inception, Half Price Books (HPB) has been a family affair, with Pat’s oldest daughter, Board Chair Ellen O’Neal working at the Lovers Lane store in Dallas right out of high school in 1972, and her youngest, CEO Sharon Anderson Wright, following suit shortly after in 1976.
Though the founders have since passed on (Pat in October of 1995 at 63 and Ken in May of 2002 at 81), the core values of their company remain intact, with the family still at the helm and plenty of books (and tons of other items) on the shelves.
“I think I’m like a lot of people who didn’t feel welcome when they walked into a bookstore and were ignored. Ken changed all that.”–Jan Cornelius, Operations Supply Systems Director at Half Price Books
Former HPB employees describe Ken Gjemre as a visionary, a man way ahead of his time who imagined his bookstore as a gathering place with employees, rather than shareholders, as the heart and soul of the business model.
As for Pat Anderson, her leadership style is often spoken of as unconventional. She could be caught in the act of creating one of her renowned drawings at any given moment, even during meetings, and preferred to forego performance reviews in favor of having drinks with her employees after work.
So much about the culture at HPB stems from Pat and Ken’s desire to make the world a better place and improve the lives of anyone who worked there, a desire that can be seen in the company being one of the first area retailers to accept credit cards and offering included healthcare for domestic partners long before it became law.
If You Build It
“We were the first of our kind to have used and new product, plus CDs and record albums.”–Tony Warmus, Regional Manager at Half Price Books
Because Pat and Ken made the early decision not to overextend themselves, they only opened new stores if they could afford to pay for them. That meant no bank loans and no outside investors, and it’s been that way ever since.
Over the course of 50 years, HPB grew from a single store in Dallas, Texas, to 120 locations in 19 states.
In 1983, Ken Gjemre suggested starting a wholesale division of Half Price Books, aptly named Texas Bookman, with the goal of attending the annual American Booksellers Association (ABA) convention that year. The division turned out to be a game-changer for HPB, causing an increase in revenue through its purchase and distribution of remainders, allowing stores to fill holes in their inventory.
The sale of non-book items has also been a large contributor of growth for HPB over the years, garnering revenue from everything from calendars and coffee mugs to plush toys and planners.
“We don’t want anyone controlling us or telling us what to do. We like to be able to act immediately when someone comes up with a new idea.”–Sharon Anderson Wright, CEO of Half Price Books
For HPB, being fiscally conservative has been the key to staying in business for the long haul. In the early year, “do it yourself” was practically a mantra, with store managers taking on the responsibility of building CD racks, bookshelves, sales counters, and display cases to cut costs.
Every fixture in Half Price Books stores is created at the HPB Woodshoppe, the company’s in-house workshop. Each year, employees flock to its Dallas location for four-day training sessions designed to transform them into experts at installing HPB’s signature fixtures once the building components are shipped to stores.
From contract negotiations to the day of the Great Opening, getting a new HPB store up and running takes about 365 days, total. And once the location is in full swing, employees are encouraged to be as creative as they would like when it comes to creating displays for each store. Holidays, sales promotions, even general notices all receive a special touch from imaginative booksellers.
“The highlight of our family affair was visiting Half Price Books.”–Renne Barolet, Proud HPB Customer
While on summer vacation in 2018, HPB customers Adriana and Jeff Sifford, both teachers, challenged themselves to visit all nine HPB stores in the Houston area in a single day and documented their journey on Twitter, with the Twitterverse (and HPB employees) rooting for them.
Customer Fernando Ramirez has fond memories of frequenting the Half Price Books store on Callaghan Road in San Antonio, Texas with his little brother and buying their favorite X-men comics from the spinner rack. So much so, that one of the store’s employees began setting issues aside for them.
More than a retailer of goods, Half Price Books offers its customers an impactful experience. Maria Jacobsen from Naperville, Illinois wrote in to share that while browsing shelves during a trip to HPB when she was 16 and realizing that she and her father had been looking for a book by the same author, they began to realize the previously unknown common interests they shared. The trip stands out to her as a pivotal moment when her dad started to see her as an adult and valued what she had to say.
The symbiotic relationship between HPB booksellers and their loyal customers involves trust on both ends, and it’s a good thing too, given the number of unconventional items customers leave behind when they sell things at the Buy Counter. From cash to locks of hair, employees make every effort to return miscellaneous items found in used books and magazines.
Found Among The Stacks
“Look, it’s Michael Jackson, and you know, he can’t be in public.”–Michael Jackson’s handlers
From author events to rare sightings in the stacks, HPB has seen its fair share of famous celebs over the years. The most famous? The King of Pop himself, who visited locations in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio respectively in the mid ‘80s wearing a wig, fake beard and a trench coat that had seen better days.
Local celebrities are also known to browse the shelves of Half Price Books. Famed Austin-area artist and songwriter (and favorite of Nirvana headliner, Kurt Cobain) Daniel Johnston frequented both the Copperfield and North Lamar HPB locations to shop for VHS tapes before his untimely death in 2019.
In one of the largest in-store events held at HPB’s Flagship location in Dallas, renowned gothic author Anne Rice greeted 500 fans while signing copies of Prince Lestat: The Vampire Chronicles in 2014.
More recently, Dav Pilkey, author and illustrator of the wildly successful Captain Underpants children’s book series, brought fans out in droves during events held in partnership with Half Price Books at the StarCenter in Frisco, Texas and the W. G. Thomas Coliseum in Haltom City, Texas in 2018 and 2019.
A Bookstore for The Community
“Boots always says we’re not just a bookstore, we’re part of the community.”–Tory Herron, District Manager at Half Price Books
Half Price Books has always been committed to the community, supporting literacy and environmental initiatives since 1972.
HPB has donated just over an estimated 11 million books to organizations, local teachers in need and nonprofits via their literacy partnership program.
In alignment with the eco-friendly mission to keep books in circulation and out of landfills, HPB also strives to implement green initiatives where possible in store operations, including switching to LED lighting in all locations, making sure all company stationery and marketing materials are made from 100 percent recycled paper, outfitting each new store with 100 percent recyclable carpet and environmentally sensitive paint, and making the commitment to being “Plastic Bag Free by 2023.”
Half Price Books has always been a company that exhibits sympathy in action when communities experience hard times. When natural disasters strike, HPB allocates funds to help locals with recovery efforts in any way they can. Whether it’s donating puzzles and films to inspire game and movie nights for displaces families or setting up donation boxes at the registers and entrances of stores, HPB continuously looks for opportunities to be of service to the customers who have been so loyal over the years.
“Everything came to a screeching halt. We’d been hearing that everything was fine, and then everything shut down.”–Jan Cornelius, Operations Supply Systems Director at Half Price Books
March 2020 saw business as usual take a drastic turn as effects of the novel COVID-19 virus began to spread across the U.S. Brick-and-mortar retailers had to make swift adjustments and in doing so, Half Price Books was met with uncertainty about store operations for the foreseeable future.
Corporate executives and district and regional mangers met on a daily basis to chart new territory, brainstorming ideas to keep the company afloat, including selling handcrafted Woodshoppe items (shelves, crates—even Kubb sets!), puzzles (to keep quarantining families busy), and, of course, books on HPB.com to help with supplemental revenue until stores were allowed to fully reopen.
Noticing that restaurants were doing well with curbside pickup options, HPB began offering curbside pickup at their stores, essentially turning locations that were once bustling with customers into fulfillment centers for online orders.
The safety of employees, customers (and their pets!) became a top priority for Half Price Books during the pandemic. Mask mandates were implemented according to county directives, and routine store sanitation efforts were put in place to ensure that sufficient measures were taken to protect the health and wellbeing of those who sought out the comfort of a good book, movie, game or puzzle during unprecedented times.
The Next Chapter
“What I love most about Half Price Books is that for the past 50 years we’ve been doing something that is good for people—saving trees, building a community in all these different cities and towns, and creating jobs for a lot of wonderful people who helped us build this company from the ground up.”–Sharon Anderson Wright, CEO of Half Price Books
What HPB offers to its customers and employees is so much more than a bookstore, it’s a sanctuary that inspires the kind of exploration and discovery that only occurs in the physical space. Wandering through the stacks of your local Half Price Books store and finding what you didn’t even know you were looking for is an experience that HPB means to preserve.
Because HPB began on the principle of both selling books and buying them back from customers, an innate sense of community can be found at every location. Some customers bring huge boxes of used items to sell because they’re downsizing their home, others are bringing their children to the kid’s section to spark a common interest in pouring through the pages of a good book, others are searching the stacks to gain a bit more knowledge on the history that’s tied to current events. Half Price Books has an ecosystem like no other. It is what has allowed them to thrive, and what will undoubtedly allow them to continue doing so.
Recently, HPB’s development subsidiary, BookMark LLC completed construction on a restaurant, retail and office complex adjacent to the flagship location near Northwest Highway in Dallas, Texas. Ever keeping the community in mind, Boots anticipates that the additional space will help improve the neighborhood.
In a post-retail world where e-commerce is king and online-only brands tend to beat out their brick-and-mortar counterparts, it can be a challenge for a bookstore to find its place, but for the past 50 years, HPB has remained committed to its employees, its customers and its mission to promoting literacy and striving to be good stewards of the environment.
“We could have been rich many times over, but my mom made a commitment to do the right thing, and it’s my job to uphold it.”–Sharon “Boots” Anderson Wright