Interview with a Bookstore: Blue Willow Bookshop
A Place For Both Kids and Adults
In 1995, Valerie Koehler moved back to Houston, her hometown, from California. A few days after finding the right house, she was driving down Memorial. She remembered the bookstore on the corner (Musabelle’s Books). An idea popped into her head that she might want to run a bookstore. She stopped in and offered to work Musabelle’s Books for free. Musabelle Naut was not one to turn down free. Within a few months, it became obvious that it was time for Musabelle to retire and sell the shop. And there Valerie was, ready to buy it. It became official in October 1996. Blue Willow Bookshop is now celebrating 20 years. The shop has changed in some big ways over the years but it still retains the quirky charm that apparently screams “You’ve Got Mail” to pretty much every new customer.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Valerie Koehler (owner): We don’t specialize in one particular category but we are half adult/half kids. No one told me that you don’t do that. We became known as a family store—fun when we want, serious when we need to be. The staff of fourteen part time book lovers reads everything and reads voraciously. We think it’s important to love all the books—from toddler board books to serious biographies. We had the opportunity to expand a few years ago but decided that we like our size.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Valerie: If we could add anything, the staff has a serious stationery addiction and we don’t have much space to devote to it. And a kitchen—can we get a kitchen? We’d love to have chefs come do demonstrations.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Valerie: I don’t know if we do anything better than other bookstores but I doubt any of them has ever changed out a customer’s vacuum cleaner bag for them. When the Oreck store across the street closed, we had a customer come in distraught because she didn’t know how to change the bag. We have an Oreck so a staffer went out to her car, brought it in, and we changed it. Now that is customer service! We like to think of ourselves as the neighborhood bookshop with a citywide reach. We do tons of events throughout Houston. We are most proud of our three festivals: Bookworm Bookfest (for picture book and emerging readers), Tweens Read, and TeenBookCon. It’s our mission to connect families to reading.
Since we read a variety of different genres, you can always find someone who can make a recommendation. We don’t try to shame anyone into reading something that they would not enjoy. Some of us are mostly fiction readers and some always have a good biography or memoir in their hand. I think that is why people come back. We don’t judge and we always have suggestions.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Valerie: For me personally at this point, if I wasn’t doing this, I’d be sitting on the front porch reading. And maybe a little mentoring at the local elementary school. I didn’t grow up with a local bookstore. I grew up at the library—checking out as many books as my mother would let me. The biggest surprise (and hardest part!) has been how technologically savvy I have had to become over the years. As computers, etc. have made such a huge impact, we cannot afford to be without them for very long. And I know how to change the guts of a toilet.
SLIDESHOW:Blue Willow Bookshop Staff Recommendations