Interview with a Bookstore: Brazos Bookstore
Hang around long enough and they might hire you
It’s all too easy to think “Austin” when talk of culture in Texas comes up: they have that big festival there, hipster roller derby… But Texas is a big state, with thriving literary scenes from Dallas (hi Deep Vellum!) to San Antonio. And Houston. Don’t forget Houston.
Brazos Bookstore opened in Houston in 1974 as a focal point for a growing literary community. We spoke with Benjamin Rybeck, Brazos Bookstore’s Events Coordinator, along with several staff members, about what makes Brazos Bookstore unique.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
We have a lot of people who come into the store for expensive art books, and we keep many of them displayed behind the counter. This might be my favorite section, because whenever somebody asks me to get one of the books down, I often look through it for the first time with the customer. The other day, a retired schoolteacher and I looked through a collection of close-up photographs of Mars for, like, 30 minutes. Her name was Brenda, and she was passing through Houston on her way to Beaumont, to visit her son. He’d just had surgery, and she was optimistic about his recovery. I don’t remember whether she bought the Mars book. It sort of didn’t matter.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
I’d add a bedroom and a shower in the back of the store so that I could live there and never leave, but other employees probably have better–or at least more sanitary–ideas.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Any successful bookstore reflects its community–and we certainly reflect our community in Houston–but bookstores also have to do what Amazon can’t do: they have to provide personal interactions with knowledgeable employees who hold very particular opinions (imagine more pleasant–or at least soft-spoken–versions of the folks in High Fidelity). Can this sense of the personal exist online as well? We’re trying, and we’re proud of what we’re doing so far. Our website is an online hub for book discussion, with guest contributors, features on literature in Houston and elsewhere, and extensive staff recommendations (not just shelf talkers, but reviews and considerations).
Who’s your weirdest regular?
At one point, it was probably me. But then I got hired. I suspect everyone who now works at the store was the weirdest regular at some time. But book people in general are weird, aren’t they? Sitting alone for hours looking at words? Come on.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
One time somebody returned a book. Crazy!
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
When I was little, my mom always loved taking me to small, musty places where I could get lost in piles of things. She took me to fabric stores, to record stores, to–yes–used bookstores. In one of those bookstores, next door to a supermarket that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, I once broke a standing mirror, taller than I was. I don’t remember what I did to it, but there my reflection went, tumbling to the ground, shattering into pieces; when the bookseller picked up the frame, the bits of glass looked like glitter on the carpet. “Happens all the time,” she said, and boy, did I appreciate the lie. Booksellers are unflappable.
If you weren’t running/working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
For several years before this job, I studied and taught writing at the University of Arizona. I suppose I’d be doing that? Of course, to do that forever feels increasingly like a pipe dream–there’s just not enough jobs out there for bookish people and I feel lucky to be where I am.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
I was astonished to learn that everything people say about how nobody reads anymore, about how literary culture is dying, etc.—well, none of that stuff is true, as far as I can tell. Voracious readers remain, and they are grateful and pleasant people, excited to discover new books and new friends. Are readers anti-social? Only because reading is a solitary act. But each month, at our book club, whether we’re reading The Luminaries or Claire of the Sea Light, people gather, drawn to the store like nomads to a campfire. People still love books and gather to talk about them. Did you know? This was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one.
SLIDESHOW: Brazos Bookstore Staff Recommendations
Brazos Bookstore is located at 2421 Bissonnet St, Houston, TX 77005.