Imagination helps small bookstores survive
Hidden deep behind the East Texas pine curtain, Beauty and the Book is almost certainly the world’s only beauty salon-bookshop, where visiting authors are treated to a facial and perm before talking about their books. “The funny thing is that the authors love it,” proprietor Kathy Patrick says. “Christopher Cook walked in, and I asked him who last cut his hair. He replied, ‘I did.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can tell.'”
With independent bookshops struggling to hang on in even the largest cities, owners are forced to become even more creative in small places, where their inventory of titles outnumbers the local population. With competition from the Internet and sprawling chain stores, the rural, independent bookshop must carve out a niche to stay competitive. In a state where independent thinking has long been an ideological staple, several bookshops have managed to create successful business platforms catering outside the mainstream.
For Three Dog Books in Archer City, that means specializing in rare titles. Out west, the Terlingua Trading Co. hangs on by catering to fans of all things Big Bend.
And for Patrick’s Beauty and the Book, it’s perms and prose.
A former San Diego cosmetologist, Patrick moved to Jefferson in 1987 and found work as a regional book publisher’s representative. When that job fell through, she combined her passions for beauty makeovers and reading into a unique enterprise.
“Oxford American magazine sent author Carol Dawson to cover the grand opening,” Patrick says. “I made her hair and makeup, and then we had the book-signing in the dryer chairs. We gave her big hair, and she had brought her mother’s black backgammon mink fur coat. She was wearing sunglasses. About 225 people came, and everybody just had a lot of fun. That feature was called ‘Hairdresser to the Authors,’ and it kicked me off. They had three pages on us in the March-April 2000 issue, and after that hit the stands, every author traveling through the South called me and asked to come by.”
Though Patrick initially attempted to sell a wide array of books in her shop, she realized her market potential resided in the author events. “I started off carrying everything, but I found out something about Jefferson,” Patrick says. “People usually don’t buy books unless I have the author here or I talk up the book.”
To increase awareness for her authors and have a good time doing it, Patrick founded the “Pulpwood Queens” book club, with the motto, “Wearing tiaras are mandatory and reading good books is the rule.” Following the Oxford Magazine article on her shop, Patrick and her queens were featured on Oprah’s Oxygen Network and “Good Morning, America.” Patrick says the club’s popularity-it has spawned chapters across the country and internationally-can be explained by her simple mantra. “Books can entertain, enlighten, and they don’t all have to be homework,” she says. “They can be fun. I think sometimes school takes all the fun out of reading. How many points am I going to get for reading this, you know?”
With a book of her own entitled The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide To Life set for national release this month, Patrick is hoping to continue reviving reading in small towns. “My bookstore survives because I’m kind of bringing the big city to my small town,” Patrick says. “Authors who come here have this real one-on-one experience with their readership, which they don’t get to experience often in other places. Both parties get a lot out of it.”
Three Dog Books overlooks the edge of the plains in downtown Archer City, a blinking-red-light town best known as the home of author Larry McMurtry and location for the 1971 film, The Last Picture Show. Owned by Cody and Julie Ressell, Three Dog’s weathered stone shop front is often more frequented by UPS trucks than walk-in customers. “Open by chance or appointment,” a sign in the window reads.
“Everybody’s online these days in the antiquarian book business,” Cody Ressell says. “I know people who are pushing 90 that are online. I mean, really, you have to be very, very specialized and have an old list of customers to make it without selling through the Internet.”
Dealing mainly in old and rare selections, the antiquarian book business is more akin to the world of antique dealers than the conventional book trade. To find antiquarian books worth selling, dealers often sift through countless stacks of dusty and worthless books before coming across the proverbial diamond in the rough.
Luckily, the Ressells can cull a lot of their stock from their friends and business partners at Booked Up, McMurtry’s neighboring shop. Since moving from Washington, D.C., to Archer City in the ’90s, McMurtry has established one of the nation’s largest antiquarian bookshops in his hometown. Not wanting to hassle with the Internet, McMurtry began working with the Ressells to sell the best of his collection online.
“Since Booked Up is not online, it’s good to go through there and find the things that are worth selling on the Internet,” Julie Ressell says. “These would be cases where there’s only one copy of a book or just a few copies. Not anything common. There’s lots and lots of stuff there that’s pretty obscure and weird. They might not all be worth a lot individually, but cumulative sales on the Internet add up. At this stage, we still need to sell lots and lots of $50 books and a big one every now and then.”
Cody Ressell adds, “The other year, we sold a book entitled A Tour of Jamaica for $14,000. It had hand-colored plates and was from the 1700s at least, a memoir by some British consulate.”
Despite the impersonal nature of the Internet, the Ressells have worked hard to build relationships with repeat customers, a practice essential in the antiquarian book world.
“It seems to me that the real booksellers are always going to have customers because people who love books are always going to want to deal with shops that they know and are comfortable with,” Julie Ressell says. “There are real personal relationships of trust that we build with our customers. They want to know where the book came from and what you know about it, and they’ll be perfectly happy to buy other things from you that they’re interested in. It takes trust because there’s so much out there that’s sold as something that it isn’t. Books are presented as first editions when they’re not or are sold with facsimile dust jackets. There are lots of tricky things. On eBay, there are people who subscribe to our newsletter that they receive every week, where they’re updated on what’s come into our store and what’s gone on to auction.”
Looking out at the towering mountains of Big Bend National Park, the Terlingua Trading Co. bookstore is nestled within a gift shop next to the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua’s dusty and historic ghost town. Betty Moore, a former Texas Monthly production director who left Austin for Terlingua in 1985, runs the store. She also works as a river guide and helps the Peregrine Fund release birds of prey into the wild.
“Tom Gaffaney actually started the store with a couple shelves of books and then expanded it,” Moore says. “He’s a golf caddy at some big course in New York who comes down here in the off-season. After a few years, the bookstore got a pretty good reputation, so that foundation was built by him. When I would go out of town, I would visit different bookstores and bring him back lists of things to order. When he quit the job in 2000, I took over.”
Understanding visitors’ infatuations with the Big Bend region’s otherworldly beauty, Moore stocks her store with an in-depth regional selection. “Sometimes people get here and they think they’re in a foreign country, you know?” Moore says. “This place just really captures the imagination in a way that other places don’t. They want to know more about the wildflowers, birds, geology, and Indian history. We carry just about everything that I know of written about this area. However, I also take a lot of pride in carrying contemporary fiction and lesser-known stuff like Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place or John Henry Faulk’s Fear on Trial. I might sell one of those books a year, but I think it’s important that it’s there on the bookshelf, you know?”
Purposely keeping the shop a one-room operation with tasteful Southwestern decor, Moore likes the intimacy it affords her visitors.
“To me, the shop’s small size and my ability to interact with people make it fun,” Moore says. “The bookstore is known primarily through word of mouth, and I think it’s that personal relationship that’s kind of hard to find these days. Going into a really large store like a Barnes & Noble is great, but I think what we have is just another step further into being able to really relate with the people.”
Moore periodically hosts signings, and her biggest draw occurred when Kinky Friedman stopped by during his campaign for governor.
“A friend of mine, Kim Beckwood, had heard he was going to come through Alpine on his travels around the state,” Moore says. “She wrote him an e-mail saying, ‘Hey Kinky, we live in Terlingua, which is about 90 miles south of there. There aren’t many people here, and it’s really hot right now, but gee, we’d love to see you.’ It turns out that he said yes. We had four days to prepare, and I rushed getting books here for the signing. I could not believe the number of people that came out of the woodwork. There were hundreds of people, some in costumes, and they were carrying silly signs for him. It was really, really fun. We presented him with a replica of the big beer opener that we keep on the wall in the trading company. It was kind of like a key to the city.”
Stayton Bonner is a writer in Austin.