Face Out: ABA Board Member Valerie Koehler on Her Life Among Books

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In this installment in our series of profiles of American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Valerie Koehler, the owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas. Koehler is in her second three-year term as a Board director.

Bookselling This Week: Please tell us about your early experiences with reading and books.

Valerie Koehler: I’m told that when I was two I was perfectly content to sit with an open book and “pretend” I was reading. I was an early reader, and from the beginning it became a way to escape into another world. With a large, boisterous family, I really needed time to myself. Our mother would take us to the library (where a very stern librarian was never happy when six kids showed up!) and let us check out as many books as we wanted, and any book that we wanted.

BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller, and how long after starting in bookselling did you begin to feel that you had found a special vocation?

VK: When my husband and I moved our family back to Houston in 1995, we moved into the neighborhood where the bookshop is located. The store, then called Musabelle’s Books, was in existence since 1973. My kids were both in school and I had been considering starting a business that would combine my loves and my strengths. I knew I wanted to be in sales and I love to read and talk about books. I went to the bookshop and volunteered to work there for free. It quickly became painfully obvious that the shop should have gone under at least six years before. The owner was a very kind and knowledgeable book lover, but the business end was not her strength. After a number of months, she offered to sell the shop to me. We borrowed a little bit of money and went bare bones at first.

BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?

VK: I joined ABA immediately after I bought the shop. My father was a grocer for a number of years and he stressed the importance of trade associations, as he was the president of his for a time.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in bookselling since you bought your store?

VK: When I bought the shop, Amazon was just getting started. We didn’t have a computer or any kind of POS. There were always stacks of catalogs to look through and file! Above The Treeline and Edelweiss has significantly changed our inventory management. Having to compete against Amazon has made us stronger by focusing us on what we do best — curation, customer service, and a smile. We also figured out that we didn’t need the whole pie — just our part — to be profitable and happy.

BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?

VK: My key goals are: 1. Be a good steward of the ABA’s resources. 2. Represent all the membership, especially the small shops. 3. Try to bring the education home to all bookstores through technology. 4. Increase interactions with publishers to further the understanding of the critical role that indie bookstores play.

BTW: What are you reading now?

VK: I’m reading Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss and Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky (both are Indies Introduce titles!) and listening to Lady Bird & Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage That Made a President by Betty Boyd Caroli.

BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?

VK: A walk on the beach with Bill Bryson. He is so smart and funny.