Brazos Bookstore has long been considered a hub of Houston's literary community. This past spring, when the store's future was in doubt, 25 members of that community joined together to keep it alive. "It makes one proud of city," said new store manager Jane Moser. "Houston is known for its oil and conservative politics. It's really nice to have a literary community take a stand and say it will not let the store disappear."
Brazos opened in 1974, not too far from its current location near Rice University. The 3,000-square-foot store maintains strong sections of literary fiction, nonfiction, biography, history, poetry, literary criticism, travel, and philosophy. It also offers a children's room and one of the largest selections of architecture and art books in the region. Over the years, Brazos has become a regular stop on author tours, hosting Martin Amis, Larry McMurtry, Susan Sontag, John Updike, and Alexander McCall Smith, among others.
When owner Karl Kilian announced that he would have to sell the store or close because he was taking a position at the Menil Collection, a Houston museum, many wanted desperately to help. The problem, Moser said, was no one could take on the entire financial or operational commitment of a bookstore. However, one of the bookstore's champions, Gabrielle F. Hale, proposed the idea of forming a group to pool resources. Fourteen of the store's supporters each agreed to invest a minimum of $10,000 to keep the store open, according to Moser. At a party celebrating the deal, 11 additional partners signed on. The 25-member group formed Brazos Bookstore Acquisition, a limited liability corporation, with its chief investor, Edward R. Allen III, as president.
Hale, who has been a Brazos customer since its beginnings and who has known Kilian since grade school, told BTW that she was motivated to save the store by a "passionate belief that our society needs to preserve its surviving small good things ... one of which is Brazos Bookstore." She also noted that her past experience running a small literary publishing company had fostered an appreciation of independent booksellers. "I understand the challenges we face," she added.
Moser, who started managing Brazos in June, is the former owner of Houston children's bookstore Stop, Look, and Learn, which she sold in 1991. In the interim, she taught both secondary school and at the college level and served on various nonprofit boards. However, she told BTW that she's "thrilled to be back" bookselling.
There are no plans to make major changes at the store, although Moser said that she was contemplating offering coffee. She plans to keep the events list humming. "We did 22 events this past September," she said. "We're going to continue all of that."
Moser said that Brazos was able to offer its all-star author line-up in part, because of the support of various local nonprofit groups. Houston Forum, a nonprofit educational organization, sponsored an appearance by Alan Alda (Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned, Random House); Inprint, a group of community volunteers and writers from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, sponsored an event with Zadie Smith (On Beauty, Penguin); and Progressive Forum, a Houston civic speaker organization, will sponsor an upcoming reading by Frank Rich (The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, Penguin).
One change that Moser has already made, however, was creating a Brazos website, featuring one of BookSense.com's new templates. "I wanted to have an online presence for ordering," she said. "It's been up for a week and a half, and it's working pretty well. We're already getting some orders."
Managing a bookstore is a bit different from being the owner, Moser said. "On the one hand I have a lot of advice and help from an excellent group of people. But I feel a keener sense of responsibility in terms of spending money, especially other people's money."
When asked if there were certain investment expectations from the consortium, she explained, "The group is made up of business people. Being business people, they want us to make money. Whether they expect huge returns, anyone who knows anything about bookselling doesn't expect that. But they do want it to carry its own weight."
One of Brazos' investors, Travis C. Broesche, spoke to that point. "In my mind, Brazos, the UH Creative Writing Program, and Inprint, are the core of the literary creative arts for the Houston community," he explained. "The ... literary interest these entities have fed is important to me personally and, in my view, is important to the larger community of the arts in Houston. They enrich our environment and help enliven Houston's soul. Losing Brazos would have been like losing one leg off a three-legged stool.
"So, the decision to step in and take action to save Brazos was more a civic gesture on my part than a calculated business decision. Of course, I hope that we can be successful as investors; but, more importantly, I hope that we can maintain the presence of Brazos as a contributor to Houston's creative center." --Karen Schechner