Sunday, July 09, 2006

Two Bookstores

Obviously I'm a booklover. Summer has given me the free time I need to read a lot—during the school year, my "spare" time is filled with study, class reading, and homework. I sometimes buy my books from my favorite online book dealer, Powells.com, but more frequently I browse physical bookstores. (In addition to selling books online, Powell's is an absolutely astonishing bookstore, but since it is in Portland, Oregon, I rarely visit it.)

The two in Houston I love most are Brazos Bookstore and Half Price Books and Records. Brazos Bookstore has been around for over 30 years. It has a strong emphasis on architecture and art, but what makes it so wonderful is that sophistication and quality of their selection. A small bookstore must, on some principle, limit what it carries. An easy way to do this is to specialize by type of book, which is why you occasionally run across mystery bookstores, children’s bookstores, cookbook stores, and comic book stores. But Brazos has used a judgment of quality as its limiting factor. It simply carries the best of the best, the most intellectually engaging, most sophisticated selection of fiction and nonfiction. It's a store for serious readers.

Half Price Books is a chain of bookstores. They also sell music, and that is how I first encountered them. When I was 16, my buddies and I often came into town to go to the River Oaks Theater, which at the time was a repertory theater. We liked to go watch rock and roll movies like The Kids Are Allright. Driving down Waugh, we often passed Half Price Books and Records (as it was known then). Larry Garrett had a painting job in that neighborhood, so I think he was the first of our crowd to check it out. Word spread, and we were all buying records there. Because the records were so cheap, I'd buy them on the basis of cool cover art, with the hopes of landing something good. (Note: this is a terrible strategy for finding good music.) Still, my tastes were somewhat formed by what I found there. I bought my first Velvet Underground record there—when I brought it up to the counter, the clerk looked at it with wonder and said, "How did that get on the shelves." (Clerks had first choice, natch.)

When I moved to Seattle, I was delighted to find a Half Price Books on Roosevelt, just a few blocks from our office. If anyone has read Peter Bagge's excellent comic Hate, this is the bookstore where Buddy Bradley works (and takes advantage of the "everyday low prices" available to clerks).

Half Price Books is a chain of over 80 stores, most in Texas. A sister company is Texas Bookman, a remainder house. It's an interesting structure--unique as far as I know--where a bookstore owns its own wholesaler. This guarantees Half Price Books a great selection of remainders at all times, but what makes it special are the bargains you get as you buy, say, a paperback that may have been owned by five people before, and the amazing and unexpected finds you make—books you can't believe that someone parted with, but they did, so now it's yours.

My life has been enriched by these two great bookstores.

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