A New Chapter for Austin’s Small Bookstores: From serving neighborhoods to serving wine, how innovative local booksellers are filling the shelves – Arts

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Alienated Majesty Books owners Melynda Nuss and José Skinner (photo by Jana Birchum)

Austin loves to read.

Well, fine, that one is kind of hard to prove. Austin loves to buy books. Or loves hanging out in bookstores and browsing. Or sitting at tables and taking up space in a room with a lot of books in it; we are really good at that one.

The city comes by its literary reputation fairly honestly. Austin houses the remarkable literary archive that is the Harry Ransom Center. It has one of the most well-regarded Master of Fine Arts programs in the country. On any given day, dozens of aspiring and working poets, novelists, and screenwriters can be found milling about various coffee shops, working on your next favorite novel, chapbook, or movie.

They can now mill about a few new bookstores.

Over the past 18 months or so, no fewer than three entirely new bookstores have opened in Austin. Another one changed hands and rebooted (somewhat). Another moved to its first brick-and-mortar location.

BookPeople, of course, still bestrides the violet crown like a colossus – when writers and publishers think about where to send their authors on book tours, they think about BookPeople. But the new wave of Austin bookstores can perhaps service every possible taste: folks looking for the newest releases from the smallest press, books on activism and activists, books within walking distance of their Hyde Park homes, and more.

For devotees, bookstores are legitimately magical places, loci of intellectual potential and relaxing pleasure. Be it the jumble and impossible-to-replicate scent of a used-book haunt or the clean lines and fresh white paper of a place that specializes in new printings, a bookstore is a boon to the neighborhood, the community, and the city it serves.

As Austin engages in another Texas Book Festival, which always leaves Austin (and Texas) residents with a renewed excitement about literature, history, culture, and the written word in general, it seems timely to point out that the town is awash in new bookstores; Rarely has it been better for Austinites who love to resist the Amazon Goliath by voting for local idea merchants with their dollars.

And boy, do these folks talk a lot about “community.”

Chapter I:
Alienated Majesty Books

Tucked into a strip mall on West 29th, an area that longtime Austinites remember as “where the Vulcan Video near campus was,” and next to a perpetually busy Cabo Bob’s, Alienated Majesty Books is, for most intents and purposes, the store formerly known as Malvern. Since 2013, under the stewardship of its owner, the late Joe W. Bratcher III, Malvern was a stunning place, a spotless home for literature in translation and very, very small presses. (“Some of the presses we carry might publish two books a year,” Bratcher told the Austin American-Statesman in 2020. “That is what we specialize in.”)

“We thought, ‘We have to keep this place around.’”  
– Melynda Nuss, Alienated Majesty Books

Bratcher died in 2022 from complications related to COVID, and the shop closed; as store manager Becky Garcia put it, “Malvern Books simply cannot continue without our Joe.” Enter José Skinner and Melynda Nuss, two longtime Malvern customers. They purchased the business in October of 2022, in something Nuss compares to “an impulse buy.”

“Joe was a fantastic guy,” Nuss says, “and we thought, ‘We have to keep this place around.'”

To walk into Alienated Majesty is to think not a whole lot has changed – same dark shelves, same impeccable piles of small press books, as seductive as candy to a 5-year-old. But soon you notice little things: movable book carts that can be shifted around when there’s a popular reading, an efficient use of shelf space that allows for a greater volume of books.

Alienated Majesty also has something you cannot find at any other book or comic store: an excellent selection of small press comics, micropress art comics, and minicomics. Not just the hipster sensations from Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly, which are there, but smaller stuff from Silver Sprocket or floppies in translation from China and Lithuania or something described as a “harsh noise poem comic.” It’s the sort of selection serious Austin comics nerds have needed for decades. (But can someone just regularly stock King-Cat, please?)

And the name? It’s a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” While it doesn’t lodge in the brain as easily as Malvern, it’s not a bad idea for a bookstore, wherein the devout reader can pick up a book and think, “Gee, I’ve always thought that.”

South Congress Books owner Sheri Tornatore (photo by Jana Birchum)

Chapter II:
South Congress Books

Kerbey Lane is not the first place you might think to find a business called South Congress Books, but there it is, located in a cozy house across the street from Kerbey Lane Cafe. It’s not quite as big as the store’s former, titular location but its selection of used, antique, and bibliophile editions feels sharper, better curated, and definitely cozier. There’s more variety; it feels more likely that one might find a great gift for a devout collector. (There are a few boxes of records labeled “vinyls,” which is not a word.)

“When a small business moves, you should expect to lose 60 percent of your clientele.”  
– John Barton, South Congress Books

John Barton, the manager at South Congress, has been working with owner Sheri Tornatore for about 11 years. The business was forced to move after a large rent hike, with the new space opening in March of 2023. Barton says that things are slowly getting back to normal after the move. Very, very slowly: Moving a business is essentially a hard reset. (Tornatore also has a separate mail-order business called Tornbooks – a pun on her name, not a reflection on the stock – which traffics in books Barton characterizes as a little more obscure or more academic than the stock in the store.)

“I heard from another small-business owner that when a small business moves, you should expect to lose 60% of your clientele,” Barton says, and he can’t argue, given what has happened with South Congress. Of his new customers, he estimates about one-third never heard of the store and wandered in, one-third are holdovers from the original store, and about one-third are “other.” He also notes that while it is great being right across the street from the Kerbey Lane Cafe, perfect for a browse before or after a meal, the street does not have the best reputation for parking.

First Light Books (photo by John Anderson)

Chapter III:
First Light Books

Where the relocated South Congress Books represents a feast for the veteran book collector, it’s impossible not to notice the millennial and older Gen Z population hanging around First Light Books, located in the former post office on Speedway – young hipsters with laptops and bulky headphones sit at various tables while slightly older folks with strollers head to the children’s section. Around the bright, bordering-on-overlit store, there’s an eclectic newsstand; a coffee bar that opens at 7am and is joined by beer, wine, and small bites in the afternoon; and a meaty selection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and a surprisingly vigorous art book section.

“I have never worked in another industry with as strong a sense of community.”  
– Breezy Mayo, First Light Books

“I’m especially pleased with the art books,” says First Light general manager Breezy Mayo. She is the business partner of co-owners Taylor and Robin Bruce, the former known for his Wildsam Field Guides travel books. “Texana also does really well as a tabletop section.”

Mayo, whose background is food and beverage hospitality, opened the store with the Bruces in August, aiming for a store with a point of view that was both wide-ranging and intentional. “Our largest dedicated area is our children’s section,” Mayo says. “Stocking for everyone from babies to young adults can be a challenge.”

She is, however, of the strong belief that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that the more stores are in town, the better it is for all of them. “I have never worked in another industry with as strong a sense of community,” she adds.

Black Pearl Books owner Katrina Brooks (photo by John Anderson)

Chapter IV:
Black Pearl Books

While I purchased something (small) at all the stores I visited, I ended up dropping the most money at Black Pearl Books, the city’s only Black-owned bookstore (and one of fewer than 200 in the United States); after spending nearly an hour pursuing the comparatively small store, I walked out with two books of essays on Afrofuturism and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson’s companion volume to the excellent PBS documentary. I felt my wallet actually glare at me when I put it back in my pocket.

“There was a need for a bookstore like ours.”  
– Katrina Brooks, Black Pearl Books

Much like that of Alienated Majesty, I was interested in Black Pearl’s entire selection, be it tomes on history, activism, Black culture, and personal growth, or its deftly selected fiction section. (Also like Alienated Majesty, there is a community-oriented free shelf based on the honor system: Take a book, leave a book.) A meeting room in the back with a decent-sized conference table looks perfect for a book club or community meeting.

Owner Katrina Brooks had been working pop-ups in 2019, and she and husband Eric moved Black Pearl online when COVID shut everything down. After operating out of their garage, the business settled into its Burnet Road digs in 2022. “There was a need for a bookstore like ours,” Brooks says. “There was a lack of representation in this market.” She also works closely with various schools on book fairs.

Brooks adds that for Black Pearl in particular, what is happening in the news, in society, and culturally drives what customers are buying. “When bell hooks passed right before we opened this location, sales skyrocketed for her work.”

Vintage Bookstore & Wine Bar (photo by John Anderson)

Chapter V:
Vintage Bookstore & Wine Bar

Right at 11th and Waller sits the Vintage Bookstore & Wine Bar, which owner Jean Buckner, who had formerly done time in the tech world, describes as a multiyear project. Very multiyear.

“I wanted to open a bookstore since I was a little girl,” Buckner says. “I saw You’ve Got Mail and thought that it was the most romantic lifestyle ever. Kathleen Kelly [played by Meg Ryan, for those under, say, 35] was my hero.”

“I saw You’ve Got Mail and thought it was the most romantic lifestyle ever.”  
– Jean Buckner, Vintage Bookstore & Wine Bar

Instead of chasing her dream, Buckner did responsible things but never lost sight of what it would take to make a bookstore succeed in an Amazon-oriented world. She thought about foot traffic and customer loyalty and providing a complimentary service that would provide the same vibe and level of comfort a bookstore can generate. She researched and considered and hit upon something that kept bugging her: Most bookstores do coffee, but what if someone wanted to go after work?

Hence, a wine bar, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Buckner wasn’t herself much of a wine person but got educated as fast as possible, researching the field and spending time with Bell Spring Winery in Dripping Springs. “I like to think our store serves a particular demographic,” she says, “someone who enjoys wine but lacks the vocabulary to talk about it with lots of words you’ve never heard of and finds it a little intimidating.”

While Buckner says her personal ball of anxiety (that which likely besets all small-business owners all the time) hasn’t left, business is good. Emphasizing romance and fantasy has proven to be smart marketing (“we put those right up front”) and there is a waiting list of about 250 people waiting to join the store’s official book club. The space is perfect for other clubs and she sees a lot of customers who are new to Austin in general. Buckner says a recent singles mixer proved especially vibrant: “One person said, ‘There’s never a lack of things to talk about when you are surrounded by books.'” Amen.

Alienated Majesty Books

613 W. 29th, 512/243-6679

South Congress Books

3703 Kerbey, 512/916-8882

First Light Books

4300 Speedway, 512/996-1516

Black Pearl Books

7112 Burnet Rd., 512/902-9717

Vintage Bookstore & Wine Bar

1101 E. 11th, 512/551-9215

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