Arts & Culture News

Where Is Dallas' Iconic Bookstore?

In downtown Portland, Powell's Books stretches the length of a city block. Inside, hundreds of wooden bookshelves stuffed to the brim with everything from classic literature to engineering manuals keep crowds of regulars and tourists engrossed. When you go to Portland, you have to go to Powell's.

Even readers who haven't been to Oregon have probably heard of the store. Like Seattle's Elliot Bay Book Company or San Francisco's City Lights, Powell's is a national landmark, one of a handful of bookstores that help define the characters and cultures of their hometowns. Los Angeles has Vroman's and The Last Bookstore, New York has The Strand and Book Culture. They're both cultural centers for locals and regular stops for tourists, who are as likely to walk away from these stores with T-shirts as they are copies of the latest best-seller.

"If you haven't been to Powell's, you haven't seen something," says Miriam Sontz, CEO of Powell's Books. "It's one of the top things to do in Portland, and when visitors come, they want to take something with them as a souvenir of their trip."

You won't see anyone wandering the streets of Portland wearing a T-shirt with the logo of Dallas' own iconic bookstore, because we don't have one. It's an odd missing piece in a city that has dedicated huge resources into reshaping its downtown into a nationally recognized center for the arts. We've invested millions in building what the city proudly calls the nation's biggest dedicated arts district, with homes for opera, theater, the symphony, painting and sculpture.

The literary arts, meanwhile, have been all but ignored in Dallas' top-down planning for igniting its cultural life. You want to find a book downtown? Try the public library, if it's open ... and it's probably not.

Which is a shame, because bubbling away outside the official boundaries of "art" is a small, devoted literary scene that's beginning to show new signs of life. The question is, can we cultivate the love of books without a central outpost? Or to put it in words Dallas will understand: What kind of world class city doesn't have its own damn Powell's?

This idea of building a better city so permeates the Dallas mind-set that the phrase "world-class city," whatever the hell that means, has become a local punch line. (Whenever a local power player says it, take a shot!) Still, it's hard to fault city leaders for showering love and money on the Dallas Arts District. Their unstinting support has brought gems like the Nasher Sculpture Center, the AT&T Performing Arts Center and Klyde Warren Park, which at least has a "Reading Room" stocked with newspapers, magazines and books.

Yet one of the frequent criticisms of the arts district is that we've built gorgeous buildings and left out space for the artists or anyone else who might want to live there -- which is like building a bookstore and forgetting the books, or like building a cultural district and forgetting the bookstore.

Since the development of language, communities have grown around storytelling. It's how we report the news and create connections. For a child, that first visit to the local bookstore or library, when you plopped down in an aisle with a new book in hand and lost track of time, could carry enough magic to keep you coming back to the written word forever.

The ideal bookstore represents not just the new worlds a reader explores, it also reflects the community around it. Stores like The Strand and Powell's both exist in vibrant downtown neighborhoods -- something Dallas desperately desires. The long-term efforts to make downtown Dallas a walkable, livable neighborhood began with housing and are beginning to trickle down to restaurants and retail.

"The revitalization of downtown has been a long and arduous process," says Veletta Lill, former executive director of the arts district. "One barrier to creating a big bookstore was finding a building with the square footage, frontage and property owner that could make the deal happen. There are certain physical needs that we couldn't meet."

The last stab at a large independent bookstore in the area was Legacy Books, which bypassed downtown and headed for Plano's ritzy Shops at Legacy in 2008. It was one of the largest independent bookstores in the country -- of course, this is Texas -- and it offered a solid schedule of book signings that drew respectable crowds. It also closed in 2010.

Bookstores are not exactly a growth industry today, and building Dallas' answer to Powell's was not high on anyone's priority list as the arts district developed.

"I think one challenge has been we lacked a vocal philanthropic advocate for the literary arts. Frequently, literary programming was seen as an add-on to the theater and layer to museums," Lill says. "In recent years, the library has not received the love that it is due, to my horror. However, it still remains an important component of the literary scene. Author readings are programmed by the library and sometimes those are the result of partnerships with bookstores such as The Wild Detectives or institutions such as Dallas Theater Center."

When Paco Vique partnered with Javier Garcia del Moral to open the city's sole independent new bookstore, The Wild Detectives, he called it "anti business" and a "crazy idea." What became quickly apparent was that they'd opened much more than a tiny bookstore in a refurbished Oak Cliff house.

On a Monday night in May, hundreds of people climbed up the porch steps for the launch party of new local translators Deep Vellum Publishing Co. There was undeniable excitement for these new literary ventures, but the glasses of wine and beer sold that evening eclipsed book sales. The Wild Detectives is more literary outpost, or café with books, than treasure trove of novels. It's La Rotonde in Paris, not Powell's in Portland. "Wild Detectives was something that was so needed," says Dallas-based author Merritt Tierce. "It's this utopia for the literary community."

The sheer number of events the space hosts proves it has gained foothold. Groups like Wordspace and Writer's Garrett, two organizations that plan events to build a literary community and provide resources for writers, have found a new home at The Wild Detectives. The space has also attracted author readings for new releases, both regional and international. Even the book selection reflects idealistic aspirations, ranging from New York Times bestsellers to what they describe as "multi-national" selections and classics. Shopping there is like belonging to a book club, each title carefully selected, nothing accidental.

When Deep Vellum publishes its first book this fall, you're likely to find it on the shelves at The Wild Detectives. One of The Wild Detectives' aims is to introduce Dallas to international authors, and Will Evans founded this new publishing house to translate international titles into English for the first time. Already Evans has attracted numerous authors, including Iceland's Jon Gnarr and Mexico's Carmen Boullosa, all of whom will travel to Dallas for the releases of their books.

"I set up Deep Vellum in Dallas precisely because we're not a publishing mecca, though I honestly believe we could become one," Evans says. "I set up here to try to capitalize on what we already have going on, but at the same time [because we're] working tirelessly to build an even better city that has a more well-rounded literary and arts community."

If Dallas is a bit behind peer cities, Evans is one of several cultural leaders dragging the city into the future by its literary spurs. And when it comes to building a well-read future generation, the research is promising. In spite of the popular belief that millennials read less because of the proliferation of digital and social media, a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found that today's 18- to 29-year-olds are actually reading more than older generations.

There's also research showing that the younger generations are interested in cultivating and supporting local businesses. And a 2013 American Booksellers Association report confirms that sales at indie bookstores are on the rise, though this can be directly linked to the death of national chains like Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble, which allowed the market to be split by e-readers and hyper-local stores.

In some ways, there is no store more local than Half Price Books, which is a hodgepodge of anything and everything the city's readers are seeking to get rid of. But what started in 1972 as a book consignment shop in an old East Dallas laundry has grown to today's chain with more than 120 stores in 16 states. The expansive flagship store on Northwest Highway is a treasure trove of everything from high school yearbooks to copies of newer titles in young adult fiction.

"We're kind of like The Strand, but better," says Half Price Books spokesperson, Kathy Doyle Thomas. "It's always easy to find a store near you, because of the sheer number we have in the Dallas/Fort Worth area."

Like many Dallas-based businesses, Half Price Books became the national model for its sector, expanding into a popular national chain. But like a watered-down margarita at a Chili's in upstate New York, this used book empire has appropriated anything uniquely Dallas to other cities.

Lately, the flagship store has been collaborating on new community initiatives like a small farmers market in the parking lot on the weekends and more author talks, thanks in part to the company's recent launch of a publishing wing that allows the store to carry new releases.

"We're based in Dallas and we love it here, so we try to tie in with the community," says Doyle Thomas. "We're constantly pushing and encouraging new ways to connect with our customers."

But while Half Price Books has more feet on the ground in Dallas to support these efforts, the company also continues to expand to new cities with eyes on Denver and Memphis for later this year. The owners at a Powell's in Portland or an Elliot Bay in Seattle dedicate all their efforts to their home cities.

"Powell's has been in the family for three generations," says Sontz -- the first CEO of the company outside the family. The store is owned by the founder's granddaughter, Emily Powell. "They've grown and nurtured this business, with a firm belief of enriching the city that the bookstore was in."

Neil Gaiman once wrote that "a town isn't a town without a bookstore." Certainly Dallas is not without bookstores, from the occasional Barnes & Noble to the plethora of used bookstores to the precious Wild Detectives. But as digital media continually narrow the scope of a person's interaction with the world, giving you only click bait and "recommended for you" selections, a bookstore should be much more than your neighbor's castoffs or the literati's top picks.

"Reading is a means of thinking with another person's mind; it forces you to stretch your own," wrote Charles Scribner, one of the 19th century's greatest publishers.

It's not that people in Dallas don't read; Half Price Books reports some of its biggest sales in the Dallas markets. There are countless book clubs on seeking additional members, and the continuing education writing programs at Southern Methodist University and local community colleges fill up quickly. Like many of cultural efforts in Dallas, the push for a greater book culture is grassroots, rather than civic.

"Texas is not big on its appreciation of the arts and of reading and writing," says Thea Temple, the executive director of the Writer's Garrett. "It's just not that supportive of it. If you don't take my word for it, take a look at the funding for the institutions, look at the cuts that are happening, look at the libraries and how underfunded they are. This is not my interpretation. Texas puts its money where its values are."

With Book People in Austin, not to mention the Texas Book Festival, and Houston's smaller staples, Brazos Bookstore and Kaboom Books, it seems that Dallas is the furthest behind. Perhaps this could be linked to the lack of a downtown university or our struggling library system.

Earlier this year, the Friends of the Dallas Public Library appeared before the City Council to demand more money for the library, which at the beginning of April was "the most poorly funded public library in the United States," the group's Karen Blumenthal said. At the beginning of 2014, Dallas ranked 37th in a survey of the literacy rates of the country's 77 largest cities.

One of Half Price Books' initiatives in Dallas to promote literacy is to donate books to schools that have desolate libraries. Doyle Thomas says she's shocked when she visits schools in the Dallas Independent School District to find how empty some of the school libraries can be. "We need to get books in children's hands if we expect them to grow into lifelong readers," she says.

But that prompts the question of how to strengthen the infrastructure of the small but growing literary scene that exists today. In just a few months of its existence, Wild Detectives has given a home to disparate members of the Dallas literary community, from authors to readers. But without a bigger shell for the nascent scene to grow into, will the seeds being planted now ever take root? For writers like Tierce, Dallas leaves something to be desired.

"There aren't very many writers in this town," she says, counting off a few on one hand. "That's great for my ego, but it doesn't make Dallas a great place to live as a writer."

Email the author at [email protected].

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Lauren Smart
Contact: Lauren Smart