How BookPeople Became the Center of Austin’s Literary Universe

Walking through the doors of BookPeople, near the corner of Sixth and Lamar in downtown Austin, you may be surprised at not only how a brick-and-mortar bookstore can survive in 2017, but how it can thrive.

It’s a megaplex of all things literary, so large that it would take hours just to read the hundreds of “staff selections” that line the shelves, handwritten notecards that stick out between books. Signs for upcoming talks by well-known authors like Roxane Gay and placards advertising meetups like Uncomfortable Reads Club hang on the walls. Soft jazz and the clacking of shoes on hardwood are the ever-present noises of the store. But the footsteps are never fast; no one here is in a rush. Instead, customers peruse the shelves, sift through the latest David Sedaris or something more obscure on one of the stools spread around, or make their way over to the cafe, where a green-haired barista makes conversation with regulars, couples chat over coffee, and students study. But despite its grandeur, it remains homey, communal, and one of the last bastions of a truly unique Austin.

Today, authors and book-lovers come from all over to visit BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas, but the original store, founded 47 years ago, had a much humbler beginning—one spurred by turbulence at The University of Texas and just $5,000.

In 1970, Michael Nill, PhD ’81, was finishing up his doctorate in classics when chairman of the Board of Regents Frank Erwin, BBA ’78, MBA ’80, Life Member,  fired John Silber, dean of the then-College of Arts and Sciences, for taking a stand against the regents’ plan to split the college in two. As a result, many well-known professors in the classics department left, leaving Nill unable to find a suitable one to supervise his dissertation. “Things were really quite unsettled,” Nill says. “So instead of finishing my PhD at the time, I opened up a bookstore.”

With help from other graduate students, he opened Grok Books in an old house on W. 17th Street, next to the original home of Oat Willie’s. He and his then-wife and another couple each put in $2,500. But Grok—its name a reference to Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land—was a labor of love. None of the investors drew a salary. It was heavy on community, with coffee and places to sit and crack open a book. Several rooms of the first floor contained shelves of books, but none of the sections were labeled. “You came in and just explored,” Nill says. “That was the idea: to explore ideas, to be challenged in your thinking, and to create a community of ideas through these books.”

Customers didn’t find best-sellers at Grok but instead a handpicked selection of books of all kinds, especially those concerning radical politics and books from small presses. In her 2007 memoir A Strong West Wind, Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell, BA ’78, MA ’80, recalls working at the front desk, where she got paid a few dollars an hour to “read on the job.” “By the early 1970s, the city was a model of hip institutions: progressive law offices, free counseling centers, restaurant and food co-ops, newspaper and printing collectives … ” she writes. “If you needed Lukács or Emma Goldman or Carlos Castaneda, you went over to Grok Books on Seventeenth Street, where I sometimes worked the cash register.”

In 1973, Nill moved to New York, leaving Grok in the hands of a group of graduate students. Five years later, the selection had tripled, but sales were low. The store was going out of business when Philip Sansone, currently the president and executive director of Whole Planet Foundation, bought the inventory. After seven years serving in the Peace Corps, Sansone had returned to Austin. “It wasn’t worth near what I paid for it because most of it was old titles and a lot of stuff that people weren’t buying anymore, like Marxist literature,” Sansone says. “But I was looking for something to do, so I took this up as a challenge and the rest is history.”

Sansone put his heart into the business, reinvesting most of the profit back into the store, updating the collection to include titles he was interested in and whatever he felt was missing from other bookstores in Austin, and bringing in authors to speak, a popular tradition that continues today. Sansone says the events brought in enough funds to save Grok from going under, and positioned the store as a premier book-signing venue in the city.

When Timothy Leary came in 1979 to do one of his “stand-up philosophy” routines, over 1,000 people showed up to Armadillo World Headquarters, where Grok hosted the event, followed by a book signing at the store. Two years later, Buckminster Fuller came to promote his book The Critical Path, bringing in a crowd of about 500 people. In 1982, Grok initiated “The Great Debate” between Leary and G. Gordon Liddy, in which the two figures who represented opposite sides of the cultural and political spectrum of the ’60s discussed topics like the war on drugs and partisan politics.

Sales grew tenfold and the store housed about 10,000 titles in 1984. When Sansone lost the lease that year, he moved the store to Brodie Oaks Shopping Center, giving it a new face in the process. In keeping with the store’s sci-fi tradition, he renamed it BookPeople, a reference to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. At 8,000 square feet and with about 40,000 titles, it was the largest bookstore in Austin.

By the mid-90s, the store had grown to about 75,000 titles and was in need of a bigger space. To raise funds for an expansion, Sansone enlisted the help of an old friend—John Mackey, ’77, co-founder of Whole Foods Market, who in turn gathered investor friends of his own. Sansone took on 23 partners, reducing his sole ownership to 40 percent. The store was able to raise enough money to move to its current location at Sixth and Lamar—next to Whole Foods—in June 1995. When it opened, at 40,000 square feet, it was, according to current co-owner and CEO Steve Bercu, likely the third-largest bookstore in the U.S. And it had the largest title count in the country, at more than 300,000. But the timing wasn’t perfect. Barnes & Noble and Borders were spreading across the country, drawing customers away from independent bookstores. Shortly after BookPeople’s move, Barnes & Noble opened in Austin, and Amazon was on the rise. “That dramatically changed the value of having 300,000 titles on the shelf,” Bercu says. “You could get books online suddenly.”

To stay competitive, the store reduced the inventory to what it is today—approximately 180,000 titles—and downsized from three floors to two. In 1999, Bercu, BA ’65, LLB ’66, Life Member, was hired as CEO, a move Sansone calls “the best hire ever.” Still CEO and a co-owner, Bercu made BookPeople into an Austin landmark that employs 100 people, averages talks from about four adult authors and one children’s author every week, and hosts literary camps for kids.

Although 1,000 independent bookstores closed in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, BookPeople persisted. Bercu has advocated for the importance of independent businesses. In 2002, he founded the Austin Small Business Alliance, and popularized the “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers that adorn cars today and encourage people to support independent businesses. The Austin Chronicle has named BookPeople the Best Bookstore in Austin since 1995, and in 2005, it was named Bookseller of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly.

During the 2008-09 recession, BookPeople experienced a dip in sales. But in 2010, it had its best year yet, followed by five more years of personal bests. Bercu attributes the increase in sales to the population growth in Austin and a resurgence of interest in local retail. Though they were once closing across the country, since 2009, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has increased by 40 percent. On April 29, Independent Bookstore Day, there were enough bookstores in Austin for a Bookstore Crawl, which was spearheaded by two UT students. BookPeople replaced Barnes and Noble as the official bookseller of the city’s esteemed annual literary fair, the Texas Book Festival for 2017, partnering to sell books at year-round events, including the big one on Nov. 4 and 5, when about 300 writers descend on the city.

Though competing with online bookselling continues to be a challenge, Bercu says people come to the store for something they can’t get online, something that’s been part of the store since Nill started Grok Books decades ago. “People are coming into BookPeople for human interaction,” Bercu says. “It’s a community that we are helping to create. It’s our community. The BookPeople community.”

 
 
 

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