Time to Read
Independent bookstores cater to niche markets & loyal customers to stay alive in an online marketplace
By Lisa Kay Tate
The coronavirus crisis has had very few silver linings, but maybe at least one is that there’s more time to read. And it’s also a time to show support for local independent bookstores, which despite the dominance of online book sellers, still manage to carve out a niche for area booklovers.
In fact, just this past year has seen the emergence of two new independent bookstores in El Paso, with another now in its third year. Each one offers unique selections of new and used books, but also seek to serve as community centers with events ranging from book signings to a wine and book club, political discussions, children’s storytimes and more.
These newcomers to the local book scene have helped offset the loss in recent years of other independent booksellers such as Martin’s Book Store on Montana, The Bookery on the Mission Trail in Socorro, The Book Gallery in Five Points, and Copperfield’s on the East Side. The new generation of independent booksellers rely their individualized approaches and community followings to become more than just bookstores.
For the immediate present, these independent bookstores may have to adjust hours and programs in light of the crisis. For example, Jud Burgess, co-owner of Brave Books, said he is looking at how to continue to make books available in the community even if his business needs to limit public browsing at the store itself. Meanwhile, the City of El Paso just announced March 19 that all libraries would be shutting down indefinitely.
For more information about area independent bookstores, be sure to check their websites and/or social media for updates.
Literarity Book Shop
Literarity Book Shop, 5411 N. Mesa in Peppertree Square, creates its niche by carrying new, used and collectible books including signed first editions.
“There are places in El Paso that offer used books, but no other place has our balance of both used and new books and rare/collectible books,” Literarity owner Bill Clark said. “In the case of new books, we focus on books by prominent local/regional writers as well as a curated selection of books by small, indie publishers and university presses –– books not readily found at large chains or easily discovered online.”
The store also hosts many author events including readings and book signings, along with maintaining a good stock of signed editions.
Clark said being part of and giving back to the El Paso area is an important aspect of the of the store’s mission.
“We have worked to make Literarity a platform for doing good and giving back to our community,” he said. “It has become a gathering place for people; we have contributed a significant portion of our revenue to worthy organizations and causes; we have donated books to teachers for their classrooms, and we’ve been a part of special initiatives like helping to gather Spanish-language books for migrants and asylum seekers.”
Clark said today’s fast-paced world is “plagued by busyness and distractions,” and even booklovers often find they are too busy to visit a bookstore and just browse. He said buying a book has become “transactional,” as opposed being an “experimental” venture.
“As a result, people miss out on the joy of browsing – perusing bookshelves and discovering authors, books or subjects that they would not have otherwise discovered,” he said.
Clark said a small, local bookstore can’t match the prices of large booksellers or online resources like Amazon. Literarity instead focuses on new books that tend to be overlooked on Amazon.
He added that there’s more to supporting local bookstores and other businesses than just getting the best deal. “People often talk about ‘buying local,’ but too few people actually do it. What people fail to consider is that probably 90 percent or more of the money they spend with us stays in the El Paso community.”
As a locally owned bookstore, Clark said representing local authors is extremely important. “One of the things we love most is being advocates for the literary works of local writers like Rosa Alcala, Sylvia Zeleny, Daniel Chacon, Tim Z. Hernandez, Mimi Gladstein, Alfredo Corchado, Philip Connors, Benjamin Saenz, Andre Cote, and Andrea Beltran as well as the many great books published by El Paso’s own Cinco Puntos Press. El Paso has not only a great literary legacy, but also a wealth of great current writers. Too few people know about the wonderfully talented El Paso writers and UTEP’s world-class creative writing program; so we love sharing the story of El Paso’s literary community with our guests.”
Of the many author events they’ve hosted, from readings to discussions, some have been held in conjunction with other organizations such as the UTEP Creative Writing Program, PBS/KCOS Great American Read and the Tom Lea Institute. They also sponsor programming on KTEP 88.5, El Paso’s local NPR station and maintain a strong presence on various social media platforms.
He said people who have gotten to know the shop understand the devotion and “love and care” they put into curating their collection, especially that of local authors. Regulars know they care about the quality of the content and the condition of their books, and trust their recommendations and suggestions. Clark said people often ask them to locate special, hard-to-find books. “Most importantly, our regulars – some of whom have become friends – know and appreciate that we are working hard to make a difference in our community and improve the quality of life in El Paso,” he added.
Information: Facebook: @LiterarityBooks. Twitter: @literarity, or call 307-4760
Cactus Flower Bookery
Cactus Flower Bookery is owned and operated by the mother and daughter team of Shirleen Roberts and Stephanie Rose Roberts, who opened the bookstore nearly a year and a half ago in Placita Santa Fe, 5024 Doniphan.
Stephanie Roberts said the store has around 4,000 carefully selected books on their shelves. “We hand-select all of our books,” she said. “We also have a great antique and vintage collection that we came about unexpectedly.”
Roberts said they also offer gifts, accessories and artwork, many book- or literary-related, to be a more well-rounded shop. Some people who have been drawn in by non-book items have often rediscovered their own love for reading and books.
“We’ve had people who have come in to purchase a gift card, and leave with a book,” Roberts said. “Some have become readers again after running across a book or seeing a book cover that interested them.”
They offer special reader events on a regular basis, including their most popular “Read Between the Wines” book and wine group, as well as hosting author panels, book signings, writers’ workshops and other events.
“People follow authors they like, and we are always working to create more of these events,” Roberts said.
She said they are planning to add a poetry group to their activities, and eventually hope to host at least one special event each week.
“I think we have a good sense of community,” Roberts said. “We talk to the customers when they come in and find out what they want to see, and try to gear our events towards them.”
She said she has been happy to see people from both the community and other areas find the shops, and has one out-of-town couple that makes sure they come by every time they are in town.
“Nothing is better than someone coming in the store and telling us how much they love it,” she said.
It is especially rewarding, she explained, when people who have come into her store and rekindle their love of books. Some, she said, hadn’t been book readers for years until they came in and started browsing. It is also a great joy when kids come in get excited about books.
“There’s no better sight than to see a kid curled up with a book,” she said.
One of the ways they work to be competitive with larger booksellers is by heeding a trend among many readers who want to both save money and be more environmentally conscious.
“Most of our books are used and we can be really competitive with the prices that way,” she said. “So many people nowadays don’t want to purchase a new book that they feel may be more wasteful, but they can feel better about buying a used one. It’s not only better economically, but environmentally.”
Roberts added that there is still something about an actual book that can’t be match by an electronic reader. Favorite books can be passed on to friends, and that same volume can be read by several people.
“When you have a book in your hand, it is almost like getting a trophy,” Roberts said.
Information: #cactusflowerbookery, 203-8338 or email@example.com
Brave Books, located near Downtown at 1307 Arizona, is owned by Jud and Laurie Burgess, and offers large collections of Latino, classic, vintage and Southwest interest books.
Jud Burgess said they don’t cater to any specific niche, as they “strive to serve all of El Paso from birth to 99,” and the unique environment in a house built in 1915 is part of what creates an inviting environment for readers of all kinds.
“Laurie and I have devoted an entire room for children and their parents complete with a large collection of affordable books, framed art, learning games and puzzles designed to challenge and encourage children’s imaginations,” he said. “We also stock a quality selection of half-price young adult fiction books that cater to tweeners, teenagers and adults as well.”
The store maintains a collection of all genres in “new, like new, and gently used condition,” sold at half price or even less. They also display and sell collectible art, design objects, ceramics, vintage prints and music CDs.
Burgess said they don’t worry about competing with large sellers like Amazon because the goals of Brave Books go far beyond selling books.
“Amazon has nothing to offer but cheap pricing with the inconvenience of shipping, whereas Brave Books provides a total walk-in experience that unites El Pasoans through a variety of events and activities designed to lift our quality of life here in El Paso,” he said. “Our biggest rewards are a result of developing personal relationships with regular and new customers along with meeting and exceeding their reading, art and social needs.”
Being in a low-income mixed-use neighborhood surrounded by residential homes, Burgess said they get a lot of neighbors who are “pleasantly shocked” that there is a quality bookstore within walking distance of their homes. Neighborhood kids often come by for a visit.
“We want to be that business that makes book buying and browsing personal and exciting again,” he said.
The Burgesses work to keep this experience special is by offering extra welcoming elements such as fresh coffee daily and offering Gussie’s Cookies on most weekends.
“Laurie and I never take our customers for granted and we provide regular events and days where we treat visitors to free frozen margaritas, Booker wine, cheese, and crackers coupled with live music performances by very talented local musicians, book signings by select local writers and art exhibits by local talent as well.”
Burgess said the bookstore portion is only the foundation of a much larger goal he and Laurie have for El Pasoans.
“Our main focus has always been to be a homegrown bookstore impacting local culture and encouraging personal growth by inspiring the courageous acts of reading, literacy, art, design, music and civic engagement,” he said.
Events have ranged from introducing residents to a mayoral candidate to sharing videotaped personal responses and original poetry by students to El Paso’s mass shooting on social media. Burgess said they have endeavored to make a change in their community, and the community in response has been “hungry” for it.
“This expansive approach allows us to reach a wide cross-section of El Pasoans whose interests go beyond books and reading.”
Information: 204-7074 or Facebook at BraveBooksEPTX. Instagram: @bravebooks.tx
Books are GEMS
Books are GEMS, 7744 North Loop Suite B (behind BBVA Compass bank), is both a used bookstore and a community nonprofit organization that gives away thousands of books.
The organization started as “GEM’s Gems” celebrating the life of 16-year-old book-lover Gracie Elizabeth Madriles (GEM), who died in a car accident in 2002. Her mother, a teacher in South El Paso, honored her memory and spirit by starting an organization to donate books and educational supplies to families and teachers lacking resources. This evolved into what is now Books Are GEMS.
The organization’s mission is to “inspire and empower families through literacy,” by making books easily accessible to all families. Every child who visits gets up to five gently used and one new book a month, all of which have been donated. In addition, teachers who come to the store can receive free books for their classrooms.
Bookstore manager Rosalie Marez said the bookstore “supports literacy with sales and additional income enabling us to purchase new books for the children.”
Those purchasing books or other items from the store not only keep their money in the community but also help spread the gift of books and literacy to their fellow community members.
“All purchases and/or donations from the community and generous donors contribute to the success of accomplishing and executing our mission statement,” Marez said. “We are ‘changing children’s lives, one book at a time.’”
Due to the coronavirus crisis, Books are GEMS is temporarily closed, but check their Facebook page for reopening information.
Information: 845-5437, booksaregems.org or Facebook
Another longtime used bookstore in El Paso is The Bookmark, 7348 Remcon Circle on the West Side, operated by the Friends of the Westside Branches of the El Paso Public Library. Information: 833-2342 or Facebook.
The Friends of the José Cisneros Cielo Vista Branch Library operate a bookstore at 3025 McRae, as well as at the library at 1300 Hawkins. Information: 779-6916.
The Friends of the Irving Schwartz branch run a bookstore at 1757 George Dieter, Suite 113. Information: 593-0015 .
Other branches also offer bookstores operated by similar volunteer organizations at the individual branches. For more information go to elpasolibrary.org.
Mesilla Book Center
Las Cruces and Mesilla are both home to successful independent bookstores, including one of the oldest, Mesilla Book Center on the historic Plaza. Owner Cheryll Blevins said the store, located in a historic structure built in the mid-1800s, has been a part of Mesilla for decades.
“My parents purchased the store in 1966, and before that it belonged to a lady who owned it since the 1950s, but of course it was much smaller,” she said. “Back then, Mesilla was just La Posta and a couple of other stores. The streets were still dirt.”
As Mesilla grew, so did the bookstore. Blevins said today they carry books, both fiction and nonfiction of all genres, as well as maintain a large children’s collection. Their most prominent offering is their local interest section, with local history, current events, books in issues affecting the border region, and more.
“We have books if you just want a little recreational light reading or want to read a heavy-digging history,” she said.
Blevins said although it is easy for someone who knows exactly what they are looking for to purchase something online, for many readers, they want to browse and interact with someone who could point them in the right direction.
“Often, when you’re looking for a certain type of book, you don’t know exactly what you want until you see it,” she said.
She said they do maintain some good local customers, visitors from other areas, including El Paso, have been a driving force in bringing business to them and the rest of Mesilla. There are also a lot of travelers who are juar coming through.
“If you’re traveling from L.A. to southern Texas, Mesilla is such a great place to just stop and relax,” she said.
“I like seeing all the different people who come in from all over the world, who have so many different interests,” Blevins said. “After all, people who come into a bookstore to look around always have to be interested in something.”
Information: (575) 526-6220 or Facebook.
Coas Bookstore has been a part Las Cruces since 1983 when archaeologist Pat Beckett began his archaeological company with a focus on anthropological books. The name Coas itself originally stood for “Center of Anthropological Studies.” It grew into a paperback exchange, and is now New Mexico’s largest secondhand bookstore, with more than 500,000 new and used books in stock as well as music, games and gaming supplies, and movies.
The store is currently run by Mike and Veronica Beckett, and has its flagship storefront at 317 Main and a branch location at 1101 S. Solano, both in Las Cruces.
Mike Beckett said ebooks and online book sales have eaten into business, but there are plenty of people who still want to come in and shop a brick-and-mortar store.
“Kids still love come in and get books at our children’s section, and it’s amazing how many people still prefer to have actual books over eBooks,” Beckett said.
The store’s flagship location on historic Main Street is now more visible than ever, thanks to a revitalized Downtown. Beckett said Coas was part of the Downtown Mall when it was still practically a “ghost town” before the restoration and renovations. “People love to be proud of their historic Downtown, and we’re happy to be able to be a part of that,” he said.
One way Coas keeps its inventory fluid is from books brought in by loyal customers, either as donations or for trade-in credit. Beckett said getting books is never a problem. The challenge is selling them once they arrive. However, he realizes the independent book trade isn’t for people who want to become rich.
“People who go into the bookstore business do it because they love books,” he said. “It isn’t a typical business you go into wanting to make a lot of money. It’s a labor of love.”
He noted that many independent bookstores need to find a niche market, be it rare books or regional authors, to bring in customers, and he mentioned stores like Literarity in El Paso have been doing a good job with that. Beckett said for him, the best part of running the store is the different people he meets, from out-of-town visitors to regulars who feel like family.
“People who come into a bookstore are generally in a good mood,” he said. “They aren’t usually anxious or ‘hangry.’ They are happy to be here and to look around.”
Information: (575) 524-8471, coasbooks.com or Facebook
Casa Camino Real
Casa Camino Real Bookstore and Gallery, 314 S. Tornillo in Las Cruces, also serves as a community resource center and showcases literature and arts of the border region. Owner Denise Chavez, a longtime area author and activist, uses her store as a way of bringing literature and education to people who might otherwise not have access to them.
The store works with Libros para El Viaje (Books for the Journey), a book drive for refugee and migrant families in the area, and they have received donations from all over to distribute books along the border.
Chavez said the donated books, including a bilingual assortment, have come from a diverse group of people and in many genres. One recent donation was the entire collection of Albuquerque poet, photographer and social activist Margaret Randall.
The mural in their children’s area, depicdting “Flying Books” emerging from the bookstore in search of eager readers, represents the center’s mission, she said.
Even though she feels there isn’t a lot of local support of independent and local bookstores, she knows the books will find a home. “This has not stopped us,” Chavez said. “It’s part of our idea of the ‘flying books.’ We’re going to get the books out there, to teachers or whoever loves books and reading.”
In the eight years of Casa Camino Real’s existence, Chavez said the bookstore has in a way reinvented itself to help fulfill a particular need for sharing books with readers on both sides of the border, and exposing the many talented border writers and artists to readers of all backgrounds.
“We need to change what a bookstore is,” Chavez said. “The status quo bookstore is a thing of the past. We need to create the activist bookstore.”
The store also sells books through AbeBooks.com, including several items not found in their physical store.
Chavez said they also are working towards the creation of an archive and community center, “Museo de la Gente,” to the focus on local history and culture.
“We have a great legacy of literature that has emerged from this area,” Chavez said. “We just have this incredible culture of literary heritage that more people need to learn about.”
Chavez said she works to make her bookstore as welcoming to visitors as possible, including offering Mexican coffee for guests, and has given free books to some children who visit.
She said all local bookstores and book lovers need to support each other, to help bring the valuable resources of education and literacy to people from both sides of the border. This is one way to be able to open hearts and minds to the needs and experiences of others. “Books are conduits to compassion,” she said. “They educate us. They empower us.”
Information: (575) 523-3988 or Facebook.
Copyright 2020 by Cristo Rey Communications