Love, literature and Leslie: 50 years of BookPeople stories
Me, I’ve got a few hundred roommates. An indie-rock goddess. An odd couple of British schoolboys who fancy each other. A Pulitzer Prize winner and his grandfather, who’s haunted by the woman he loved, herself no stranger to phantoms.
I met ’em all in the same place here in town: BookPeople, where Austin has found characters like these for five decades. The state's largest indie bookstore marked its 50th year on Nov. 11.
It’s more than a place for Austinites to buy page-turners like the ones on my shelf at home. (If you’re curious: “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein, “Heartstopper” by Alice Oseman and “Moonglow” by Michael Chabon.) It’s a place to meet friends for a Night Shift latte from the cafe. It’s Christmas shopping headquarters. It’s your best bet in town to find a literary superstar reading a few passages as you crowd between the stacks of health books upstairs.
BookPeople began its life in 1970, then known as Grok Books and found near the University of Texas campus. Today, it’s a multistory temple to multiple stories at Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard, home to thousands of titles.
And what a year to mark a milestone. The coronavirus pandemic hit BookPeople like so many Austin icons. The store closed its doors temporarily in March, then pivoted to a curbside model. It’s back open with safety modifications in place, and the beloved in-store readings have moved online for now.
We thought the best way to honor BookPeople’s 50th anniversary would be to tell a few stories. From the people who built the store into hallowed cultural ground, to the champions who keep it running, to the customers who’ve turned the pages of their lives inside its walls, enjoy these tales of Austin’s cherished book nook. The stories, as told to the American-Statesman, have been edited for length and clarity.
The first chapter
Former longtime store owner Philip Sansone turned a small, struggling bookseller into a literary powerhouse.
It’s our 50th year. That takes me back to November of 1970. I was in Austin waiting to go into the Peace Corps. We had to take some books with us; we'd be out of the country for years. And one book that no one had, I was told that this new bookstore opened up on West 17th Street called Grok Books — I could probably find it there. So later ... I went by. Then I left the country in April of ’71.
I returned to Austin after three years in the jungle, Honduras, before a new Peace Corps assignment. Grok was still there. I met the owner’s cousin, Jim Norman. ... Grok in those days specialized in things that normal bookstores didn’t carry. They had a whole wall of Marxist literature and Maoist literature. They had all the esoteric stuff — Aleister Crowley and stuff like that — and small press poetry and other small press fiction. It was the bottom floor of a little house on West 17th Street. I think that might have had 2,000 to 3,000 titles.
I left the country again ... went to Paraguay for four years. And when I returned in ’78, I was looking for something to do. Ran into Jim. He said, ”My cousin is wanting to sell Grok.”
Grok was going out of business. They hadn't made any money — $30-$50 a day of sales. They had one part-time employee who was making $1.75 an hour. It was being kept alive by love and just by, you know, the strength to keep it going. So, I bought out the inventory and became a bookstore owner. June of ‘78, I believe that was.
Sansone says the store is “just loaded with weird stories,” even from its earliest days. One of its wildest visitors actually sparked BookPeople’s tradition of bringing nationally known figures to Austin.
The fact is, back in 1979, we didn’t have any money for advertising. … The store was making maybe $2,000 in sales a month. We were bringing in more inventory to get more notice and more clientele. I thought one way of doing this might be to bring in notable authors. And one person I (brought in) was Timothy Leary, psychologist and guru. He had just gotten out of prison, and I had just returned from years abroad and exile in the Peace Corps. ...
He was earning money doing what he called the “stand-up philosopher” routine in small clubs around Hollywood and so forth, (to get) his reputation back, which had been sullied by the feds who had been chasing him all over the world.
Leary, a counterculture iconoclast and outspoken psychedelics advocate, had multiple run-ins with the law, involving drug possession, a prison escape and fleeing the U.S.
We brought him to Austin: a night with Timothy Leary at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Over 1,000 people showed up for that. It was insane. I bet half the people in there were tripping. Tim was up onstage, and he just had them howling. He was a natural performer, raconteur, very charismatic.
The next day, we had a big book signing at Grok. Hundreds of people came by to get autographed copies of Tim's book. That set off, like, “Wow, this is our biggest day ever. We’ve got to continue doing these types of things.” And we did. BookPeople is still known for bringing in authors and having book signings and events.
It’s true. It would be hard to think of a popular author who hasn’t entertained Austin audiences via BookPeople's events over the years — everyone from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to pop star Lady Gaga. Leary even returned one Halloween night in the early 1980s, Sansone says, for a debate with his onetime nemesis, G. Gordon Liddy. The two opposites became friends after that, he says.
The same year that he took over Grok, Sansone befriended another “struggling” small business owner: John Mackey, the founder of what would eventually become Whole Foods Market. The bookstore moved to its second location, in South Austin, and got a new name.
Then in 1984, when Grok was losing its lease, John was opening I think his second or third store in Brodie Oaks down in South Austin. He decided that'd be a good place for (the bookstore) to move to, next to a Whole Foods Market. At that time, I changed the name from Grok to BookPeople. BookPeople, of course, is named after “Fahrenheit 451.”
In Ray Bradbury’s classic story “Fahrenheit 451,” the Book People are hidden intellectuals who preserve the world’s knowledge, which has been endangered by fascist state censors. After a few years, the rechristened store made another big move in 1995, becoming the book haven we know today.
We were there together, the two stores side by side, from ’84 to about ’94. None of us were particularly happy with the Brodie Oaks location. …
John opened his main store down there at Sixth Street. And then he decided to invest in BookPeople and brought in a bunch of other investors. That's when we opened the (downtown) location.
Other favorite literary guests of Sansone’s, besides Leary: Leary associate Ram Dass, futurist Buckminster Fuller, former President Jimmy Carter and "Interview With the Vampire" novelist Anne Rice, who attracted a “complete wonderful circus” in the mid-1990s, Sansone says, with hundreds of fans dressed in vampire costumes and a coffin set up in the store. The man to whom the store owes its name even stopped by.
Ray Bradbury came in before he died. ... I was able to sit with him and spend some time with him. I told him about BookPeople being named after his book “Fahrenheit 451.” He was delighted. I talked about the history of the name Grok Books, from a word invented by Robert Heinlein in the very popular book of its era called “Stranger in a Strange Land.” To “grok” something, you understand it from your deepest inner self. I've kind of carried that tradition over with BookPeople. BookPeople now is more broadly involved with protecting First Amendment-type stuff and making sure that a lot of literature that nobody else would carry, we would have it.
Sansone ran BookPeople until 1998. He’s still a stockholder in the store, and he’s also “on and off the board from time to time,” as he puts it, but currently off. He thinks the story of BookPeople will continue to be a hopeful one.
The fact that we were able to make it 50 years, it's pretty extraordinary.
Folks have been extraordinarily generous with us during this tough period. Whole Foods is our landlord over there, and they've been very, very helpful. ... At some point, we're probably going to have to move. I just hope that when we do, we find another great location that's convenient.
Fortunately, we have very little debt, which is a policy I tried to follow the entire time there, not to have so much debt that we could be taken under. One question that always came up over the years is, "Well, why don't you do two stores, or three stores, or four?" We just said, "No, we’re just going to do one." ... It's such an odd store of mixture of things that it would be hard to replicate it. I think that has proven fruitful.
We're going to be able to get through this.
Solace in the stacks
Reader Rick Sheldon of Waco tells a story of hope in a tough time.
Back in the mid-’80s, BookPeople helped save my life.
I was dead broke during the midst of the real estate bust. The BookPeople (near) South Lamar Boulevard and Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) was less than 10 minutes from my office.
So whenever stressed, which was pretty much all the time, I would go there and search for answers and solace in their incredible and eclectic stacks of books. The things that I discovered at BookPeople put me on a path that I still follow to this day. Still have those cherished books, too.
Blessings and congrats to BookPeople on their golden anniversary!
‘Odd stuff happens in retail all the time’
Steve Bercu was BookPeople’s CEO from 1999 to 2018, and he’s been a co-owner since 1994. Bercu says he was brought in as leader right as BookPeople “went from a big store to a very big store” following the move to Sixth and Lamar. “The plan was to try to figure it out or quit, basically,” he says.
Spoiler: They figured it out. During Bercu's tenure, the store had 19 straight years of profitability, he proudly touts, earning accolades and praise from industry leaders around the state and the country. BookPeople also hosted literary stars like Amy Tan and authors from the worlds of politics (Bill Clinton, John McCain, John Kerry), music (Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen) and more.
In all that time, Austin stayed weird.
Keep Austin Weird was something that I personally popularized here. I mean, I didn't think up the words, but it was my little marketing campaign with John Kunz over at Waterloo Records that started Keep Austin Weird in the first place. What that was, was an attempt to muster up some support for ourselves. We thought we were getting, you know, run out of business essentially by (now-shuttered book and music retail chain) Borders. Right around 2000.
According to a 2005 Statesman story, Red Wassenich, an Austin Community College librarian, said he originally coined the phrase; BookPeople and Waterloo Records distributed bumper stickers with the slogan to protest a nearby real estate project that would have included Borders.
It's a retail space. Odd stuff happens in retail all the time. I certainly remember one funny day, somebody in the press wanted to interview me and (iconic Austin personality) Leslie Cochran. So Leslie came to the store. I remember Leslie had a belt buckle that was essentially a flask. He was half-drunk before he got there and completely drunk before we started talking to the television station. And, of course, he was wearing his thong and high heels and all that stuff he liked to wear.
We put together and then started selling these Christmas and regular magnet sets. … We had a Leslie magnet, and then we had Leslie Christmas magnets, which there probably still are some in the store. Leslie, you know, was kind of a regular. He would come around, talk to people, hang out a little bit and leave.
There were people who, it seemed to me, lived at the store. Customers, not staff. There was a guy who dressed up in this kind of British overseas military costume. We used to have a couch over in the current events section, and he sat on that couch for three years probably. He was just there every day. He’d have his hat, like those British-looking things where one of the sides is tacked up to the top. He would sit there and read books all day, every day, seven days a week for about three years. And then he just disappeared. I don't know what happened to him. I don't know where he came from. I don't know if anybody ever talked to him. I don't even know if he was British! That was just a costume he wore. He could have been from South Texas
Meet your heroes
Like many, BookPeople gave reader Lucia Briones the chance to meet an author who had a great effect on her life.
One of my fondest memories of Austin took place during the summer of 2010, and I have BookPeople to thank for it. As a geoscience major at Texas A&M University, I was fascinated with the range of cultures and topographies of the world. At the time, Anthony Bourdain was living my fantasy life by traversing the planet and doing his best to just get off the beaten path. I would often imagine what it would be like to one day stumble upon him and his crew while filming at some hole-in-the-wall eatery on the other side of the world.
Three years later, when BookPeople hosted Bourdain for a book signing and meet-and-greet, there I was, sitting front and center. When I asked him how many passports he had filled up at that point, he answered, “Five, front to back.” And when I asked him to please sign my passport holder, he graciously did and even drew his “Cook Free or Die” logo. Ten years later, I still consider myself very lucky to have met a rebel-hero of mine, and I know it happened because of BookPeople. Thank you and happy birthday, BookPeople!
Books are magic
Staci Gray, BookPeople’s children’s inventory manager, marked her 22nd anniversary with the store this year, though it’s been on and off. She started there when she first moved to Austin in November 1998. It was the only job she applied for. “I have so many memories of kids coming to the store for book signings, and as soon as they got their books, they hugged them to their chest,” she says of the place she describes as home. Plus, she was there for those very first “Harry Potter” parties back in the day. Even though she specializes in kids lit, some of her fondest memories are of BookPeople’s magical moments for the grown-ups.
The one that probably had the most impact on me was the very first time I was here for a David Sedaris signing. And this was probably right around that time, like 2000 or 2001, when “Me Talk Pretty One Day” came out. We had over 1,700 people in the store, and we had speakers set up throughout the store so everyone could hear him speak, because we can only fit so many people on the second floor. We had to cap it off.
For the 30 minutes that he was speaking and reading from his book, nobody made a sound. Nobody moved a muscle. Everyone was just completely entranced by his voice. It was a really, really magical experience.
The other one that always comes to mind is when I came back — this was in 2015. We had Elvis Costello come to the store. They told us ahead of time that he was going to bring his guitar, and that he might sing — might sing — a song for us, if he was having a good time, and that he would probably talk for about 30 to 45 minutes. Well, he was having such an amazing time, and it was such an amazing audience. He ended up playing like five songs for us and spoke for like 90 minutes. And it was incredible.
Learning to tell a truer story
Reader Alex Cantu of Austin found answers about himself — and some kindness — at the store.
There is a period after coming out where everything is scary, you are insecure, and it feels like all eyes are on you. After my own coming out, I had all of these feelings and needed some help finding my next step. So off I went to the LGBT section at BookPeople. Being previously terrified to be seen shopping the section, I worked up the courage and was hopeful I would find something to help me on my coming out journey. I browsed the books and found “Becoming Who I Am: Young Men on Being Gay.” Perfect!
When I approached the cashier looking especially nervous, they scanned my other items but neglected to scan “Becoming Who I Am.” With an obvious hint of fear in my voice, I pointed out (that they’d forgotten to ring it up). And with the warmest smile possible, they responded with “No, I did not. Will that be cash or card?” It was a pretty incredible feeling to be given this act of kindness. In that moment, feelings of anxiety were washed away with feelings of safety. In the end, that moment helped me more than the book. Since then, I have been a regular at the LGBT section.
A job done happily
Reader Angie Nelson of Austin shares how much the store meant to someone very special.
My husband, Bruce Nelson, took a job at BookPeople (an oft-visited store) after he retired from being an elementary school principal. He was completely suited for the job, because he read every book imaginable and had the greatest memory for titles. People would ask him about a book that looked like this or had this passage or character in it, and he could come up with the title, especially if it was one they had read in college. It was a joy for him to do children’s time, and he spent so much time preparing for it whenever it was his turn.
He loved this job and regretfully had to quit at the end of 2018 because his Parkinson’s would no longer let him drive or go up and down the stairs. He loved playing on their softball team and was so happy whenever he would meet a celebrity. He was in (a group) picture taken with Bruce Springsteen.
He died on July 3 of this year. May he rest in peace.
Steering the ship in strange waters
Charley Rejsek, the current general manager of BookPeople, has worked at the store for just under a year, but she’s been a bookseller in the industry since 1998.
BookPeople’s been my home bookstore since I’ve lived in Austin, since 2007.
When the pandemic hit, I had been in my position about four months, and so I was really still learning the store — the systems, as well as the staff. And then once the stay at home order hit, and we all had to go home. That's when the planning started happening, as to what the next steps were going to look like. I did a lot of reading about what was recommended for retail stores specifically but also did a lot of reading about what other independent bookstores were doing all across the country. Booksellers are some of the most innovative people I've ever met. ...
What we realized was that the BookPeople community wanted access to our booksellers, which is the reason why we created our BookPeople in a Box. You just tell us what you would like to read or what you have read in the past, and our booksellers put together a box for you, and you have an option of how many books you want it to be. That was one of the best things that we felt like we came up with, was giving that access to our booksellers without actually getting physical access to our booksellers. …
The pandemic has shown me specifically why BookPeople is so special. We have the most supportive local authors in Austin. They claim BookPeople as their home, and they do everything they can to elevate BookPeople. … When a lot of bookstores can't get signed stock, our local authors have come to socially distant sign stock outside at our picnic tables, giving us the opportunity to sell an item that no other bookstores have. …
Transitioning from virtual events has been a massive learning experience. And while we aren't able to maintain our 300 events a year on the digital space, it does afford us authors and moderators that we may not normally have access to, because they wouldn't be in town at the same time. During a pandemic, we hosted Colin Jost, along with John Grisham. And I never thought that I would see those two people in an event together, and it was amazing and entertaining. They were gushing over each other.
Young hearts read free
Reader Natalie Houchins of Austin tells us how BookPeople has been a friend since childhood.
Back in the early 2000s, BookPeople was my playground, sanctuary and summer camp. My parents and my friends' parents would drop us off there on a weekend or a day during the summer with $5 for pizza from Whole Foods next door, where REI is now. We'd spend all day reading, hanging out and making friends with the staff (and definitely irritating them, too).
Eventually, they gave us internships because we knew and loved the store so well. We were 12 years old, getting paid in store credit to help people find books in the young adult section and loving every minute of it. From the band of kids who hung out at BookPeople and were part of Rockin’ Readers, the kids book club, Camp Half-Blood was born. Camp and those years spent at BookPeople shaped me and gave me some of my best friends to this day. Even now, when I’m feeling anxious or uncertain I’ll go hang out in the amphitheater and ground myself. It’s one of the places in the world I feel the most safe.
Happy 50 years, BookPeople. Here’s to 50 more.
If you go
BookPeople is located at 603 N. Lamar Blvd. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, but recommended browsing time is currently 30 minutes. Find more COVID-19 guidelines for shoppers and order books online at bookpeople.com.