When I decided to make the five-hour drive from New Orleans to Houston to hear Jonathan Safran Foer read from his new novel, Here I Am, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, our society is awash in signals that reading is on the decline. There are three times as many non-readers as there were less than 40 years ago, and only a quarter of the population, give or take, manages to read a book a month. In a culture enthralled with Netflix binges, video games and smart phones—extensions of the hand at this point—it’s hard to fault those who don’t find time to sit down with a book. But I walked into a theater that told a different story: sold out, all 1,100 seats occupied by excited readers.
Houston, the fourth most populous city in the country, is known for its eclectic forms of industry; it is second to only New York City in terms of Fortune-500 based companies. Houston’s wide-ranging emphasis on the arts—permanent opera, ballet, music and orchestra companies and a wealth of museums—has made the city, in many respects, the NYC of the South. Besides the Big Apple, downtown Houston has the most theater seats in the country.
Still, when it comes to the literary scene, New York remains the first, and sometimes only, place mentioned as a touchstone for vibrant book culture. The home of the “Big Four” publishing houses has an inherent advantage. But over the past 30 years, a pair of Houston institutions—Inprint and Brazos Bookstore—have strived to change that preconceived notion. Houston’s scintillating, under-the-radar book scene has become a mecca for writers to share their work with enthusiastic readers.
Foer opened the 36th season of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, which this year includes Lauren Groff, Ann Patchett, Annie Proulx, Juan Gabriel Vasquez and George Saunders. Consistently bringing in this level of talent takes a well-oiled machine. Rich Levy, the executive director at Inprint for the past 21 years, prepares for the series year-round with four other staffers. “We always try to have a roster of writers that is somehow approximating the incredible diversity of the community,” says Levy. Today, approximately one in four Houston residents is foreign born, a number that has been rising since the city became a destination for refugees in the 1970s. Since 1980, the nonprofit has hosted over 350 writers from 28 different countries.
Independent bookstores are community hubs, not just stores. We treat Amazon like it’s this great evil specter hanging over us, and it’s not.
When tickets went on sale for the October 17th Groff/Patchett event, they sold out in under an hour. Discounting 500 season subscribers, that means approximately 500 people scooped up a $5 ticket. Levy says they could gather even larger crowds, but the personal experience would diminish. Ticket prices remain low despite each seat costing Inprint $40. They’ve kept events accessible to people of all classes largely from individual donations and corporate relationships. Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America and other Fortune 500 companies match employee donations to the nonprofit.
Recently Brazos, the city’s leading independent bookstore, partnered with Inprint by selling the reading writer’s catalogue at each event. In Foer’s case, Brazos sold several hundred copies of Here I Am. Brazos also lends promotional support for Inprint, and vice versa.
Brazos opened in 1974, six years before Inprint was founded. Levy and Benjamin Rybeck, Brazos’ marketing director, agree that their relationship is integral to their mutual success. “We are all kind of doing the same mission in our different ways,” says Rybeck. “And to have that symbiosis is great. We don’t compete; we’re all friends.”
Inprint brings in what Rybeck calls “the big tent-pole writers” to fill theaters. For their own events, Brazos has the flexibility to support exciting debuts and underrepresented writers. Each year Brazos hosts over 250 events. On a given night, almost 200 people cram inside the 3,000 square-foot store, while off-site readings at area churches have amassed crowds of 600.
While Amazon has put brick-and-mortar chain bookstores out of business (Borders), and threatened what remains (Barnes and Noble), Rybeck claims that the independent bookstore has been given a space to shine in this new book-buying reality. “I don’t think we are [competing with Amazon]. We do a completely different thing. Independent bookstores are community hubs, not just stores. We treat Amazon like it’s this great evil specter hanging over us, and it’s not.”
Houston’s population has nearly doubled since these institutions were born, but the book scene has held onto its theme of intimacy. Brazos works tirelessly to cultivate a unique environment that encourages thoughtful discussion about books, a sentiment that still rings true when describing the aesthetic of the Inprint Reading Series.
Even so, both Brazos and Inprint recognize that today people spend an abundance of time online. Brazos’ online storefront is innovative: Staff bios, reviews and features accompany the traditional sales portal. “We want people to have the experience of coming in and chatting with smart booksellers,” says Rybeck. This methodology encourages people to come into the store for author readings.
As for Inprint, they have acknowledged that the demand for their readings is at an all-time high. Starting with the sold-out Groff/Patchett reading, they began live streaming worldwide on the Inprint website and Houston Public Media.
Inprint and Brazos have helped propagate a region that is refreshingly passionate about books. Houston is a place where writers and readers converge in startling numbers to be surrounded by like-minded people who believe that books can be a communal experience.
“We want the literature to be the main focus,” says Levy. “Great writers, great books—we want it to rise in the consciousness of people everywhere.”
Read our interview with Jonathan Safran Foer here.