Maggie Galehouse visits Becker’s Books
Tucked away at a small table between SEX and AMERICANA, Ann Becker and I are munching on chicken sandwiches and talking shop.
The shop we're talking is Becker's Books. The bookstore, which sells used books, opened in 1993 and went online two years later. SEX and AMERICANA are just two of the 60 categories in this maze of a place with as many nooks and narrow, twisty alleys as a street in Morocco. Becker and her husband, Dan, own the Spring Branch store, and the blood and sweat they've poured into it is apparent. It's in the terrazzo floors, the hand-wrought wooden bookshelves, the brick patio that wraps around the side and back of the house-turned-bookstore.
And it's in the books. An explosion of books. Stacked on shelves, resting in boxes, piled on chairs.
The store holds 90,000 volumes, but the Beckers own about 400,000 titles in all, plus two warehouses to store them. Plenty for the couple and a handful of staffers to manage.
Poking around before lunch, I got waylaid in the magazine section and leafed through an issue of Movie Stars from December 1964. It introduced TV's hottest new men: David McCallum of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and a baby-faced Ryan O'Neal from Peyton Place
I also found a clock radio on a low shelf playing '80s music and blinking the wrong time. This is why I love used bookstores.
At lunch, I screw up the courage to ask my gracious hostess: "How do you make any money?" With visions of e-readers dancing in my head, I look down at my pickle and pick up another potato chip.
"We ship about 1,500 books out of here each month," Becker says, matter-of-factly. "About 70 percent of our sales are online."
Still, postage can be a killer - it consumes one-third of the store's operating costs each year, she says.
Becker would love to increase in-store traffic. "If you come in on your birthday, we'll give you a free book," she says. "We're like Baskin & Robbins."
When a nearby bookstore chain ran out of some Shakespeare plays, a slew of Memorial High students came to Becker's Books to buy them. Stratford High students came looking for Of Mice and Men for the same reason.
And while Becker and I were eating lunch, she excused herself to help a local math professor who scours used bookstores for old math books. He pulls problems and equations from these old books, in part because students cannot Google the answers.
Becker believes that no one in her lifetime should worry about the death of the bound book. Not going to happen.
She still marvels at the thought and care that went into each book she sells.
"Everything in here," she says, gesturing to the floor-to-ceiling stacks, "was inside someone's mind at some point in time."
Both Ann and her husband have written books. She compiled and edited Houston: 1860-1900, a collection of vintage images of the city. Dan Becker co-authored, with Ann Malone, Around LaPorte, which includes images from 1892 to 1950.
Online, readers can find Becker's Books at houstonbooks.com and texasbooks.net, domain names Ann Becker bought year ago. ("My husband is the curator," she explains. "My job has been to be up to speed on Internet business.") Of course, the couple also sell books through Amazon.com, Alibris.com, AbeBooks.com, and other sites.
Like any used bookstore, Becker's Books is an intimate, personal space.
When the Beckers were building out the shop in the 1990s, they often worked late. Their two children would fall asleep in a corner chair or on the long ramp that leads to the back of the shop.
"We'd go back to work at night and bring their pillows and blankets," Becker explains.
There's a big back room where the Beckers hold the annual staff Christmas party. Reading groups have met at the store. And two couples got married in the back garden.
Near the register up front, three black and white photos of women are on display: Ann Becker's grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother.
"Next time you come, I'll show you a photo of my daughter," she tells me. "She has her great-grandmother's face."