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Indie bookstores are booming in North Texas - and a Grapevine store is the latest edition

A sunny Saturday means business at Talking Animals Books in downtown Grapevine. Co-owners Katy Lemiux and Valerie Walizadeh work the register.
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
A sunny Saturday means business at Talking Animals Books in downtown Grapevine. Co-owners Katy Lemieux and Valerie Walizedah work the register.

How can this be? Bricks-and-mortar bookstores should be reeling from the pandemic and all those books sold on Amazon. But Talking Animals just opened.

First, it was The Wild Detectives bookstore setting up shop in the Bishop Arts District in 2014. It was the first bookstore in the area to serve both alcohol and a distinctly sophisticated choice of books.

Since then, these are some of the North Texas bookshops that have opened:

They join the ranks of older independents such as South Dallas' Pan-African Connection and the Dock Bookshop in Fort Worth.

This steady rise in the number of area independents seems to run directly counter to the kind of financial damage that COVID has inflicted on other cultural outlets, like cinemas, music venues and the performing arts.

Allison Hill is CEO of the American Booksellers Association, the trade association for independent bookstores. She said one reason for the 'return of the independents' is that our pandemic isolation actually turned a lot of us back to reading books.

"We saw a renaissance of reading," Hill said. "We saw people return to reading because they were quarantined. Or because they finally ran out of movies to stream on Netflix."

Talking Animals is down a side street off Main Street in historic downtown Grapevine.
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
Talking Animals is down a side street off Main Street in historic downtown Grapevine. Built in 1900, the building was originally a bank - which was robbed by members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang in 1932.

Across the US, Hill said, just over the past three years, more than 400 new indie bookstores have opened. Some 230 more are in the works.

So now it was downtown Grapevine's turn. In early January, a month before the official opening of Talking Animals Books, workers were putting down a new floor upstairs, while downstairs, friends of the owners unpacked boxes -- friends like Stephanie Criner, who's 43 and lives in Grapevine.

"I just think that a bookstore would be a great addition to this cute little downtown area," Criner said. "I feel like Grapevine is such a tourist destination. And an awesome bookstore is something that has been missing from Grapevine."

(The suburb does have a Books-A-Million and a Barnes & Noble, plus church-affiliated vendors.)

Talking Animals co-owner Katie Lemieux is an avid reader, but she didn't have some lifelong dream to run a bookstore. She's been a grant writer and a journalist, but a couple years ago, nearing 40, what she really wanted was a new career.

Her parents had owned a trucking company. So the idea of a family business had its appeal.

"Mostly," she said, "I wanted a place that didn't exist for me when I was a young mom. I wanted people to come in and feel cozy. I wanted people to come in and feel that they weren't bothering people with their children. So I was like, I'm just going to do this. I will figure it out later."

In addition to the books, custmers can enjoy board games and creating their own greeting cards.
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
In addition to the books, custmers can enjoy board games and creating their own greeting cards.

Katy and her husband, Justin, who's a teacher and actor, didn't have a lot of cash. So she went for advice from Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum Books. He told her, she had to have a partner — somebody else to answer the phone in the middle of the night when the place flooded and she wasn't around.

So Lemieux found a like-minded soul in Valerie Walizadeh, and together, they went looking for a bank loan. And they were declined.

So the two put some of their start-up costs on their credit cards. Lemieux called this "doing it the irresponsible way."

But she noted, they've already paid down some of that debt.

So then Lemieux and Walizadeh turned to Kickstarter. In October 2022, they raised more than $54,000.

"We've had a ton of support from the community," said Criner. "Not only with the Kickstarter, but Katy has had pop-ups over the Christmas season. She's had a ton of people wanna donate used books. So it really feels like something that a lot of people want in town."

Allison Hill of the Booksellers Association said indie bookstores have been turning into that "third space" in American life, neither work, nor home -- a place for hanging out, reading clubs, blood drives, chess tournaments, pet adoptions, gay rights meetings, literacy programs.

"We're seeing new stores open in what we refer to as book deserts, communities that haven't had bookstores," Hill said. "But we're also seeing bookstores open to fill gaps in terms of how we're defining community."

After a soft launch, Talking Animals had its official ribbon-cutting opening Feb. 28th. Katy and Justin Lemieux are in the middle.
Yory Kim
/
Courtesy Talking Animals Books
After a soft launch, Talking Animals had its official, ribbon-cutting party Feb. 28th. Katy and Justin Lemieux are in the middle. Parker Walizadeh, daughter of co-owner Valerie Walizadeh, is at the register.

Talking Animals, despite its whimsical name, is an all-ages bookstore, offering new and used books. But children are definitely a focus.

Zara Lakhani is 9, she visited the store recently with her siblings and her mother, Kishwer Lakhani.

"It was really fun," Zara said."There was games and little reading areas. And then there was a play center upstairs."

Sounds like fun. How long were you there?

"Like — about 30 minutes."

Her mother laughed.

"We were there for about three hours," she said.

Because of the ice storm, Talking Animals had a soft launch through February — then a ribbon-cutting on February 28. The store is well-located, just off Main Street -- near all the other shops and eateries. Grapevine is a small town-now-a-sizable-suburb that has turned its downtown into a quaint-but-very-modern showcase of "historic, small-town Texas." It's complete with city hall, a train station, a convention-and-visitors bureau and the traditional wine bars.

But Lemieux knows that depending on walk-up customers headed out from lunch won't be enough to keep Talking Animals open. What bookstores do these days is turn themselves into a destination — with classes and book signings and special events.

"What are we offering people beyond books in a store? Why are they coming back?" Lemieux said. "Those are the things that we're learning as we go. So Valerie and I have a joke that we're like driving a car as we're putting the wheels on it. It's going to be fine — eventually."

It's a bookstore. Not such a bad place to learn a few things.

Update 3.2.23: This story was changed to correct the ages of Stephanie Criner and Zara Lakhani.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.