Celebrating Texas Independents: Deep Vellum Books and Brazos Bookstore

“Texas is all about surprises, and our indie lit scene reflects that in the best possible way.”

-Benjamin Rybeck

What a wonderful month we’ve had of Celebrating Texas Independents! From Odessa, to San Antonio, to Austin, and Dallas, we’ve so enjoyed meeting our great literary state’s wonderful writers and readers, as well as independent booksellers, publishers, and journal editors.

This entire month wouldn’t have been possible without the great independent bookstores that hosted our events. We interviewed Anne Hollander of Deep Vellum Books in Dallas and Benjamin Rybeck of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, who each hosted as at their respective bookstores, about the literary landscape in Texas.

Scribe: Can you share a few thoughts with us about the Texas literary landscape — what makes it unique, and what opportunities can be found here for writers, readers, publishers, and booksellers?

Anne Hollander: The Texas literary scene is blooming with talented writers and authors who are gaining recognition for their work, both with voracious audiences as well as within the circles of the traditional, institutional publishing houses. We love Merritt Tierce, David Olimpio, Joe Milazzo, Sanderia Faye, Ben Fountain, and the dedicated swath of poets, essayists, and other writers who visit us often, and who are producing fantastic work.

Deep Vellum customers are clamoring for literary works as though they’ve been starved–without a doubt, there is plenty of opportunity both for publishers and booksellers here in Texas. One of the more surprising aspects to outsiders is the genuine spirit of collaboration within the Texas literary world. To Texans, this is completely natural: we’re raised to get involved, to lend a hand, to build and utilize networks, and to celebrate our collective successes. This is especially evident in the literary scene and we’re thrilled to take part in uniting writers and readers, publishers and booksellers.

Benjamin Rybeck: I grew up in New England, where my perception of Texas was always cowboys, soulless skyscrapers, traffic jams. Are these things untrue? Either way, it’s not the full story. I have never found a more welcoming literary community anywhere I’ve lived, and folks underestimate Texas’s lit scene at their own peril. There are indie bookstores, present (Brazos, BookPeople, Twig, Murder by the Book, Blue Willow, Wild Detectives) and future (my former boss Jeremy Ellis is going to do some stellar work with Interabang in Dallas, I’m sure) that rank among the nation’s best and most exciting. There are exciting indie publishers (A Strange Object, Deep Vellum, etc.). There are a slew of literary magazines that push the boundaries of what’s expected (I recently joined the board at Gulf Coast, where they’re featuring one of the nation’s only lit journal-sponsored translation prizes). Texas is a whole playground of forward-thinking ideas about art and culture ready to be explored.

Scribe: What do you see as the role of independents in Texas’s literary community (publishers, journals, booksellers) and what do you find most rewarding about the work you do at your bookstores?

AH: I think the role of independents is to both nurture a network of readers and writers and to challenge the long-held commandments of how things should be done. Independents have the agility and local-to-global pulse that larger institutions lack. I strongly believe the the future of media–bookstores, publishers, authors, writers, readers, distribution, production–will be defined by the ideas, concepts, standards, and processes we’re experimenting with today.

Which is the most rewarding aspect of our work at Deep Vellum: given the same source materials, we’re creating something completely different and enabling multiple creative collaborations to flourish within the bookstore. Our local literary scene, as I said, is blooming with a surprising amount of talent, and where before there was a lack of infrastructure (i.e., consistent welcoming places to meet, perform, collaborate, network, critique), Deep Vellum opened its doors with a singular purpose: to be that place where the creative community comes together. To sit in the back with a cup of coffee and experience what our community creates–it’s the most rewarding work I’ve done in my career.

BR: Cities like Houston are inclusive major metropolitan areas that want everybody to have a high quality of life, and the indie lit community in Texas is there to reflect this. Texas is all about surprises, and our indie lit scene reflects that in the best possible way. The most rewarding part of the job to me is when somebody comes to Brazos and leaves not only with new books but also with ideas about what Houston’s arts community is. “I didn’t know places like this still existed” is something we hear every day, and I always have to suppress my giddy smile for fear of looking like a freak.

Scribe: Tell us a bit about a program or event that you have upcoming that exemplifies the spirit of being independent in Texas.

AH: Our mission is as easy as ABC: accessible books & culture. This mission manifests itself in a variety of different ways, including collaboration opportunities with local businesses and institutions within the cities we serve, curating strong book and event programming to reflect the needs and desires of the communities we serve, and creating an inclusive environment to stimulate growth, change, and activism within the store locale.

You’ve caught us on the cusp of several announcements: we’re soon to announce a handful of collaborative partnerships here in Dallas to extend the reach of great books across the city–some of which are non-traditional outlets. We’re very close to a new bookstore location in Denton, and we’re excited to provide space, structure, and support to a quickly evolving creative community (which is growing by leaps and bounds every day!). And we’re within a couple weeks of announcing the results of a big data-driven project we’ve been working on since December–more on that as soon as we release the results.

BR: I’m excited–as I am every year–about Independent Bookstore Day (April 30), but this year especially, because our day-long programming gives us a chance to highlight the deep partnerships we’ve formed in Houston with other literary organizations, museums, graphic designers, movie theaters, nonprofit educational organizations, etc. This, to me, demonstrates the openness of Houston’s arts community: you can get pretty much anyone on the phone and propose a weird idea and pretty much everyone says “let’s do it!” Indie bookstores are not only retail spaces and cultural hubs; they’re bastions of weird ideas. Luckily, Texas–with its always-evolving sense of itself–is usually game. I wouldn’t want to do this job anywhere else.

Thanks, Anne and Ben!

You can visit our website for details on the past month of panels and read interviews with our panelists here on our blog. We’ll also be posting a podcast version of our Austin panel on Soundcloud soon, so stay tuned!

Are you a Texas independent (publisher, journal, bookstore, etc.) interested in participating in a future event and/or learning about other opportunities for partnership and promotion? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at wlt@writersleague.org.


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