E-books and Amazon and other industry changes have battered the traditional book trade. Which is why we don’t see many new bricks-and-mortar bookstores opening these days. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports an independent bookstore just opened in Oak Cliff. And it’s an unusual one.
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First things first. Yes, Paco Vique has heard all the objections and warnings. He’s well aware starting a tiny, new, independent bookstore seems to go against the prevailing wisdom when it comes to the online future of publishing. Or retailing.
“It’s anti-business,” Vique says with a laugh. “That’s what I call it, anti-business, this crazy idea of opening a bookstore.”
Vique and his business partner, Javier Garcia del Moral, are both from Spain. They work for a multi-national construction company based in Madrid. They both came to Texas several years ago. And Vique and del Moral are not experienced book industry insiders. In fact, they’re civil engineers.
“Yeah, roads and bridges,” he says with a grin. “So we are partly the ones to blame when you are sitting in traffic because of that construction going on. There’s a good chance that we had something to do with it.”
Yet here we are, sitting on the porch of a woodframe house the two have renovated and turned into a bookstore called The Wild Detectives. It’s on 8th Street in Oak Cliff, less than a block from the Bishop Arts District. It’s Saturday afternoon: Children play down the street, people drive by slowly in cars, looking for places to park as close to Bishop as they can get. Vique and del Moral live nearby, and the bookstore wasn’t their first culture project in the neighborhood: Two years ago, they started the Pata Negra Spanish-film series at the Texas Theatre.
But their new bookstore has been a fantasy of theirs. It’s another attempt to bring something a little more cosmopolitan, a little more European to Dallas. It’s a bookstore that serves coffee, a little food, but most notably: beer and wine. And it’ll present concerts, maybe even screen films.
Vique says there are a dozen bookstores that work like this in cities like Madrid. “We thought there might be room for something like that here. You know, books, as much as we love them, they’re not going to be the item that sustains the business.”
So they’re not being completely blind to the economics of the bookselling market: It’s always had a thin, unreliable profit margin. Yet it was those other, more profitable items – getting the city permits to serve food and beer and coffee – that kept postponing their store’s opening for months. Vique and del Moral finally got their certificate of occupancy just yesterday, late on a Friday, so they’re having a “soft opening.” They’re planning on a splashier debut once this shakedown cruise is done.
Despite the name, The Wild Detectives is not a mystery bookstore. Nor is it a Spanish-language one, though it does carry Spanish-language books. The store’s name derives from The Savage Detectives, the celebrated novel by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolano. And that gives some idea of what their inventory is like. It’s literary and sophisticated, it’s ‘multi-national.’ The handsome interior of the store is not wall-to-wall books — it doesn’t have the great mass of bestsellers and remainders found at the typical chain store. This is a small, thought-out selection.
Robert Howell is one of the shop’s first customers. He teaches philosophy at SMU (“anyone who has a job in philosophy is doing well”). He says he’s been “looking for an independent bookstore in Dallas since I got here, which was about 11 years ago. So it’s a thrill to know it’s just right down the street from me, right up here on Bishop.” Beyond the convenience and the food-and-beer-and-music, it’s the book selection and the knowledge behind it that appeal to him: “It’s clearly a curated collection. They know what they’ve got, and they know why they’ve got it. And that’s something you don’t see in the big stores. And that, I think, is what’s going to bring value to small bookstores as opposed to Amazon.”
Actually, these days, there are small, promising trends for independent bookstores finding their own niches. The American Booksellers Association says their numbers have been growing — slowly — for five years. Previously, it wasn’t so much that bookstores were closing up shop — there was always turnover in the business. It’s that they weren’t being replaced. The kinds of people who once might have started one were being scared off — by our new digital age, by how much more work it’s become to make a store succeed and become a city favorite.
Nowadays, it certainly helps independents that chain stores have been seriously retrenching. And Vique sees his own store as part of a wider trend for the small, the local, the independent, the neighborhood-based – over the big, the corporate, the digital. It’s a trend he sees even in Dallas
“There’s a lot of good things going on here,” he insists, after a list that includes the Texas Theatre, the Arts District, Oak Cliff in general and On the Eve at Theatre Three. “But it takes time to find them. So I said, it’ll be easier to open this place in Barcelona or Madrid — or Austin, actually.
“But,” he adds with the friendly laugh that seems to punctuate half of what he says, “I like a challenge.”
Besides, the nearest competition from a chain bookstore? It’s 13 miles away.