Houston’s Independent Bookstores Make National Spotlight

This article was originally posted at Houston Public Media on 12.29.16

An acclaimed American author has handpicked three booksellers to receive cash bonuses for their hard work.

Brazos Bookstore’s Annalia Luna was totally surprised when she was told she’d be getting a $2,500 check from American author James Patterson.

“I don’t know who nominated me, I have no idea,” Luna says. “But 1,700 people were in the pool this year.”

Patterson chose 149 independent bookstore employees from across the nation. And of the five Texas recipients, three are in Houston. The nominations can come from customers, fellow employees, or others in the industry who feel that the booksellers are passionate about what they do.

Brazos’ Benjamin Rybeck says it’s a testament to the strength of Houston’s indie bookstores. So in a world of giant box stores and online retailers, what keeps Houston’s literary community so strong?

“It’s a boom city still,” Rybeck explains. “People are coming here every single day to work in various industries. And so, as people flow into a city, there are going to be readers.”

Blue Willow Bookshop in West Houston is another success story. When Valerie Koehler bought the place twenty years ago, her annual sales totaled around $30,000. Today, that number hovers between $900,000 and $1 million.

“I think you would find all of us to say that we get a lot of support from our community, whether it’s from reading programs or literacy programs,” Koehler says.

Houston’s third awardee is John Kwiatkowski from Murder by the Book in Rice Village, one of the the largest stores specializing in mystery specialty books in the country.

in the news this week: Three Houston Independent Booksellers Win James Patterson Grants

This article was originally posted at Houstonia Magazine on 12.16.16

IT’S DIFFICULT FOR INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES to compete with Amazon’s endless inventory (and same-day delivery), lightweight tablets that hold up to 3,500 books and, let’s face it, tons of binge-worthy Netflix programing that makes picking up a book anything but a novel idea.

James Patterson, bestselling author who has sold more than 350 million books worldwide, understands the struggle. Every December, the writer gives a “bonus” to standout independent booksellers across the country, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, in partnership with the American Booksellers Association.

This year, Patterson selected 149 winners who were nominated by store owners, fellow booksellers, publishing professionals and even shoppers. Nominees were celebrated for their “contagious enthusiasm, knowledge across all genres, innovation and, most importantly, dedication to books and reading.”

“I loved hearing about the passion these grant recipients have for the work they’re doing—each is committed to hand-selling and carefully curating book recommendations for each person that walks through their doors,” says Patterson. “The attention these employees give to their customers is intrinsic to keeping them interested in reading. Booksellers can really make a difference in people’s lives, and I’m glad to be able to acknowledge their contributions in some way.”

This year, three Houston booksellers were amongst the country’s 149 recipients: Cathy Berner of Blue Willow Bookshop, John Kwiatkowski of Murder by the Book and Annalia Luna of Brazos Bookstore.

“Winning this award has shown me that it is not necessary to be the face of a bookstore to be appreciated by the larger book community, and it’s validating to know that even the more oblique ways of bookselling are valued by readers and shoppers alike,” shares Luna, the shipping and returns manager at Brazos. “I’m thankful Mr. Patterson recognized booksellers from fellow Houston bookstores, Murder by the Book and Blue Willow Bookshop,” continues Luna. “True—Texas is not New York or California, but the Houston literary scene is active and vibrant. It’s comforting to see our city get exposure.”

Tate Names Michael Wellen Curator of International Art

This article was originally posted at artnet on 10.28.16

Michael Wellen has been tapped as the new curator of International Art at Tate, bringing a particular emphasis on fostering the representation of Latin American art both in Tate’s collection as well as its exhibition programming at Tate Modern. Wellen is slated to begin this December, Tate announced yesterday.

Wellen will be making the move to London from Texas, where he has been working in various curatorial positions and capacities for over 10 years. He spent the past five years as Assistant Curator of Latin American and Latino Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), working in collaboration with Mari Carmen Ramírez on exhibitions, acquisitions, research, and a variety of publications related to the MFAH Latin American Art Department.

Throughout his time at MFAH, Wellen co-curated numerous well-received exhibitions, including “Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona” (2013–2014), and “Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America” (2015–2016). Prior to his post in Houston, Wellen was in Austin for five years, working as researcher and writer with the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas.

In addition to this, Wellen has also been a visiting lecturer at Rice University in Houston where he designed and taught the seminar Latin American Art and Film Since 1960.

Wellen earned his BA in History and Anthropology from Rutgers University, and holds an MA and PhD in Modern and Contemporary Art with a focus on Latin America, both from the University of Texas at Austin.


This feature was originally published at Literary Hub on 9/29/16

Anything can happen in twelve hours. Twelve hours: we close the doors on Sunday, September 18, and arrive the next morning to find the front door shattered. Inside, the usual signs of petty theft: the cash register broken, anything that had been locked now torn open like a wound. That call—the one that demands leaving the house without a shower, that summons for police reports—is never wanted, but it comes regardless.

No victims, no suspects, no witnesses. It is just a thing that happened. A thing happened and we did what is done when things happen: fret some and plan our next move. Phone calls are made; emails are sent. We do what we are supposed to do and hope the rest of the Monday is kind. We gather in front of the now pixelated front door and take a photo for our social media: six of us put up our middle fingers at someone who may well never see them. We tweet, “To whoever broke into our store & took our monies & hurt our door—screw you! #IndieBookstores #riseabove #alsowhy”

We laugh and it is enough. In Tacoma, Washington, fellow indie bookseller Kenny Coble sees our post, calls the store to order a book, and posts this tweet: “Someone broke into one of my favorite bookstores, @BrazosBookstore. Let’s show them some love and buy a book. brazosbookstore.com.” The hope? That a few people might follow his lead.

Coble, after all, has over 4,500 followers but often, it is hard to measure what that means, outside the abstract non-country that is the internet. Soon, we find out. Twelve hours: Coble posts one tweet and 21 people from 13 different states order from our website. Some orders are from friends—you know who you are—but many more are people who have never been to our store, or even the state of Texas. A few orders arrive from Litsy members (despite that we have yet to create a Litsy account).

It was not always like this, as Scott Esposito can attest. Founder of Quarterly Conversation, Director of Publicity and Senior Editor at Two Lines Press, and author ofThe Surrender, whose original publication was funded partially by Kickstarter, owes much to the internet. When I ask him about social media over email, his response is that social media is “the glue that holds it all together.” He reminds me that 20 years ago, it would be impossible to have “regular, day-to-day interactions with people in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Paris, Melbourne,” where we can trade book recommendations and quotes we love “without paying thousands of dollars” to do it.

What social media does, Esposito says, is “[allow] a new kind of group consciousness to arise among the different parts of the literary worlds… the emergence of various online literary scenes that are not bounded by geography.” Today, the book community now reaches beyond publishers, bookstores, state lines, or any other arbitrary limits. That is how people from Ohio and Massachusetts can cross another book off their To Be Read pile by poking through our online store, because we are part of the book community which has no borders. “When I saw what was happening with Brazos… I thought how much I love being in this community and how many good people there are here who care about things and will take the time to do the right thing,” Esposito writes.

Total, we had almost 30 orders from 14 states and one from D.C. We had retweets from readers, writers, booksellers, bookstores, publishers, literary magazines, publicists, every type of bookish citizen. At the time of this article, our original tweet had over one hundred retweets with over three hundred likes. In what other industry could this happen? In what other time could this happen?

Perhaps most surprising was the kind note we received from the lovely Valeria Luiselli, author of many titles including The Story of My Teeth. In an email addressed to store manager Mark Haber, she writes, “my humble contribution to Brazos’s convalescence” and attached this talisman, a relic from the days when she dreamed of opening her own bookstore:


Stealing books is a centenary Practice. It is not a good Practice, though in some cases it can be deemed respectable, as it may come to constitute a form of redistribution of our greatest Wealth. But even in a trade like this one, there is a Code of Conduct. Any Bibliopirate worthy of his or her Guild, must follow at least three norms:

1) Never steal a book by an author who is still alive.

2) Never steal a book published by an Independent Press.

3) Never steal a book from an Independent Bookstore.

VL & Brazos Bookstore & Bibliopirates

No books were harmed during our robbery but the message remains the same: where there are books, there will always be book people, and where there are book people, there will always be ideas, and people willing to support and protect them.

Twelve hours: we asked each other why anyone would choose a bookstore as a mark. Twelve hours: we remember a bookstore is more than its building.

interview w/ dr anthony brandt, charles halka

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 2.24.2015

Good interviews happen when the journalist can get his or her subject to break the script, so that’s my goal when I go to Rice University to speak with Dr. Tony Brandt about Musiqa, a Houston-based non-profit organization dedicated to performing modern concert music. But he derails me first when, halfway through our interview, he asks, “Do you want to take a test?”

Never mind that I haven’t been a student for three years now. What Brandt cares about is this idea in his head, an aural magic trick. He explains as he finds the playlist he made the night before: “So, I’m gonna play you a little bit of two arias from different operas about Orpheus and Eurydice, okay? One of them is going to be them declaring love for each other, and the other one is going to be Orpheus after he has realized he will never see Eurydice again—when he looks back and she disappears.”

Each clip is maybe twenty seconds. The first is slow and minor, a man moaning in the lower register; the second is fast and major, a duet brightened with strings. I know what I’m supposed to say: that the second sample is obviously the love song, since it has a man and a woman and sounds “happy.” So I pick the other one. We’ve been talking for over thirty minutes now, but this is the first time he seems to see me. He raises his eyebrows. “Really? Well, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting.”

Here’s the trick: neither sample is actually a love song. They are both laments. Not entirely discouraged, Brandt explains that this experiment is part of a talk he’s developing for the Jung Center. His mission? To convince his audience that the cliché is not true: music is not a universal language. In other words, Western music is not the only music.

Musiqa would agree. Founded twelve years ago, its priorities are simple: new music, new work, new art. Featured concerts consist of modern classical music paired with another art form, anything from poetry to experimental film. The integration of an additional visual or performative art might seem strange, but Brandt sees it as a way to help audiences break the habit of seeing the same Beethoven symphonies year after year.

He believes that people should risk something when they attend a concert, just as people attending, say, a baseball game risk seeing their team lose. But a baseball game isn’t just about the score; it’s also about the experience of going to the ballpark. Modern music concerts should be the same. “You’re not necessarily gonna like everything you hear on any exhibition of modern work,” Brandt says. “However, you’re likely to [enjoy] something, and just the experience itself can be so inspiring and wonderfully mind-awakening.”

Musiqa’s next concert—on February 26 at the Contemporary Art Museum—will be one such experience. During their eleven-year partnership, Musiqa’s concerts at the Contemporary Art Museum have provided a more intimate environment than the main stage concerts at Zilkha Hall. At the museum, the performers and the audience aren’t necessarily tethered to their designated spaces. “It depends on the layout of the room,” Brandt says, “but that’s also part of the experience. You’re right up close. As close as you can get to a painting, you can practically get that close to the music in those concerts.”

For those unfamiliar, the Contemporary Art Museum does not have any permanent artwork. When a new exhibition goes on display, the entire space resets. Usually, Brandt enjoys the process, watching the rooms change and letting the curators inspire him. However, the current exhibition, DOUBLE LIFE, presents its own challenges, as it includes three separate installations rather than the typical exhibit of various objects centered on a single theme.

Though each of the installations in DOUBLE LIFE is meant to “blur the boundaries between staged narratives and real world encounters,” Brandt thought Mountains of Encounter by Haegue Yang would work best with Musiqa. Inspired by secret meetings between an American journalist and a Korean rebel in the 1930s, Yang’s installation is layers of suspended red venetian blinds illuminated by moving spotlights. To complement Yang’s work, Brandt chose three themes Musiqa would attempt to speak to: audience participation, the union of cultures, and politics.

At the time of our meeting, Brandt and his fellow board members have already chosen the pieces that will represent audience participation (a text-based piece by Lei Liang that involves a soloist and the audience rubbing stones together) and union of cultures (a piece by Arab-American composer Saad Haddad). What I want to know more about, though, is the piece centered on politics by Charlie Halka, Musiqa’s first ever “composer intern,” a position that mixes the honor of an artistic residency with the rigor of an internship.

About Halka, I only know the basics: his main instrument is piano, and he holds a doctorate degree in composition from Rice University. When I ask him about his background beyond that, he explains that he started out as an aspiring concert pianist, switching to composition late during his undergraduate career at Peabody in Baltimore, Maryland. During that transitional period, he wrote mainly from his experience as a performer—what was feasible, what would be easy to rehearse, etc. These days, he’s trying to focus more on sound.

When I ask him about Musiqua, he says he’s been going to their concerts since he moved to Houston in 2009 and was aware of their reputation even before he came. So naturally, when he applied for their inaugural internship season last year and was the chosen composer, it was a personal dream come true. His new piece, “Liaison,” written specifically for the upcoming concert, will be Halka’s third piece with Musiqa. It’s the only piece on the program that will feature all four players—a cellist, horn player, percussionist, and clarinetist.

Thinking on the idea of private versus public conversation, “Liaison” is essentially a series of duets, separated by sections where the ensemble plays together. The instruments, paired in every permutation, aim to sound like one another, whereas the group sections are “all noise, very monotonous,” to the point of being “mechanical,” which Halka says is meant to imitate the sound of a public forum.

The fact that Halka based such a unique piece as “Liaison” on the Contemporary Art Museum’s Mountains of Encounter installation recalls a point Brandt tried to make earlier: that artists are not isolated, but “are alive reading the same newspapers as everybody, living in the same world, and reflecting on what we’re all experimenting. Everything gets so compartmentalized, but often, when you bring the arts together, you begin to see the relevance of each one and how they’re responding to similar things.”

So why is modern music relevant? Like every other art form, it acts as a mirror. It both reflects and projects. Is it perfect? No. Is it always comfortable? No. But that’s the point: distortion is what prompts change.