A History of BookPeople at 50!

Howdy, Readers! BookPeople is celebrating 50 years of operation and the community we continue to grow each day around the love of literature! In honor of the rich history we’ve developed in the lovely city of Austin, TX we’re re-posting this previously published blog post that gives us a glimpse into BookPeople’s humble beginnings as the little local bookstore that could!

Every March, we in Texas celebrate the history of our state: the Texas declaration of independence (1836), birth of Sam Houston (1793), and Alamo Heroes Day (1836) all occur this month. After over 40 years serving Austin’s bookish community, we’d like to reintroduce you to our own Texas history. In this series, we take a look at our unique relationship with our community.

On November 11, 1970, two couples opened a small bookstore on the ground floor of a duplex on West 17th street near the University of Texas campus. With a meager budget of only $5,000, they hand-picked their inventory from small presses and focused on alternative politics, political theory, metaphysics, and eastern religions. They named their store Grok Books, from Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land to promote the idea that engaged reading can foster change and growth in the individual and society.

grok books sign
Staff and friends hang up the original Grok Books sign

In the summer of 1978, Phillip Sansone purchased the store and evolved it to reflect the growing Austin community which was beginning to become a landmark for arts and music. The store started hosting talks from authors. By the 1980s, sales increased tenfold and ten thousand titles filled the rooms of the small duplex. Sansone took the risk to move the store to a new location on Brodie Oaks with thousands more titles and a staff of twenty. With the new location came a new name: in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the BookPeople are a community who memorize stories in a world where the printed word is illegal and seditious. Adopting this philosophy, the store changed its name and expanded its inventory to include more subjects. We wanted to become a source for all thought, from spirituality and politics to fiction and poetry and everything in between.

In 1995 the board of directors to move once again to the store’s current location at Sixth and Lamar in a 40,000 foot store. We now have a staff of over 100 including a fully functioning cafe; two stores-within-a-store: the award-winning BookKids section and MysteryPeople; TeenPress Corps, the blog run by teens for teens; and, of course, our expert booksellers. Our buyers work on-site, allowing us to respond quickly to requests for new titles. Our Kids Outreach Director conceived of and launched a renowned Literary Camp. In 2000, we launched our website which has expanded to become a thriving webstore.

camp half blood 2
Camp Half-Blood provides a place for youngsters to live out the stories they love.

We are a proud founding member of the Austin Independent Business Alliance. (Our CEO Steve Bercu’s passion for Austin Independent businesses marks the temperature at which corporations burn.) We’ve become a destination, not only for book buying, but also for author readings and events, of which we host hundreds a year. We donate thousands of dollars to school libraries and literacy programs all around Austin each year.

We have enjoyed flourishing in (and contributing to) a city that boasts some of the most book sales per capita in America.  As you should know by now, we’re an independent bookstore. We have deep roots in the Austin community. We have been servicing the needs of this community for over forty years and to look forward to servicing the community and its evolving needs for many more. BookPeople history is Texas history.

buckminster fuller at grok books
R. Buckminster Fuller sits next to our original bag check sign at Grok Books

We hope you enjoyed that blast from the past! Be sure to keep up with us on Instagram and Twitter for more throwbacks like this and see how far BookPeople has come!

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