This is entry number eight in our category called “Austin Gems” (see the side bar on the right for a link to past posts). Our Gems are places and activities that go beyond the typical tourist spots and the places we all have visited. We guess that most of the people in Austin have heard of BookPeople, but few probably know their full history. In honor of their upcoming 40th anniversary, BookPeople has provided a history of their operations on their website and we are sharing it here. If you haven’t been to BookPeople, you must check it out. If you love BookPeople like we love BookPeople, then be sure to continue supporting them so they can remain one of Austin’s finest literary establishments.
On November 11, 1970, two couples opened a small bookstore out of the ground floor of a two-story duplex on West 17th Street. They put together a handpicked collection of books that focused on alternative politics, metaphysics, and eastern religions. The name Grok Books was chosen, taken from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and the store quickly became a favorite spot for University students, faculty, and staff. In the summer of 1978, after returning from 7 years abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer, Philip Sansone decided to buy Grok Books.
Philip started expanding Grok’s mission to become a place for Austinites to come together and celebrate ideas of all kinds. Under Philip’s leadership, Grok started hosting talks by nationally known authors like Timothy Leary, Buckminster Fuller, Ram Dass, and Ray Bradbury. Realizing that he had outgrown the little duplex in West Campus, Philip moved the store to the Brodie Oaks Shopping Center in 1984 and changed the name to BookPeople. Drawn from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the name BookPeople spoke to the store’s desire to be a cultural center for all of Austin.
The store expanded to include more general interest titles, a children’s section, and a diverse selection of gift items. In 1995, Philip made the bold decision to move BookPeople to its current location at 6th and Lamar, with the help of twenty-five investors and an active Board of Directors. At the time of its grand opening, BookPeople became the largest bookstore in Texas with over 40,000 square feet of selling space and laid claim to the largest selection of book titles in any bookstore nationwide. The risk paid off, as BookPeople has continued to thrive and expand in its larger space.
Now, with over 300 events every year, an award-winning children’s section, a renowned Literary Camps program, and thousands of gift items, BookPeople has become a destination bookstore with a national reputation. We’ve hosted fantastic authors, from Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to celebrities Jane Fonda and Anthony Bourdain, to award winning writers Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen, to local authors Owen Egerton and Amanda Eyre Ward, to children’s authors Mo Willems and Rick Riordan.
In 2005, BookPeople was nationally celebrated as Publisher’s Weekly Bookseller of the Year, and while that was a great honor, we are even prouder to have won the Austin Chronicle Best Bookstore in Austin award for the last 20 years running. Our independent spirit and local roots are what have sustained us over the last 40 years, and we are proud to be founding members of the Austin Independent Business Alliance with our current CEO Steve Bercu serving as its president.
BookPeople remains, after 40 years, committed to be a community bound by books. So we’re celebrating our anniversary during the entire month of
November, with amazing events, and a fantastic party for you, our valued customers, on Saturday, November 13 from 11:30 AM -1:30 PM. Please join us for cake, balloons, activities, and fun. Thank you for 40 wonderful years, Austin.
Alison Kothe-Nihlean is the Marketing Director at BookPeople