El Paso’s Literarity and the Benefits of Independent Bookstores
By Christina Miranda
On the west side of El Paso, Texas, cars glide along the curved U.S./Mexico border. Moving north from the border, the wall that divides El Paso and Ciudad Juárez becomes almost invisible, bringing colorful houses and city buildings into a single landscape. Some little ways away from the scene sits a little bookshop tucked into the corner of the Peppertree Square shopping center on North Mesa Street. Inside one of the two owners of Literarity Book Shop, Bill Clark, speaks to a married couple about the rare and signed books sitting comfortably in their glass case next to his desk and register. While the bookstore may seem small upon first glance, numerous selections lay stacked among the shelves, their subjects labeled with Scrabble pieces. And that is just what is visible in the front; in the back, large masses of books lay almost stacked up to the ceiling.
Literarity opened its doors to the public on July 5. When thinking about opening a bookstore with his wife, Mary Anna, Clark explains, “El Paso has been our home for more than 20 years. Over that period of time, my wife and I have watched many bookstores, both national chain stores and independents, disappear. El Paso has always had a shortage of good, quality bookstores for a city of this size. We reached a point last year, where Barnes & Noble was pretty much the only game in town...We felt there was a void that could be filled by a nice, high-quality bookstore with a curated mix of both pre-owned and new books, including fine collectible books. Over the past 30 years, Mary Anna and I often discussed possibly opening a bookstore; last year, we concluded: if not now, when?”
Independent bookstores do have a small presence in El Paso, which is in part due to the city having a focus on engineering and medicine. While this isn’t El Paso’s first independent bookstore, there are still many qualities that make this location unique. Compared to other bookstores, Literarity is located near the University of Texas at El Paso, making its signed editions and highly extensive selection of literature from Texas, Mexico, and Central America enticing to students and educators. Its geographical location along the border also serves as a great contributing factor to why Literarity Book Shop is useful to the El Paso community. “This is a way for us to enjoy our passion for books while giving back to the Borderplex community, which includes Juarez, Mexico and Las Cruces, New Mexico.” West El Paso houses one of the ports of entry between the U.S. and Mexico, and is not too far away from the New Mexico border. The University of Texas at El Paso is home to a prominent and bilingual creative writing program along with many other programs dedicated to Mexican-American studies.
With 5 percent of the university’s students being from Mexico, it’s not just the El Paso community that the Clark’s bookstore is serving, it’s multiple communities across multiple borders. “Our primary reason for opening this store is to have a positive impact on the community. We want to serve people with a passion for books and introduce readers of all ages to books they might not otherwise discover. Our customers over the past six weeks have been representative of broad demographics, but the interest shown by teens and young adults has been amazing. And we’re talking about young people interested in great literature, not just the latest pop culture books.”
Literarity has a wide variety of genres in stock, but the bestsellers are those of Deep Vellum Publishing, a non-profit publisher based out of Dallas, Texas that prints translated international literature. “Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum, read about Literarity right after we opened and he posted or retweeted an item about us. That prompted me to visit the Deep Vellum website and I was impressed with what they are doing—translating the works of international authors—both award-winning authors and emerging writers—into English as a way of bridging cultures. Deep Vellum is a literary arts non-profit foundation and their culture-bridging mission is consistent with our mantra: open books open minds. We ordered a selection of all of Deep Vellum titles and in less than three weeks, we’ve already sold almost every copy. We’ll be placing our next Deep Vellum order today and we’re excited that they have some new titles coming out this fall.”
On each side of Literarity sit two Barnes and Noble Bookstores, which serve as its biggest competition, but Bill didn’t have many concerns with their large presence. If anything, this speaks to what differentiates Literarity and other independent bookstores from bigger chains: “We offer a totally different experience than B&N or a campus bookstore. As you can see, we offer a more intimate, less commercial environment designed for browsers. Our shop is small, so we offer a curated selection of new and used books which will evolve and change over time. Our pre-owned books are in nice, clean condition (many have never been read) and can be purchased at affordable prices, well below B&N prices for new books. We also have a lot of signed first editions.”
Another factor that falls in Literarity’s favor is their introduction of reading events, which isn’t a quality that El Paso’s Barnes & Noble possesses. “We plan to host some select literary arts events, including author readings and book signings. We have two events scheduled in October in conjunction with Tom Lea Month, which honors artist/author Tom Lea.” Unlike other bookstores in the city, these events create an opportunity to bring in a large community of readers and writers into an intimate environment allowing El Pasoans to join in on events that make literature so gratifying.
When one considers independent bookstores like Literarity, it is easy to recognize why these spaces are so important. Their function goes well beyond a supply/demand or seller/buyer dynamic. Independent bookstores cultivate an environment that is vital to literature—from the engagement of the written word itself, to dialogue and exchange of ideas, to the discovery of new works. Those that delve into these spaces are immersed in the world of literature in much more substantive ways. Reflecting on Literarity, Clark explains, “We are first and foremost readers, not people simply performing a retail job, so when you come to our shop, you’re being assisted by a person who loves books, knows the stock, and can make good recommendations. With regard to college bookstores, we’ve been thrilled by the number of college students and professors – including folks from UTEP, NMSU and EPCC – who have stopped in; some now stop in weekly.”