It was a year ago that Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston, dropping 60 inches of rain on the city and along the Texas gulf coast. Today, the city is still reeling from the aftermath of the storm.
McKenna Jordan, owner of Houston’s Murder by the Book, said that it is only now that her bookstore’s sales have stabilized. “I think the economy has been weakened by [Harvey] and there are still so many people who lost their homes and are still trying to rebuild,” she said. “We have seen a drop in regular customers as people have become more conservative in their discretionary spending.” While customers are starting to return, Jordan emphasized that the period since the storm has been difficult. “I curtailed much of my marketing after the storm. I didn’t want to be pushy,” she said. “Now, I’m starting to feel optimistic about sales again.”
Neither Murder by the Book, nor nearby Brazos Bookstore, were flooded, though only a few blocks away the flood water had risen to several feet. “We were luckier than most,” said Keaton Patterson, book buyer at Brazos, who observed that the city showed great character during the ordeal. “We tried to help as many people as we could by keeping the store open and trying to offer them some sense of ‘normalcy,’” he said. “Hurricanes are a fact of live and I feel like the city has bounced back well. It is a resilient place.” Patterson points to — naturally — a book as proof. “[Author] Joe Holley really captures this in his book, Hurricane Season [Hachette], which covers Hurricane Harvey and the Astros’s miraculous win in the World Series.”
Richard Deupree, manager of Katy Budget Books in the Houston suburb of Katy, concurs with Patterson in seeing a strength in citizens of the city. “It was a remarkable time. I remember looking back and being proud of the city,” said Deupree. Just one of the 26 employees of the store had their home flooded, not that the store itself was unaffected. “The water literally stopped ten feet from the front of our store,” he said. In all, the store was closed for four days. “Remarkably,” said Deupree, “we had an even better year in 2017 than 2016.”
The neighborhood surrounding Houston’s Blue Willow Bookstore saw more than 600 homes flooded. Owner Valerie Kohler noted that her customers have largely returned, though she said that she lost several older and elderly customers who had been regulars. “I think they just gave up on the city and moved away to be with family elsewhere,” she said.
Cathy Berner, children’s/young adult specialist and events coordinator at the store, said that while “Harvey was certainly no fun, it brought out the best in many people and we remain grateful for that.” Among the store’s heroes was children’s book author and illustrator Bob Shea, who when Hurricane Harvey hit last year offered a hand-drawn unicorn to people who donated money to rebuild flooded school and classroom libraries. “Thanks to him, we raised more than $10,000,” she said. Others who assisted included Carl Lennertz, executive director of the Children’s Book Council, who worked as a liaison between publishers and schools. “Candlewick Press sent us several palettes of books which we ensured were delivered to affected schools and campuses as far away as [the coast].” said Berner.
Some coastal areas were hit even harder than Houston. In the beach town of Rockport, Tex., Lori’s Book Nook was destroyed by the storm and has not reopened. “We waited for eight months for the buildings to be repaired in town and when there were some finally available to move into, they were super expensive,” said Lori Koviac, who co-owned the business with her mother, Darlene Varner. “My mother has retired and I’ve had to get a job,” she said, adding that she now works for a technology repair shop. Fortunately, she and her mother had insurance on the content of the store, which was completely lost. “I wouldn’t say [insurance] made us whole, but I will say they made us half-whole. You can only cover so much.”
Koviac said that while she still dabbles with selling some books online, she’s done with bricks-and-mortar bookselling for now. Though she lamented that Rockport no longer had an independent bookstore, she observed that one local retailer seems to have benefited from her store’s absence. “When Wal-Mart reopened their store, they expanded the size of the book section.”