Housed in a cozy red house, it deals in rare, vintage and second-hand volumes.
Becker’s has been a mecca for readers since it was established in 1993. Co-owned by a married couple, Ann and Dan Becker, the bookshop operates as much as a labor of love as a profit-making venture.
“Mostly you have to love books if you want to do it,” Dan Becker said. “It’s a book business and it’s something you do because you love books, not because you want to make a whole lot of money.”
When asked about his relationship with books, Dan answered emphatically: “I like to read. I need to read. And I actually love books, the physical object of a book. If you have a bookstore, you don’t just like to read, you generally really like books and to be surrounded by books. There’s a feeling you get when you’re surrounded by books. There’s a feeling you get when you can smell books. It’s something I need. It’s also something that makes me feel at ease, comfortable.”
For Dan, it began as a fascination with rare and unusual volumes. He habitually browsed book shops, enchanted by the joy and the sport of the hunt.
“It started off as a hobby, more of an avocation than a vocation,” Dan said. “I just liked going and scouting for books. I liked going to sales and looking for hard to find, out of print books, sometimes for expensive out of print books. It’s kind of like rooting for acorns...I enjoyed that part of the hunt and the game of doing that and did that for a long time before I ever did open a bookstore.”
Ultimately, the couple struck out on their own, selling items from Dan’s collection.
“One day, my wife said ‘What are we going to do with all these books?’ and I said ‘Well, let’s open a bookstore’ and she said ‘Cool,’ and that was a long time ago,” Dan said, smiling.
Ann added, laughing: “He probably had the idea for a very long time, but one day he decided to tell me. At first I was like ‘What?’ but then as we got into it, and I realized the fantastic nature of it, it was wonderful. It has been such a great way to live, raise our kids.”
They occupied portions of an art gallery and an antiques mall before moving to larger quarters, a house at 7405 Westview Drive, where they have been for the last 30 years.
I remember my first visit there well. It was entirely magical.
At the entrance, my eye was caught by an open sign, assembled from license plates, which offered some simple yet superb advice: “OP3N OP3N OP3N A BOOK.”
It was as if the sign’s subtext read “Book people ahead.”
I pushed open the door, stumbled into the building, and looked about.
Becker’s Books was very different from the big box bookstores I had become accustomed to. It looked as if a horde of books had forcibly colonized what was once a family home. The rooms of the old house had been thrown into one and divided into little alcoves by shelves which carried books to the ceiling. The air was heavy with the delightful fragrance of mellowed paper and the shop had a warm and comfortable feel.
Passing down the narrow, labyrinthine aisle between alcoves, floorboards creaked with nearly every footfall. Throughout the shop, there were stools and ladders for climbing and some comfortable chairs for quiet contemplation.
Bearing little resemblance to the chain outlets with their orderly rows, books here were precariously stacked, shoved, piled and wedged into overflowing shelves and boxes.
Truly a peruser’s paradise, the shop seemed a great storehouse which appeared to contain all the books that were ever written. Never had I seen such a varied selection. There were 20th-century travelogues (“Eyes of Texas Travel Guide”), cookbooks (“The New Joys of Jell-O”), leather-bound classics, medical textbooks, how-to guides, crafting compendiums, (“The Complete Books of Decoupage”), and so much more.
There are, by the proprietors’ estimates, tens of thousands of volumes stacked in the cases and shelves. They are divided into the usual classics, hobbies, reference, and children’s sections in addition to those on more specialized areas like literary criticism, regional history, and Texana -- altogether, there are some 70 sections, a dizzying figure which excludes many, many subsections.
The massive jumble made for hours of rummaging -- I got lost in the shop’s overstuffed stacks multiple times -- but patience and time turned up a pile of must-haves.
“This kind of old school, stacks-style bookstore, it’s really hard to find,” Dan and Ann’s son Charlie said. “Basically people say ‘I didn’t know there were places like this anymore’ or ‘I didn’t know places like this existed, like I thought it was something in the movies.’”
According to Charlie, Becker’s Books isn’t the kind of store where you find what you’re looking for (though they’re happy to help you search for a specific title) -- Really, It’s the store where you find the book you didn’t know you were looking for.
“We used to have the quote by J. R. R. Tolkien ‘Not all who wander are lost’ up everywhere because there’s something fun about the idea of exploring where it’s like I’m not just idly looking around. It’s like I’m looking for something but I’m willing to let myself be transformed by that process of looking and finding things that I don’t have in my mind before I set out to look for it. And so I think that’s why a lot of people who come in here looking for something and leave with something different become fanatical about coming back.”
For those intent on visiting the bookshop, Charlie offered this advice: “Budget four or five times as much time as you think you need, because you’re going to walk in and every shelf you’re going to be like ‘Wow, what’s this, what’s this, what’s this,” and then you’ll realize you’re hungry because you’ve been in here for like four hours.”
In a landscape dominated by large retailers, Dan admits it takes a certain stamina, passion and sheer force of will to stay afloat.
“I’m driven under the whiplash of economic necessity sometimes,” Dan said. “It is something where we’ve had to take extraordinary measures occasionally to keep going and I think part of it is just really wanting to stay open...I think that just being really determined to stay open and, in part, doing it because we love it is really the main reason. Sometimes it’s done well, sometimes it’s done poorly, but we’ve always enjoyed it.”
“Dan is an incredible book hound and he really knows books,” Ann said. “We’re dedicated to it and for Dan, it’s a complete and utter passion.”
Dan said book shops need all the support they can get right now.
“I’m grateful for any kind of bookstore that keeps their head above water these days,” Dan said. “But, in particular, obviously I have a great affection for used bookstores and people that are still struggling to keep used bookstores open. To me, it’s not a coincidence that we came out of the dark ages with the advent of the bookstore and the book printer. To me, it’s pretty important to a culture and a society to have independent bookstores.”
Despite the ups and downs of the used book trade, Dan wouldn’t trade his profession for the world.
“I won’t ever do anything else. I’ll do this as long as I’m physically able, or mentally able, I don’t know which will kick out first,” Dan said, laughing. “I have done other things in my life, but I’ve never liked what I did like I like this. I’ve never had such a happy marriage of what I want to do, what I need to do, and what I look forward to doing as I do with the bookstore.”
Becker’s Books, 7405 Westview Drive, between Wirt Road and Antoine Drive, (713) 957-8088; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Bibliophiles, what are your favorite bookstores in the Houston area? Share your recommendations in the comments.