Dallas-born Half Price Books celebrates 50th anniversary


“Everyone thinks we started in Austin,” Sharon Anderson Wright tells me, “because we’re so cool.”

The CEO of Half Price Books, the massively popular chain that sells, yes, books, but also records, CDs, VHS tapes, DVDs, video games, posters and tons of other physical ephemera, defends the store’s Dallas roots. What started as a sleepy store on Lovers Lane opened by Anderson Wright’s mother, Pat, and her boyfriend Ken, has grown into an empire that spans 18 other states, surviving – and thriving – in staying in the family.

“We kept our cool all these years,” says Anderson Wright, mentioning that Half Price Books was founded by radical peace activists and environmentalists who “were not going to accept the status quo.” The apple doesn’t fall too far from Anderson Wright, who introduces himself to me as “Boots,” his longtime nickname.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Half Price Books has stayed cool by staying independent, shunning venture capital deals and growing at its own pace: the company currently has more than 120 stores and plans to open more. ‘others. Since its inception, it has remained a destination for wilderness discovery, mind expansion and a celebration of the printed word.

Still, in a time when almost any book, record, or DVD can be accessed with an eBay or Amazon account, it’s a wonder anyone bothers to show up at a physical bookstore in 2022. But on a scorching Monday afternoon , Half Price Books on North Lamar Boulevard has a steady stream of browsers ready to flip cash for physical media.

It is this act of discovery that continues to amaze, but the concept is ingrained in the human mind. Why do kids watch unboxing videos? Why do card collectors revel in unopened packs? It is the feeling of the unknown, imbued with hope; let’s hope the next stack has a plastic-wrapped vintage copy of a Dashiell Hammett mystery or the jazz section has something affordable on Blue Note.

Half Price Books on North Lamar has a strong comic book and video game section.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

It’s Half Price Books’ secret recipe for success after 50 years of multinational bookstores, the Internet, Kindles and other disruptors.

“Ken was very averse to phone shopping,” says Anderson Wright. “You get someone in the store, and even if we don’t have what they’re looking for, they’re going to find three more books.”

Zigzagging through the store, I look for a science fiction book by Ursula K. LeGuin and early novels by Charles Willeford. I cross out both accounts, but I find Image by Lillian Ross and a mint copy by jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette Special edition. The in-depth browser always scores points.

It’s like I didn’t know I needed it – I only vaguely knew both – but somehow Half Price Books knew I needed it. Anderson Wright knows that sentiment, distilling it into one sentence during a recent Zoom call.

She says, “I just think people want to be surprised.”

Sharon Anderson Wright (right) took over as head of Half Price Books in 1995 when her mother Pat (left) died.

Sharon Anderson Wright (right) took over as head of Half Price Books in 1995 when her mother Pat (left) died.

Half price books

A cool and dirty mess

Anderson Wright’s mother, Pat Anderson, and Ken Gjemre opened the first Half Price Books in 1972 in a former laundromat on Lovers Lane. Gjemre was a buyer at Zales Jewlers and Anderson was studying psychology when they decided to open a bookstore. Anderson Wright and his sister Ellen, the store’s first employee, began making signs, and the family began buying stock.

“It was a dirty mess,” she said. “But it was the coolest thing ever.” Before the end of the year, they opened a second store on McKinney Avenue.

The family had a few fundamentals that survive to this day. One was accessibility. Half Price Books’ first slogan was: “We buy and sell everything that has been printed or recorded (except yesterday’s newspaper).” They bought anything — except moldy artifacts or books with silverfish squirming inside — because they didn’t want individual buyers to use their own biases to shape inventory.

“Ken was a strong supporter of the First Amendment,” says Anderson Wright. And books were more expensive, relatively, back then. Most second-hand shops dealt specifically with old books, which only helped collectors and specialists. Affordable reading meant more reading, more purchases from Half Price Books, and fewer books ending up in the landfill, which satisfied the family’s environmental goals while helping the business.

Half Price Books prides itself on offering (almost) everything, regardless of medium or genre.

Half Price Books prides itself on offering (almost) everything, regardless of medium or genre.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

The other principle, perhaps equally important, is independence at all costs.

After making a name for itself in Dallas, Half Price Books moved south, first to Austin in 1975, and in 1979 to Broadway Street in San Antonio. This shop, always at the same place in Brackenridge Parkis an old house with an executive office upstairs, a shining example of how business has remained lean and mean, withstanding the onslaught on print that has claimed the lives of so many businesses.

“We don’t spoil it or spoil it with too many bells and whistles,” says Half Price Books President Kathy Doyle Thomas. “The books speak for themselves.”

This sense of simplicity is also behind how Half Price Books has become, for millions, what is known as “the third place”, the first and second social setting for most adults. being home and office. It’s an environment in which to meet like-minded people, discuss literature, music and art, just wander around and get lost. People got engaged in the store, spelling out “Marry Me” with book jackets.

Everything is intentional. The children’s sections are carpeted so children can comfortably slump on the floor and read. Well behaved dogs are always welcome. Anyone who disturbs another customer is absolutely not.

“I’ve never been a rule follower,” says Anderson Wright. “Just because they’re rules…there has to be a reason for it.” It’s, I guess, the whole compass for half the price.

Half Price Books expanded to San Antonio in 1979. The original store is still in its Broadway location.

Half Price Books expanded to San Antonio in 1979. The original store is still in its Broadway location.

Half price books

The Half Price Books brand is strong

In 1983, Half Price Books ventured out of Texas, opening a store in Wisconsin. When Doyle Thomas quit his job in public broadcasting in Dallas six years later, Half Price Books had, according to Anderson Wright’s estimate, “about 30 stores,” growing slowly and steadily. In 1991 Gjemre resigned as CEO after suffering a stroke, with Pat Anderson replacing him until his death in 1995. Anderson Wright replaced her as CEO that year and brought in Half Price Books entered the Internet age with its first website in 1999.

Along the way, multinational corporate bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble threatened to grab their piece of the pie, but couldn’t because they couldn’t replicate the intangible feeling – a vibe, if you want – that Half Price Books offers its customers.

Yet it’s ironic that Half Price Books can expand to triple-digit stores despite the rise of corporate bookstores and the rise of Amazon and eBay. But in 2013, with Doyle Thomas as vice president, the company made $230 million in revenue as Borders closed and Barnes and Noble floundered. Neither Doyle Thomas nor Anderson Wright celebrated.

“When Borders closed, people were like, ‘What, you’re not excited?'” Doyle Thomas says. “No, it’s not good for the industry to have fewer bookstores.” After all, someone has to sell new books so they can be boxed and transported to Half Price Books.

The two executives explain that they get several calls a week about an acquisition, but they don’t want partners who will demand answers or high expectations for quarterly growth. If they want to buy a warehouse or a large collection of old books in London, they can do that, but they don’t have to, which is a huge distinction for Anderson Wright, who says she’s very protective of the business his family built.

“I still want to be independent, and I’m not a spring chicken anymore, so I want everyone to be independent,” says Anderson Wright. “We have this little safe zone that no one can mess with us.”

The flagship of Half Price Books in Dallas is a 53,000 square foot department store.

The flagship of Half Price Books in Dallas is a 53,000 square foot department store.

Half price books

“We are a paper company”

To celebrate Half Price Books’ 50th anniversary, all stores planned to close at 4 p.m. to hold individual parties. In Dallas-Fort Worth, where there are 19 stores, plus a distribution center, carpentry shop and online office, more than 500 people were expected to attend a North Texas party before escalating cases of COVID-19 does not result in a cancellation. Anderson Wright decided to give each employee a $50 ticket as a consolation prize.

“They thought it was crazy,” she says, of corporate headquarters. “They were like, ‘Can we just put it on their check?’ No, we are a paper company.

My local Half Price Books has a curated section of vintage paperbacks — sci-fi, mysteries, and more — all with killer covers.

My local Half Price Books has a curated section of vintage paperbacks — sci-fi, mysteries, and more — all with killer covers.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

Anderson Wright smiles when asked if his mother and Ken have ever imagined people in Berkeley, California or Saint Paul, Minnesota walking into Half Price Books stores 50 years after they transformed a seedy laundromat into what would become an empire.

“I think it would make him lose his mind,” she said. “I think they would both be very happy that we didn’t lose our souls.”

Just before gathering up my file and book and heading to the half-price book counter on North Lamar, I stop to listen at the buy station in the back. A young employee explains to an older gentleman why he cannot accept two of the books and asks him if he would like them given to him or returned.

This could be a tense moment — my books aren’t good enough for you, whippet? – but it turns out it’s a matter of condition, and the employee graciously explains why he can’t buy them. Content and taste are irrelevant here; if it is in acceptable condition, bring it. The older man just smiles and says they can be given.

It is a half-century-long interaction that is at the heart and soul of Half Price Books, and a manifestation of its continued and beloved existence.


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