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Indie bookstores maintain 'community touch' to thrive in Crossroads

Independent brick-and-mortar bookstores have seen fierce competition with mega-bookstore chains and online options such as Amazon, but in Victoria, one has survived for 35 years and another just opened.

Texian Books opened in March and helped fill the void left by Hastings when it shuttered in 2016. Shelves and tables filled with more than 1,500 books, mostly bestsellers and new releases, are spread throughout the first floor of the meticulously restored historic home in Old Victoria.

Redbird Books, originally Maranatha Books, has been in business for more than three decades. The tan stucco building on North Navarro Street stocks about 50,000 mostly used and vintage books.

“My favorite thing when you walk into a bookstore is the sense that you’re surrounded by ideas and great thoughts and stories and other people’s lives and adventures that you can’t get on an internet page,” said Evvy Bethune, owner of Texian Books, who lives in Beeville. “They make themselves the beacon of ideas for the local community – this is what’s going on in the world; we’re bringing it to our local community; let’s get together and have discussions about how we fit into all these events and things happening.”

How often do you read a book for fun?

The American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent bookstores, reports that sales at independent bookstores rose almost 5% in 2018, with an average annual growth of 7.5% over the past five years, according to a New York Times article in June. The article also states that membership in the American Booksellers Association has grown to its highest participation since 2009, from 1,650 indie bookstores to 1,877 at 2,524 locations.

Bethune reviews the New York Times list of best sellers and the Indie Next List every Friday and purchases the titles not yet in Texian Books. She carries one of each title and reorders them as they sell. She stocks genres including biography, nonfiction, fiction and poetry. She sells books from the Great American Read list, books about Texas and books on topics ranging from finances, cooking and parenting to science, history and religion.

Chamberlain Smith | csmith@vicad.com 

Sarah Bradley, of Edna, browses books at Texian Books in downtown Victoria.

“Every town I go to, I find the indie bookstore because it gives you the feel or the vibe of the town,” Bethune said. “I think one of the reasons there is a resurgence is because they are focused on community building ... and if you were to go to some of the more successful ones like the Strand in Manhattan and BookPeople in Austin, they all do community building events.”

Elizabeth Jordan, CEO of BookPeople in Austin, said the events program is vital to their success.

“We give Austinites the chance to meet and hear from their favorite authors and introduce them to new authors who may become new favorites,” Jordan said. “We’ve always had a vibrant selection of gifts in the store, and that helps make us a one-stop shop for gift-giving season, and they help us with the terrible margin that bookstores operate on.”

Bookstores are unlike other retail businesses because the price of the product and profit margin are set by publishers, she said.

“I believe independent bookstores have a promising future, but I also think we are at a tipping point in the industry,” Jordan said. “We need our publishing partners, who control our margin, to work with us to reimagine the way of doing business for indie bookstores so that we may survive and continue to provide shelf space for their books.”

In 2003, the city of Austin offered economic incentives to Borders to put a location across the street from BookPeople and Waterloo Records, and a civic economics study commissioned by the former CEO of BookPeople showed that money spent at local businesses instead of national chains kept 3.5 times as much money in the local economy, Jordan said.

Steve Bercu, the former CEO, began a very successful “Keep Austin Weird” campaign to educate Austinites about the importance of supporting local businesses, and the campaign was vital to BookPeople’s success during the Borders and Barnes & Noble years and has continued to help during Amazon’s dominance.

Texian Books is emphasizing “the community touch and feel people are really craving these days” with a book club, story time and a summer reading program for children and a personalized subscription service. Complimentary coffee and tea are served to customers daily, and mimosas are served Saturdays.

“Amazon can’t provide that human touch and connection that a small independent can,” Bethune said.

Members of Texian’s book club meet monthly at the store around a long wooden table surrounded by tufted fabric chairs. About 50 men and women of different ages are signed up for the club, and about 10 typically show up to visit. Past books include “Wunderland,” “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and “A Gentleman in Moscow.” The selection for August is “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“Some books appeal to some more than others, so they come one month and not the next,” Bethune said. “We drink wine, and the conversation always takes an interesting turn.”

And the books on the summer reading list for Victoria school district Advanced Placement students are stacked on a table in the center of one of the rooms. “Mister Pip” sits next to “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” and “The Boy Who Dared” is next to “The Lions of Little Rock.” Summer reading books for Trinity Episcopal School students round out the collection.

“There is such a nice variety of diversity here,” said Sarah Bradley, an Edna resident and secondary curriculum coordinator of English for the Victoria school district. “It’s so important that kids can see themselves in books, and she has a little bit of everything.”

As she shopped at Texian Books, she called walking into a bookstore a “sensory experience” with the colors, shapes and textures of books that cannot be experienced online.

“If I’m looking for something new to read, looking to discover something, I would want to come to a place like this to discover,” Bradley said.

Texian Books also sells books online with free standard shipping. Bethune can also order any book for customers. Audiobooks are available through Libro.fm, a service that allows customers to share books, unlike competitor Audible, and e-books are provided through Kobo Inc.

Kendall Warner | kwarner@vicad.com 

Whitney Wilson Arreche and Carlos Arreche browse books at Redbird Books in Victoria. Wilson Arreche is originally from Victoria but now lives in Dallas. She is back in town visiting her parents, who are frequent customers of the bookstore and used to take her to the store regularly.

Sherita Miller moved to Victoria from New Orleans and purchased Redbird Books, formerly Marantha Books, from Terry and Betty Dibrell. She has owned the bookstore for 10 years and has turned a profit every year. Redbird Books sells paperbacks at half the list price and hardbound books at one-quarter of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Additional savings are available through book trades, and the store carries five to six copies of the majority of each title.

About 30% of the books are donated, and about 70% of sales are in-store purchases. Thirty percent of sales are through Amazon and eBay.

Miller tracks the books read by many of her customers through a computerized system. She pulls as many as 50 books at a time for some of them based on their reading histories. She ships a box of 20 books at a time to one of her customers who moved to Austin, and she ships books to nursing homes at the request of some residents’ families. She also pulls books for disabled customers so they can pick them up without leaving their cars. Winter Texans who visit Victoria continue ordering books when they return home, and three foundation libraries send book lists and order regularly from Redbird Books.

The most popular genres are mystery and romance. Miller carries about 15,000 children’s books. She also stocks more than 500 vintage books and more than 1,000 audiobooks.

Her customers are both men and women and range in age from children to the elderly. Mothers and their children come in to read together, and some of her customers come in during their lunch breaks with snacks, prop their feet on the coffee table and read.

“Ordering online is not the same as being able to go into a bookstore, read the back cover and hold the book in your hands,” Miller said. “I go to work happy every single day, and when I’m off, I wonder what’s going on there – it’s the best place in the world to be.”


International
AP
Iran steps further from nuke deal, adding pressure on Europe

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran increased its uranium enrichment Sunday beyond the limit allowed by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, inching its program closer toward weapons-grade levels while calling for a diplomatic solution to a crisis heightening tensions with the U.S.

Iran’s move, coupled with earlier abandoning the deal’s limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile, intensifies pressure on Europe to find any effective way around U.S. sanctions that block Tehran’s oil sales abroad.

But the future of the accord that President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. from a year ago remains in question. While Iran’s recent measures could be easily reversed, Europe has struggled to respond, even after getting a 60-day warning that the increase was coming.

Meanwhile, experts fear a miscalculation in the crisis could explode into open conflict, as Trump already has nearly bombed Iran over Tehran shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone.

International reaction to Iran’s decision came swiftly, with Britain warning Iran to “immediately stop and reverse all activities” violating the deal, Germany saying it is “extremely concerned,” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime critic of the accord, urging world powers to impose so-called “snapback sanctions” on Tehran.

The European Union said parties to the deal are discussing a possible emergency meeting after Iran’s announcement, with EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic saying the bloc is “extremely concerned” about the move.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “Iran’s latest expansion of its nuclear program will lead to further isolation and sanctions. Nations should restore the longstanding standard of no enrichment for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s regime, armed with nuclear weapons, would pose an even greater danger to the world.”

At a news conference, Iranian officials said the new level of uranium enrichment would be reached later in the day, but did not provide the percentage they planned to hit. Under the nuclear deal, the cap for enrichment was set at 3.67%, a percentage closely monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.“Within hours, the technical tasks will be done and enrichment above 3.67% will begin,” Iran nuclear agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said. “We predict that the IAEA measurements early tomorrow morning will show that we have gone beyond 3.67%.”

The IAEA said it was aware of Iran’s comments and “inspectors in Iran will report to our headquarters as soon as they verify the announced development.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made remarks in a video Saturday about Iran’s need for 5% enrichment. Bushehr, Iran’s only nuclear power plant, is now running on imported fuel from Russia that’s enriched to around 5%.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini outlining the steps it had taken, said Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister. Discussions with European powers are continuing and ministerial-level talks are planned later this month, he said.“We will give another 60-day period, and then we will resume the reduction of our commitments,” Araghchi said, without elaborating.

On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron told his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in a phone call that he is trying to find a way by July 15 to resume the dialogue between Iran and Western partners. It wasn’t clear if July 15 carried any importance. The U.S. has called for a special IAEA meeting for Wednesday to discuss Iran.

Kamalvandi stressed that Iran will continue to use only slower, first-generation IR-1 centrifuges to increase enrichment, as well as keep the number of centrifuges in use under the 5,060-limit set by the nuclear deal. Iran has the technical ability to build and operate advanced centrifuges that work faster but is barred from doing so under the deal.

“For the enrichment we are using the same machines with some more pressure and some special technical work,” he said. “So we don’t have an increase in the number of centrifuges for this purpose.”

But Kamalvandi stressed that Iran is able to continue enrichment “at any speed, any amount and any level.”

Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.

The decision to ramp up uranium enrichment came less than a week after Iran acknowledged breaking the deal’s 300-kilogram (661-pound) limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. Experts warn higher enrichment and a growing stockpile narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb, something Iran denies it wants but the deal prevented.

The steps taken so far by Iran show it is more interested in applying political pressure than moving toward a nuclear weapon, said Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. He said Iran would need at least 1,050 kilograms (2,315 pounds) of low-enriched uranium to make the core of a single nuclear bomb, then would have to enrich it to 90%.

“Iran is not racing toward the bomb as some allege but these are calibrated moves,” Kimball told The Associated Press. However, “if Iran and the United States remain on the current course, the agreement is indeed in jeopardy.”

Netanyahu urged the international community to punish Iran for its decision.

“It is a very, very dangerous step,” he said. “I’m asking you, not to provoke but out of joint knowledge of history and what happens when aggressive totalitarian regimes can cross the threshold toward things that are very dangerous to us all. Take the steps that you promised. Enact the sanctions.”

However, Kimball cautioned against that.

“Iran is clearly not going to enter negotiations for a new deal if these sanctions are in place,” he said. “This a self-made, Trump administration crisis because it has been taking drastic measures to dismantle the (deal) without a viable Plan B.”


Shelby Miller | samiller@vicad.com 

The Rev. Lou Terry Jackson, of St. Thomas Baptist Church, reads Scripture at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church’s 150th anniversary worship service in Cuero. The Scripture for the Sunday service was Matthew 16:13-20. About 130 people attended the service, filling most of the extra seating. Pastors from 16 guest churches came to celebrate with Mt. Zion. The service lasted more than two hours with a dinner following.


Education
top story
Education
State funding for VISD to include $3 million in Harvey relief

Victoria school district officials are hoping for a brighter financial outlook in the wake of receiving millions in state funding and a one-time $3 million reimbursement for Hurricane Harvey relief.

Victoria school district Superintendent Quintin Shepherd said the district is expecting a little more than $3 million from the state. A portion of the funds could be placed back into the district’s fund balance, he said. The district has had a declining fund balance for a few years.

The decline in the general fund is a combination of operational costs, stipends, less state funding for schools and Hurricane Harvey damages, district officials have said.

All decisions about funding will ultimately be made by the school board.

“Our fund balance took a pretty big hit with Harvey, so it does need some filling back up. One of the things we heard from taxpayers, when we talked about the 11-cent tax increase, was that we need to have a stable (fund) balance if and when another hurricane strikes,” Shepherd said.

In addition to the reimbursement, the school district will also see close to $7 million in funding from the state. Shepherd said some of those funds could also go toward the district fund balance, professional development and employee salaries.

The district is working through salary increase formulas for all district staff, teachers and support staff. At the last school board meeting, the board approved pay increases for district bus drivers.

“We are looking to do increases that are reasonable for all,” Shepherd said.

In addition to state funding, the district should also see additional funding through the merging of several campuses. Under the merger, the district would see $545,258 in maintenance savings and about $2.8 million in personnel savings. Those savings could cushion other district expenses, such as maintenance repairs and bus replacements, Shepherd said.

The Victoria school district was also accepted into the state-funded program called System of Great Schools. Only 17 other school districts were accepted into the program, Shepherd said.

“It allows us access to funds that will benefit all our students,” he said.

Through the program, the district could see additional school programs, he said.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in Victoria. We’ve set the stage to springboard some pretty fantastic things in the future,” Shepherd said. “I’m excited for our community and for our kids and the opportunities that will be available to our children in the coming years.”