I doubted there was much of a small town feel to Houston.
The two most popular hangout spots for my peers are Starbucks and Chick-fil a, both walking distance from my school. The rest of that shopping complex is filled with chain retail stores. During lunch, flocks of people head off campus to grab lunch, returning with food from Chipotle, La Madeleine, Whataburger. The lines for the outside vendors are always longer than the ones in the cafeteria. There are a disproportionate number of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals who live in the neighborhood and whose students walk the halls. Despite the 60 year old school building and the few remaining pastel-colored wooden houses from the 50s, I feel like I live in a suburban neighborhood sometimes.
That’s why I was surprised to learn that there was a used book store, Paperback Exchanges, less than a 5 minute drive away from my school, at a strip mall along a confusing three-way intersection, receded from the curb and obscured by trees. The Yelp reviews mentioned the store owner by name. Puffy yellow graffiti on the window storefront advertises the used books.
But when I went to visit with a friend Friday after school, the door was locked. The sign at the front was flipped to “open”. Store hours on the door said that the store would be open until 5.
I asked an elderly lady who was peering inside.
I don’t know why the store is closed, she said. Missi never stepped out without leaving a note. Maybe she had gone to grab a sandwich since she didn’t take a lunch break. Her car wasn’t in the parking lot. She must have left in a hurry.
We nod. How long had the store been around?
At least 20 years, and Missi had been there since forever.
We introduce ourselves as high school seniors from the local public school. She immediately names her grandchildren, nieces, and in-laws who graduated there.
Finally, a tan sedan pulls up. That’s Missi’s car.
The elderly lady introduces as “potential customers” as Missi gets out of the car and unlocks the door.
You know when banks tell you that someone’s gotten into your account and they send you in a hurry? Missy says. I had to rush over to the nearest bank and check to make sure everything was alright. Oh, you kids are so lucky.
We smile at our own naivite. After some discussions about college, they let us browse the store, as they keep talking. The front of the school contains the popular releases, the newer hardcover books. I recognize titles from the Amazon bestseller list. But they seem out of place, too shiny, too new, for this bookstore.
The store itself is only three shelves wide, but very deep. Quickly, I realize that half the store is romance and…more than romantic novels, a reflection of the people who visit. There’s a small YA section in the back corner, a scattering of recent popular novels (Twilight, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alex Rider), right next to a section with classics. In the biography section, I find a signed copy of a memoir by a local politician.
As we buy a few books, I notice the business card for a nearby bakery on the counter. They used to be neighbors until the baker moved a few blocks away. We should go to the bakery and say that we sent them. We take the card, thank them, and leave.
With only an address and a map sans GPS, we drive past it the first time. It’s a standalone place behind a strip mall. A splash of new red metal furniture decorates the front.
When we walk in, Michael, the owner and baker, instantly greets us. After taking a glance at the pastries, we shuffle to the back, looking at the gifts. There are homemade fruit preserves, cigar boxes, assorted decorations, and …a basket full of stones glued to pill bottles.
They’re used for burying spare keys in the yard, Michael says. Put the key in the pill bottle, and bury the stone in the yard. No, there aren’t any stones buried in front of the store. The key is right here, you see, hanging right beside the door frame, and the owners of Paperback Exchanges and another children’s store each have a copy. If anyone ever gets locked in, we ask each other for the key. I’m usually the first the one here in the morning though.
How long has the bakery been around? I ask.
A long time, but I only recently moved in to this location. Do we see the fridge there? When I first moved in, I didn’t know how to adjust the temperature. Once, I heard a loud BANG in this building. Turns out a can of coke exploded all over the fridge. But now the temperature is under control.
And did we see these decorated sugar cookies? I always make a few extras because some of them always don’t turn out well, and I display them here. These were for twins, but they didn’t have names yet, so I just put “Baby A” and “Baby B”. There were so many more cookies earlier today, but they all sold out. There’s still a few sugar cookies, lemon bars, biscotti, oatmeal raisin cookies, pies, scones, and other desserts left.
I buy a dessert, and Lucian buys a slice of pecan pie.
Oh there’s an oddly shaped slice of the pecan pie left. I had a slice myself for breakfast, and there’s a weirdly shaped slice left, he says as he places an entire quarter of the pie into the box. I try to hide my surprise.
As he rings up our order, I scramble for leftover change, trying to determine the exact amount for tax.
I could add tax, he said, but it’s easier to assume that tax is included. Plus, I’m not sure how the machine works.
Another pleasant surprise. We grab napkins (bright red ones, like the tables and chairs) and forks. As we step out, Michael tells us that he sells cakes as well, if we ever need them. And please, we should take a business card.
We smile, say we already got them from the bookstore, and walk out. I’m still in marvel at the huge slice of pie.
Next, we head to the nearby park across from the neighborhood library, eat our freshly-bought pastries, and read our books until the sun shines through the trees into our faces as it sets.
A true account, though there were many liberties taken with speech, hence the lack of quotation marks. For more information about the bakery and the used bookstore, check out The Sugar Shop’s website and Paperback Exchanges on Yelp.