perm_identity Another chance encounter

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 131 ~ April, 2008

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but I am, I’m absolutely amazed at how the Internet and then an e-mail and a phone call can allow me to connect with genuine, interesting folks whom I never would have otherwise known existed.

Don’t ask me why, and I won’t even try to fabricate some pseudo-psychological jargon to explain my ability to connect dots which eventually lead me to pick up a phone and call someone I don’t know. I have a good phone manner, I suppose, based on years as an accidental reporter, or at least I seem to connect much better with individuals over the phone than I would, let’s say, at a cocktail party or a literary reading, neither of which I usually attend. A friend of mine used to joke that if I was sitting in a restaurant with my back to the wall and a pretty girl waved at me, I’d turn around to see whom she was waving at. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but adrenalin-activated surface self-confidence is not one of my strengths, which is probably why I was never interested in becoming an actor and ended up as a writer instead.

Okay, so the preliminary paragraph or two is out of the way and it’s time to get to the point, how I ended up on the phone with Ann of Becker’s Books in Houston. It was a combination of a book I purchased on Amazon, through the Amazon marketplace, meaning used books, to be precise, and the confirmation e-mail I received from Ann of texasbooks, the online name of Becker’s Books. The book I bought was an anthology of 22 Stories from American Review, edited by Ted Solotaroff, who taught one of the writing workshops I was in during my MFA program days at Columbia University. I didn’t intend to buy the book, actually had pre-ordered The Literary Community: Selected Essays 1967-2007 by Solotaroff, who is a distinguished editor, critic, lecturer, and memoirist, and also the founding editor of the New American Review, and later American Review (1967-77), perhaps the most influential literary journal of its time.

I was interested in Many Windows 22 Stories From American Review not only because the stories were selected by Solotaroff, but also because it was published while I was still completing my MFA, shortly after I had been in Solotaroff’s workshop. I was curious to see the writers selected for the anthology, writers whom Solotaroff considered tops at that particular time.

The e-mail from Ann was more personal than your typical confirmation when you purchase a book. She actually encourages customers to e-mail her to give her an opportunity to rectify any problems, or situation, as she puts it, before leaving feedback, and then following “sincerely, Ann,” in her e-mail, she leaves a phone number, an actual, real live phone number.

Her e-mail also extended Happy Birthdays for the month of March to several writers, all of whom were listed with their year of birth and day of the month. I found it interesting, guessing that the dates are correct, and I’m sure those into astrology would have a field day with such a list. Most of all, I must admit, I was pleased that I had heard of over half of the 25 writers listed. Not great, but still not bad, and in my defense, I have read many, many biographies and history books, so my reading has not been simply confined to fiction.

Anyway, now I’ll never forget that John Updike’s birthday is the day before Philip Roth’s, and Updike is a year older than Roth. Or, how about the month of March starting off with Ralph Ellison’s birthday on the 1st, and ending with Octavio Paz’s birthday on the 31st? Also included in March are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Henrik Ibsen, Flannery O’Connor, and Robert Frost. I won’t name the others, because I know how much I don’t know, but I don’t feel the need to let others see what writers I am not familiar with, just in case I ever run into some arrogant, superficial person at an outing of some sort who cries out, “What, you’ve never heard of …?”

So, back to Ann. The phone number was there and I called, New Jersey to Houston, and she answered on the second ring. I immediately said, “I’m not calling with a complaint,” and she laughed. Then I explained what PIF Magazine was and told her I needed an idea for my editor’s opening essay and I thought I would write about talking with her.

I didn’t know what to expect, whether Ann was simply an individual who sold books part-time or was part of a larger enterprise. It turned out that Ann and her husband Dan Becker, own Becker’s Books, where dark, sturdy bookcases can be found along over 30 corridors of shelving. Ann said the operation currently has a stock of 250,000 or so titles of used books ready to go. Most of her day is spent pulling books to fill orders.

Ann sounded younger than she was, but not in a bad way. She was enthusiastic and friendly, and prone to easy laughter. She’s the mother of two college students, adding that the book business has helped pay their tuition. Ann is a true Texas gal, particularly devoted to the history and tradition of early Houston. In fact, as part of her inventory of books she discovered a diary written by Nettie Bringhurst, chronicling life in Houston circa 1869, a time when the country was still recovering from the ravages of the Civil War, and lighting in houses was mainly by oil lamps and food was baked in ovens where the temperature was controlled by burning coal or wood.

Once upon a time, I asked her, how did you end up where you are now, and the truth came out. She was originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in Economics. And Texas? Well, it seems when she was 23 or so, Ann went to a birthday party for a friend who attended Rice University and never went back, settling in Texas, getting married, and even becoming an active member of the Harris County Historical Commission.

Ann is proud of Houston, and as a result, the Texas Club was formed, which meets once a month at Becker’s Books to discuss and research the men and women who settled this wild and fascinating land in the mid 1800s. Ann is also a member of the Lady Washington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in Houston, a volunteer service organization “dedicated to preserving American history and securing America’s future through better education for children.” In fact, four lines of Ann’s family can be traced back to the American Revolution.

“I joined the DAR because my mother joined, and her mother joined, and her mother joined,” Ann explained.

Her grandmother was a Poindexter, the wife of Governor Frank Henry Cooney of Montana, who died in office of heart failure in 1935. The Poindexter line goes back much further, Ann said, all the way to George Poingdestre, who settled in the Colony of Virginia in 1657 after coming over from the Isle of Jersey.

Family legend has it, Ann noted, that Rollo the Viking (855-931) was in battle with a gentleman who performed so well that Rollo allegedly said, “From now on, you will be my right point.” And that, Ann said, is how she believes the name Poindexter came about, at least in regards to her family line.

Dan Becker and Ann make a perfect team, with Dan handling supply and Ann specializing in sales. Ann said her husband’s dream was to own a bookstore, and credits his love of reading and collecting books to his older brother Dain, whose sprit and love lives on within Becker’s Book, despite his untimely death.

If I ever have to write a term paper on glossary terms for used or out-of-print books,, yet another name for Becker’s, is the place to go. More definitions than one would think possible are listed alphabetically, from ARC for Advanced Reading Copy to Trimmed, meaning the pages have been cut down to a size smaller than when the book was originally issued. I could go on and on, Deckle Edges, hvtb, Recto, and Three Decker, but it’s easy enough for one to check out the glossary on the site.

Be prepared, though, I spent hours checking for old books by writers I knew, simply typing in the name and hitting search. And what do you know? I actually found and purchased a copy of Dan Wakefield’s first book, Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem, published by Houghton Mifflin Company Boston in 1959. In addition to successfully finding this rare book, I’m happy to say, I also received a personal confirmation e-mail from Ann of texasbooks with Happy Birthdays greetings to authors born in April.