On her way to a nearby restaurant, a woman strolls by the historic book shop, then does a double take. “I didn’t know y’all were still here,” she says, pushing open the squeaky door to Barber’s Book Store.
“Yeah, we get that a lot,” says store manager Brian Perkins Jr.
Four years shy of its 100th birthday, Barber’s Book Store is indeed still alive. The oldest independent bookstore in Texas, it is the epitome of resilience, having survived the Great Depression, a recession, a tornado that ravaged downtown, the rise of the internet and, most recently, COVID-19.
Because of the pandemic, last year was especially difficult for independent bookstores like Barber’s. More than 70 indie bookstores across the country closed in 2020, and many others are still in danger of closing, according to the American Booksellers Association.
But what was once an adversary to mom and pop bookstores is now an ally: Online sales at indie bookstores boomed last year, increasing by 680 percent, according to the association.
“It’s what has kept us alive,” Perkins says, adding that Barber’s e-store contains about 10,000 titles. "Last year was probably one of our best years ever for online sales."
To get the full Barber’s experience, an in-person visit is mandatory. Walking through the store, located at 901 Throckmorton St., in downtown Fort Worth, you can hear the creaks of time: squeaky old doors, hardwood floors that sigh when you walk across them, stairs that rumble when descended upon; it’s like visiting your grandmother’s house.
Though the store is small, its maze-like, tight-squeeze aisles and seemingly endless walls of packed bookshelves make it seem bigger.
“I always felt like there might be one more turn, one more room, one more level that I had yet to discover,” says Dave Goodwin, a longtime customer.
The store is stocked with more than 100,000 titles, says Perkins, who has managed the used bookstore with his two brothers, Wesley and Clay, since their father, longtime owner Brian Perkins Sr., passed away in 2019. Many of the books are old and/or collectible, their spines crafted out of gold-stamped leather binding, their pages giving off the unmistakable fragrance of old paper.
Some books are expensive; some are less than a buck. “My dad was not a book snob,” says Clay. “He loved to read any kind of book and he loved to sell any kind of book. Us kids, we’re the same way.”
Many thought the store closed in 1998, when Texas author Larry McMurtry - writer of the Lonesome Dove series - purchased an estimated 70,000 books from the store to stock the shelves of his own bookstore, Booked Up, in Archer City. After the sale, Brian Sr. and his wife Larue, the store’s owners since 1960, took a break from Barber’s, but soon returned.
“There were persistent rumors that we had closed down permanently, but they weren’t true,” Brian Jr. says. “After McMurtry purchased the inventory we had in the store, my dad took a short break – he never could stay still long – then went out and started buying more books. Now there’s twice as many as when McMurtry bought out the store.”
After Brian Sr. passed away in 2019, sons Brian Jr., Wesley and Clay took over. Clay owns the building while Wesley and Brian manage the day-to-day business of both the physical store and online store. Larue also helped, until she fell ill recently.
“Dad was there practically until the day he died,” Brian Jr. says. “He fell ill there. We carried him out. A few weeks later, he was gone. He spent his life there. It was his passion.”
The building that Barber’s has called home for decades is not the store's original location. The Barbers – Bert and Alice – opened the store that bears their name in 1925 at 113 West 9th St., in a building that has since been razed.
The store outlasted the couple’s marriage. Alice took ownership of the shop and in 1931 moved it to a nearby space on Throckmorton originally occupied by the city's daily newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Book-lovers dug the unusual location: Part of the store was in a basement near the paper’s old printing press room.
In 1945, Alice sold the store to longtime employee Irene Evans, who, with her husband J. Porter Evans, moved it once again, just across the street, to its current location, a 1908 building given an art deco makeover in the 1930s. Two of its three stories house the bookstore; a third floor, once home to a string of questionable hotels, is used for storage.
After running the store for several years, Irene sold it to Brian Perkins Sr. on August 1, 1960, according to the Star-Telegram. Even though she retired, Irene occasionally helped Perkins with appraisals, until she was killed in a skydiving accident in 1969.
For years, rumors have swirled that Barber’s is haunted. Robert Francis, writing for the Fort Worth Business Press, said his mother witnessed supernatural occurrences at Barber’s when she worked there in the 1990s.
“She said she would often move a book to one stack only to come back an hour later and find the book back where it had first been,” Francis wrote. “Then there were the lights she would turn off and go down the stairs, only to look up to see the light on again. She eventually just began talking to them. My mother would talk to anyone, anyway, so why not ghosts?”
Clay said he and his family have experienced unexplainable activity there, too.
“All of us have heard footsteps, the sounds of pages turning,” he says. “It’s never anything malicious. I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye once. Customers have said the same thing. They see or hear something out of the ordinary. It's all a part of the experience.”