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Born in Dallas, Half Price Books celebrates 50th anniversary

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

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

“All these years we’ve kept our cool,” says Anderson Wright, who founded Half Price Books as a way for radical peace activists and environmentalists to “not take the status quo.” Apple isn’t too far from Anderson Wright, who introduces herself to me as “Boots,” her longtime nickname.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Half Price Books has kept cool by remaining independent, offering venture capital and expanding at its own pace: The company currently has 120 stores and plans to open more. Since its inception, it has remained a site of wild exploration, expansion of the mind, and celebration of the printed word.

Still, in an age where almost any book or record or DVD can be obtained with an eBay or Amazon account, it’s puzzling why anyone would bother to show up to a physical bookstore in 2022. But on a Monday afternoon, Half Price Books on North Lamar Boulevard has a steady stream of browsers ready to turn in cold hard cash for physical media.

It is this act of invention that continues to amaze, but the concept is rooted in the human spirit. Why do kids watch unboxing videos? Why do card collectors delight in unopened packs? It’s a feeling of the unknown, full of hope; Hopefully the next stock over will be a plastic-wrapped, vintage copy of a Dashiell Hammett mystery or the jazz section has something affordable at Blue Note.

Half Price Books in North Lamar has a robust comics and video games section.

Half Price Books in North Lamar has a robust comics and video games section.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

This is the secret recipe for the success of half-price books after 50 years of multinational bookstores and the Internet and Kindles and other disruptions.

“Ken was very much against 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 look for three other books.”

Meandering through the store, I ran into Ursula K. Looking for sci-fi paperbacks by LeGuin and early novels by Charles Wilford. I hit both accounts, but I found out picture A mint copy by Lillian Ross and jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette Special edition. A complete browser always scores.

I didn’t know I needed them — I was vaguely familiar with both — but somehow, half-price books knew I did. Anderson Wright knows this feeling, distilling it into a single sentence on a recent Zoom call.

She says: “I 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 cold, dirty mess

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