It's easy to think that if you've seen one Barnes & Noble, you've seen them all ... bargain books up front, New in Paperback in main aisle, fiction to the right, nonfiction to the left, kid stuff in the back, the scent of Starbucks everywhere ... well, OK, maybe you've seen most of them if you've seen one.
But not-so-hidden in Houston's Montrose District is the Alabama Theater Bookstop. Built in the restored shell of a 1930s-era Art Deco movie palace, with a few distinctive upgrades, it might just be Barnes & Noble's most unique store. Manager Cathy Nezuh gave me a personal tour before my Saturday book-signing at the Alabama, from the "balcony" (now the Starbucks Cafe) to the "stage" (now the newsstand.) The screen area is intact, and my name appeared on the marquee where the names Brando, Peck, Hepburn and Bogart once appeared.
Many of the Art Deco touches remain in the theater/bookstore, which could seat 1,130 theater-goers. The screen (where "The Sound of Music" flickered for 90 weeks in 1965-66) is still there and the lighting feels more like a movie house than a chain bookstore. Today, the seats are gone, replaced by bookshelves and thousands of books, but wandering through this grand old place, you still whiff the ghostly aroma of buttered popcorn, not Starbucks coffee. Ah, but it's all in your imagination.
Houston preservationists say the theater is endangered. A big developer owns the building, not Barnes & Noble, and has reportedly said it plans some redevelopment in that area. The theater's proponents fear that "progress" will run roughshod over her and we will lose yet another grand old movie palace. I don't know how likely it is, but what a shame that would be. One hopes the people of Houston have at least a small place in their hearts for history.
How fun it was to sign autographs at the Alabama, which the spirits of great films and great actors still seem to haunt. Even if you're not shopping for books, you should drop in at the Alabama. But, of course, if you're looking for good reading material, I can make a suggestion ...
With Dallas romance author Rebecca Russell in the Alabama's 'lobby'