You know all about the booming tech growth, the tacos, and the live music on every corner, but did you also know that Austin is a haven for book lovers? The literary tourism scene (yes, it’s a thing) is thriving here, due to the city’s abundance of renowned bookstores, storytelling events, unique museums, book festivals, and more. Bookworms, take note of all the places on this list.
The Central Library
For book fiends of all ages, Austin’s Central Library is a veritable playground. This sleek, state-of-the-art facility (which opened in 2017) was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 World Greatest Places in 2018, and it’s little wonder why—apart from six stories of books, you’ll find an art gallery, a gift shop, a “technology petting zoo”, a rooftop butterfly garden overlooking Lady Bird Lake, and the Cookbook Bar & Cafe, which features recipes from head chef Drew Curren’s personal cookbook collection (along with literary-themed cocktails like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Gin” and “Harry Potter and the Paloma of Fire”).
The library building itself is stunning and sustainably designed; 30 percent of the building’s energy is solar-powered and rainwater is collected via a giant cistern, then used for landscape irrigation. And, there’s no better reading spot in town than one of the screened-in wrap-around porches that offers sweeping views of the city.
O. Henry Museum
The historic former home of the classic short story writer William Sydney Porter aka O. Henry (Porter’s pen name), the O. Henry Museum offers an in-depth look at Porter’s life and legacy, and also gives visitors an idea of what life was generally like in the late 1800’s. Porter authored famous stories like “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and the museum contains his home’s original decor and furniture, as well as several original manuscripts and drawings. And if you’re lucky enough to be in town for the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships (held at the museum every year), be sure to stop by to watch the witty wordplay fun.
To see what’s so special about Austin’s literary culture, just spend an hour or so wandering the cozy aisles of BookPeople, the city’s premier independent bookstore. From the lovingly handwritten staff picks to the jam-packed lineup of author readings to the genre-spanning book clubs that are free and open to the public, a love of all things literary runs deep at BookPeople.
Resistencia Books (Casa de Red Salmon Arts)
If you like your books with a side of grassroots activism, a visit to Resistencia Books is in order. Resistencia was founded by local poet and human rights activist Raul R. Salinas, and for over 30 years, the bookstore and its companion non-profit, Red Salmon Arts, have been promoting the work of emerging Chicana/o/x/Latina/o/x/Native American literature.
Salinas was incarcerated on drug-related charges from 1959 to 1971, and during this time he became known for his prison poetry and activist work, speaking out on behalf of indigenous rights, prisoner rights, and other social change movements. He ran Resistencia and Red Salmon Arts from 1981 until his death in 2008, and today, his legacy continues: The center offers resources to local writers and marginalized communities and champions oft-ignored voices in literature.
Austin Bat Cave: Story Department
Austin Bat Cave (ABC) is a local nonprofit that’s dedicated to spreading a love of reading and creative writing, providing children, teens, and adults with opportunities to develop their writing prowess, in the form of free workshops, classes, clubs, and more. And every month, ABC hosts Story Department, an adults-only storytelling event where local storytellers riff on a theme, with all proceeds going to support free writing programs for kids ages 6 through 18. It’s always a hoot. (See here for the 2020 schedule and story themes.)
BookWoman has been a literary landmark for over 40 years. Longtime owner Susan Post even ran the store out of her home at one point, in the early days. Today, BookWoman offers a wide-ranging selection of contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art books, and historical feminist texts; they even have a well-stocked children’s section with books that feature progressive, non-traditional stories. This widely beloved bookstore is one-of-a-kind.
An all-volunteer, collectively-run bookstore in Austin’s North Loop, MonkeyWrench Books will appeal to anarchist-minded bookworms and anti-capitalism crusaders. The store opened in 2002, and there’s still nowhere else quite like it in town. In addition to selling radical literature and zines, the space is frequently used as a community hub for activist meetings and workshops.
Malvern Books opened in 2013 as an equal parts “bookstore and community space,” and it’s indeed that. The store specializes in literature and poetry from indie publishers, with a focus on marginalized voices; the thoughtfully curated selection is truly outstanding (and not to mention, this is where you’ll find the biggest poetry section in Texas). Malvern also regularly hosts book clubs, book and poetry readings, and musical performances. It’s a special place.
Harry Ransom Center
One of the most renowned humanities research libraries in the country, the Harry Ransom Center is replete with millions of rare books, artifacts, and manuscripts. And, luckily for literature nerds everywhere, the Ransom Center is open to the general public. Most famously, the center (which is at the University of Texas) is home to one of only five complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the U.S., as well as the world’s oldest surviving photograph.
But other, perhaps lesser-known literary treasures abound, including: three copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, a first-edition Alice in Wonderland, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s notes from the Watergate scandal, a handwritten journal that John Steinbeck kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, the David Foster Wallace archive, and the manuscripts of Tennessee Williams, Doris Lessing, Anne Sexton, and many other lauded writers.
Texas Book Festival & Lit Crawl
Literature enthusiasts would do well to plan a trip to Austin around the Texas Book Festival, a free annual literary festival that draws over 300 authors and tens of thousands of book lovers from across the country. The two-day festival includes panel discussions, book signings, live music, cooking demos, and food trucks in twenty venues scattered in and around the Capitol and downtown. And, one of the best parts of the Texas Book Festival is Lit Crawl, a series of fun (and often tipsy) nighttime performances, trivia matches, games, and storytelling sessions held in various bars across town.