You can never be too adventurous to enjoy shopping in Austin. Sure there are big malls with big parking lots to match, but while they provide Austin shoppers with the opportunity to buy appliances at national discount chain prices or shop at namebrand department stores, local merchants present a dazzling array of arts, crafts, collectibles, folk art, funk, vintage redux, and just plain fun items.
First is a look at the city’s shopping districts, then a brief overview of the area’s major malls and outlet stores. This is followed by listings, by category and area, of an assortment of unique shops in Austin. It is impossible to list every noteworthy and intriguing shop in the city, especially as the city grows and the shopping districts multiply, but this list aims to give the reader the flavor of the shopping scene in Austin, plus tips on finding shops that the city’s zeitgeist.
Several categories of shops are not included here—bookstores appear in the chapter on The Literary Scene, art galleries are showcased in The Arts chapter, and music stores are featured in The Music Scene. In addition, sporting goods that cater to a specific sport are found in our Parks & Recreation chapter. In recent years there has been a blossoming of retail in Austin. On the one hand, national giants such as Whole Foods Market and Dell Computer have emerged from the Austin earth; on the other hand, the personal has flourished. Older boulevards and city streets in Austin have seen small, unique shops sprout like cabbages as young at heart Austin goes in search of expression and joy. Fashionistas will find the city’s clothing stores a mix of small high end boutiques located in shopping districts like Jefferson Square on Thirty-eighth Street, the Second Street District downtown, or the Domain, an upscale outdoor shopping center in north Austin, or shops and studios in SoCo and other emerging neighborhoods where Austin’s young fashion designers celebrate their art.
Given Austin’s lively night scene, many bookstores and specialty food shops keep late hours. The burgeoning shopping scene along South Congress Avenue is one example of a late-night shopping district—some of the stores stay open until midnight, particularly on weekends. During the Christmas holiday season, many stores and malls also extend their hours.
What do 20-something slackers, a zany town named Tuna, a statewide high school competition, a giant university, and a celebrated European sculptor have in common? They all have added a few broad brush strokes to the colorful canvas of Austin arts. Austin attracts artists. While that phenomenon dates back to the 1800s, Austin’s status as a hub for artists has developed largely since the 1970s, when enough musicians, actors, writers, and painters had gathered to form an arts scene. Over the past few decades, more and more talented artists have found inspiration in Austin’s artistic communities, and many of those have helped Austin earn a reputation for both appreciating and producing high-quality art. Read about the dynamic people and places in this chapter as well as in The Music Scene, Nightlife, and Attractions to discover many of the reasons Austin always gets such high praise in the national media. In this chapter we’ll tell you about the visual artists and theater troupes, the dancers and filmmakers, the classical performers, and the choirs that make Austin sing.
Elisabet Ney, who had sculpted some of the great figures of Europe, was nearly 60 when she moved to Austin in the late 1800s. Back then, Austin had more gambling dens and brothels than galleries and theaters. Ney’s celebrity status attracted influential men and women, many who believed, as did she, that art, music, and dance rank up there near water and air to sustain life. As Ney’s hands transformed crude blocks of marble into glorious statues of Texas heroes, her spirit and her passion shaped a culture that prized the arts. Along the way, she became a pioneer of artistic development in the state of Texas. Her ability to inspire others during a time when the arts weren’t exactly on the top of the Texas agenda led to the creation of the Texas Fine Arts Association (now called Arthouse) and later the Texas Commission on the Arts and the University of Texas art department.
The University of Texas gets major billing among the stars of Austin’s cultural scene. The university’s highly respected film and fine arts schools have turned out some of the best-prepared graduates in the country. It’s impossible to estimate the number of UT alumni, and professors, who are making significant contributions in Austin and around the country in the fields of dance, film, visual art, theater, literature, and music. UT’s Texas Performing Arts is a world-class arts complex for student and professional performers alike. The University Interscholastic League (UIL), a program started in 1910 to encourage educational development in Texas high schools through competition, began as a sports program. Since the 1920s the UIL has included an annual theater competition in which high school students from across the state vie for top honors. This Texas theater tradition, which produced Broadway’s Tommy Tune and others, gets students hooked on theater at an early age.
Speaking of addictions, Austin—and most of the country, it seems—has developed a taste for Tuna. The crazy-quilt of characters that inhabit the fictional Tuna (Texas’s third-smallest town) come to comic life onstage through actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, the Austinites who cowrote (with Ed Howard) Greater Tuna and its spin-offs. Greater Tuna, an Off-Broadway hit in the early 1980s, was followed by A Tuna Christmas and Red, White and Tuna. Quick-change artists Sears and Williams perform the parts of more than two dozen characters—male and female—in their fictional town of Smut Snatchers and hanging judges. Greater Tuna, presented in touring versions around the country, in an HBO production, in command performances at the White House, and in theaters all over the United States, has placed Austin on the national theatrical map.
What Tuna is to theater, Slacker is to film. This 1991 low-budget film by Austinite Richard Linklater made a bundle when it was released nationally and proved to the country that Austin has what it takes to make movies. A year later, Austin’s Robert Rodriguez hit it big with El Mariachi. Since those films debuted, Austin filmmaking has jelled into an industry. The various film festivals now held throughout the year, including the venerable SXSW festival, are one testament to Austin’s dynamic movie-making scene.
Meanwhile, Austin’s large and small theater companies, visual artists, cutting-edge dancers, and performance artists are doing their parts to shake up the arts world, not just locally. Austin’s rapid artistic development has not come without speed bumps. While small warehouse-type theaters/galleries were popping up all over, Austin still cried out for large state-of-the art venues to host both local and national productions. In response, a dedicated team of arts patrons mounted a $77 million private fund-raising campaign to convert the old Palmer Auditorium on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake into a world-class facility. Renamed the Joe R. Long and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts—the Long Center for short—it now complements the city’s other large venues, including the lavishly renovated Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus. Austin will always need more performance space, but with the opening of The Long Center and other facilities around town, things are looking up. This chapter presents the Austin art scene on center stage—and the curtain is rising.
“The tempo of the earth-dwellers to whom I have been listening for many years is the tempo of growing grass, of a solitary buzzard sailing over a valley, of the wind from the south in April, of the lengthening of a tree’s shadow on a summer afternoon, of the rise and fall of flames in a fireplace on a winter night.” With those words, J. Frank Dobie, Texas’s first nationally known writer, introduced his book Tales of Old-Time Texas, published in 1928 and still available, along with many of his other two dozen collections, at bookstores today. In this chapter we’ll delve into Austin’s rich literary history and describe its current status as a writers’ mecca. But for those of you in a rush to explore the Austin of letters, we’ll get right to the point: If you like books, you’ll love Austin.
J. Frank Dobie is one of the reasons. Dobie, a University of Texas professor from 1914 to 1947, with occasional absences, was born in the Texas brush country and lived in and around Austin for most of his adult life—that is, when he was not off wandering around Mexico and the American Southwest in search of someone with a tale to tell.
“Frank Dobie became a hunter of legends and a gatherer of folk tales and the result was one of the most important bodies of literature produced by a Southwesterner,” wrote Neil B. Carmony, who edited a collection of Dobie’s stories for the book, Afield with J. Frank Dobie, published in 1992, 28 years after the writer’s death.
Names of other luminaries grace Austin’s past, including historian Walter Prescott Webb and naturalist Roy Bedichek, who together with Dobie formed a triumvirate of intellectuals that electrified the city’s literary ambience. William Sydney Porter, who later was to gain international notoriety as the short-story writer O. Henry, published his first short fiction here in his literary magazine the Rolling Stone. A Porter story that appeared in the October 27, 1894, issue of the Rolling Stone gave Austin one of its most endearing nicknames: City of the Violet Crown. (See the chapter on Attractions for more about O. Henry.) Austinite and LBJ aide Billy Brammer is still known around these parts for his 1962 political novel, The Gay Place.
John Henry Faulk, for whom Austin’s central library is named, was a multitalented writer, actor, New York radio show host, and defender of the First Amendment. As vice president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Faulk insisted the union take a stand against McCarthy-era blacklistings of entertainers—and was himself blacklisted. Faulk fought back and as a result won the largest libel judgment awarded up to that time. He was one of Dobie’s students.
Internationally celebrated short-story writer Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980) grew up 20 miles down the road from Austin in the small town of Kyle. Her relationship with Texas, however, was a stormy one. It infuriated her, for example, that the Texas Institute of Letters chose to honor Dobie instead of her when it gave its 1939 award for the best book by a Texas writer. (Folklorist Sylvia Ann Grider has written that “Porter’s emotional attachment to her home state fell victim to the cowboy mentality that has traditionally proclaimed Texas a fine place for men and horses, but hell on women and oxen.”) Of course her fame eclipsed Dobie’s, which probably brought her no small amount of satisfaction. While Porter lived most of her adult life outside Texas, she nevertheless wrote some of her finest fiction about her home state and chose to be buried in Texas.
Pioneering Texas journalist Bess Whitehead Scott, who broke gender barriers in 1915 as the first woman news reporter in Houston, was a beloved member of the Austin writers’ community until her death in 1997 at age 107. Noted folklorist and poet J. Mason Brewer, the first African American to become a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the first African-American vice president of the American Folklore Society, found inspiration among members of his own family in their East Austin home. Dobie called Brewer’s work “genuine and delightful.” Pulitzer Prize–winning author James Michener is another illustrious writer who found inspiration in Austin—and inspired others.
Austin also was home to the late liberal syndicated columnist and best-selling author Molly Ivins, who forever will be known for her sharp tongue, her ability to skewer politicians, and her colorful commentary on what she called the “reactionary, cantankerous, and hilarious” state of Texas. She also was the person who gave President George W. Bush the nicknames “Dubya” and “Shrub.”
Some of these trailblazers not only established Austin’s literary traditions but also helped this city earn a reputation as a haven for writers and free thinkers, a distinction that has endured. Austin’s literary scene, in fact, is more vibrant today than ever before. Perhaps even Dobie would be amazed at the sheer number of Austin writers and at the contributions many of them have made to the nation’s literary wealth. To read Austin writers is to take a joyride on the roller coaster of literary expression: novels, mysteries, science fiction, cyberpunk, suspense, history, poetry, travel, books for children and young adults, essays, memoirs, how-to books, cookbooks, political satires, biographies, screenplays, short stories. The list goes on. Austin claims best-selling and award-winning writers in a number of genres—including 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winner Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11)—as well as a host of successful poets, playwrights, and screenwriters.
It’s impossible to pinpoint just one catalyst for Austin’s literary explosion. We’d have to include Austin’s own magnetism. Once experienced, Austin is hard to abandon. The superlative efforts of the Writers’ League of Texas to promote and encourage the city’s writers have had impressive results. The league, with more than 1,500 members, is one of the largest writers’ organizations in the country.
Two Austin publications, Texas Monthly magazine and the Texas Observer, have long and rich traditions of attracting excellent writers to Austin, many of whom have gone on to achieve literary fame. The vibrant music scene and flourishing film industry, illuminated by excellent local songwriters and screenwriters, add further dimension to Austin’s literary landscape. (See the chapter on The Music Scene and the Close-up on the film industry in The Arts chapter.) Of course, the presence of outstanding intellectuals at the University of Texas, St. Edward’s University, and the other colleges and universities has added untold riches to Austin’s writing legacy. Adding further dimension to the scene are the university presses and many small- and medium-size publishing houses that are willing to gamble that an author’s work will be of interest to others.
Austin’s esteemed independent superstore, BookPeople, and several stores operated by Barnes & Noble and Half-Price Books are some of the many shops in our area to offer great reads and welcoming surroundings for book lovers. BookPeople and Barnes & Noble host a great assortment of readings by national and local authors, as well as book signings and other literary events that bring the written word to life. Several of Austin’s small- and medium-size bookstores also have long traditions of providing venues for local and national writers of poetry and prose, as do a number of other venues around town, including the University of Texas and St. Edward’s University. The James Michener Center for Writers co-sponsors readings by national and international writers and poets, both on and off the University of Texas campus.
Texas Writers Month, first organized in 1994, has become an outstanding statewide celebration of Texas’s literary artists. The annual May festival, held in Austin and other major cities around the state, includes book panels, readings, children’s events, literacy benefits, signings, musical events, and film. Texas Writers Month, originally conceived to convince booksellers to give local authors more prominence in their stores, has become a premier celebration of Texas writers.
The Texas Book Festival, started in 1996, is another major Austin event for writers and readers alike. Laura Bush was a driving force behind the festival when she was first lady of Texas. The Nov festival, which raises money for Texas public libraries, features readings and panel discussions by more than 100 authors who have been published the previous year. A giant book fair, musical events, children’s activities, and more highlight this celebration of the state’s literary heritage. The Austin International Poetry Festival (www.aipf.org), held in Apr since 1993, draws poets and poetry fans to Austin from around the globe.