Brown Book Shop, founded in 1946, has sold technical publications at its store in downtown Houston. It has grown into one of the world’s largest bookstores that cater to the niche of oil and gas companies. Pictured is the new owners Steven Plumb and Noah Davis.
|The Brown Book Shop has evolved over nearly seven decades from an art, poetry and fiction salon for the city’s elite to a specialty outlet for technical handbooks, manuals and industrial codes for the booming energy sector.
Now, the downtown institution at 1517 San Jacinto is poised for the next stage in its transformation. It has been sold, and new owners Stephen Plumb and Noah Davis hope to expand the Brown Book Shop’s customer base and move it into the digital age.
“We realized the business had a lot of potential,” Plumb said. “We wanted to use the success as a spring board to launch it into the digital media age.”
The shop will keep its name and continue in the downtown location it has operated in since 1987.
But the focus will increasingly be online. Plumb and Davis were hired by Pat Ginther, the second owner in the store’s 68-year history, in July to help reverse a downward sales trend that Davis said had Ginther within a week of closing the doors.
Over the last six months, Brown Book Shop’s online presence has increased significantly and the store also now offers tools, supplies and maps for engineers. Sales have since doubled, Davis said.
The new owners also plan to begin publishing books through the new Brown Publications.
Brown Book Shop carries about 10,000 titles, including many hard-to-find titles for engineers, electricians and architects with titles such as “Drilling Data Handbook,” “Pipe Fitters Manual” and “Handbook for Riggers.” Books cost on average between $200 and $300.
The new owners feel confident enough in their business plan to renew Brown’s lease until 2019 and doubling the staff to 10 employees. They are remodeling the offices and a portion of the building and plan to add a daily feed of industry news to the website.
“The idea is to make Brown a resource for people in the field,” Davis said.
Last year, the shop generated $1.65 million in sales. The new owners estimate that will double in 2014 and continue to double annually for the next five years.
When original owner Ted Brown opened the shop in 1946, well-heeled Houstonians visited the shop for rare leatherbound books and first-editions, and the store would host famous authors for book signings.
He likely saved the store from going out of business by radically adapting the focus to technical books from oil and gas companies. He purchased books from across the United States, in Canada, Europe and South America.
Ginther bought the business from Brown in 1980 and moved it to its current location in 1987, maintaining the technical focus.
The new owners say its one of the only remaining technical bookstores in the world and that it has about 3,000 active accounts with oil and gas, petroleum engineering and marine industry companies. Many of their existing customers are based in Houston.
Irwin Miller of The Service Corps of Retired Executives said he thinks brick and mortar and online can work together in retail. He said although the Brown name is well known in Houston, the owners need to market themselves to a broader customer base.
“The world is changing and you have to change with the world,” he said. “Their accessibility will be way beyond just Houston. I think their market is larger. People all over the world would need technical books.”
About 30 percent of business still comes from walk-in customers, Davis said.
“I think it’s a testament to the Houston area,” he said, “and how strong the market is here and how strong the energy industry is here.”