Catching Up with Sharon Anderson Wright, the Unconventional CEO of Texas’ Legendary Bookstore Chain
July 2022 will mark 50 years in business for Half Price Books, the Dallas-based seller of new and used media treasures. Since its origins as a collection of 2,000 books sold from a converted laundromat in North Dallas, the company has grown into 124 locations in nearly half the states in the nation.
Half Price Books’ current CEO, Sharon Anderson Wright, has been at the helm since the mid-1990s, when she took over for her mother, Pat Anderson, who founded the company with her boyfriend, Ken Gjemre. But Wright has worked in the family business much longer than that—since she was 13, to be exact.
After high school, Wright went straight to work at the company’s eighth store, in Richardson. She took great pride in setting the shop up herself. “My dog and I were the only employees,” she says, before reminiscing on the psychedelic mural she painted on the wall of the store. It depicted strains of music flowing from a castle and into the ear of a tree.
If that sounds pretty free-spirited, you’re not far off.
“My mom and her boyfriend were old hippies,” Wright says. “They started the company to keep books out of the landfill, to save trees, to spread literature.” The vision for Half Price Books was a departure from the stuffy, sophisticated vibe of some other bookstores, which seemed geared more toward the intelligentsia. “Ken and Pat wanted to create a casual experience,” Wright explains. “We’re everybody’s bookstore.”
Casual is a great word for Half Price Books and for its unconventional CEO. The stores themselves, typically staffed by friendly, down-to-earth bibliophiles and music lovers, are neat but not too well organized, the perfect setup for serendipitous finds.
Wright herself, meanwhile, shows few traits of your stereotypical corporate leader. She dislikes running meetings. She’d much rather go to dinner and talk in a more relaxed atmosphere. And she’s not the type to wax eloquent about leadership or spout inspirational business quotes. “I don’t really hang out with CEOs that much. Or if I do, they don’t really act like CEOs,” she notes. She is, as they say, a bit of a character. (Oh—and she runs an eco-friendly hardware store and cultivates milkweed in her spare time.)
Wright recently spoke to me from her office in Half Price Books’ flagship store on Northwest Highway in Dallas. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, which ranged from Half Price Books’ transformative COVID experience to the ironic characteristic you might not guess about the CEO of Texas’ largest independent bookstore chain.
I’m dyslexic, so I was a terrible reader. Books always scared me, so it’s ironic that I’m CEO of the largest independent bookstore chain in the country.
How would you define the ethos of Half Price Books? What makes it special?
We’ve always wanted to do the right thing. From the beginning, we’ve supported the environment and literacy. We share our profits. We try to give the best benefits we can.We measure everything we do against our list of core values. We may not hit it all the time, but it’s what we strive for. If we seem to be going off on a crazy tangent, we look back at the core values and decide, “Is this really where we want to go?”
Did you always want to be in the book business?
I sort of fell into it. I started shelving books here when I was 13. I always loved retail, though. I always loved playing store. I’m dyslexic, so I was a terrible reader. Books always scared me, so it’s ironic that I’m CEO of the largest independent bookstore chain in the country. But I love to read, love the smell, the feel, the art, the history of books, even if reading is a challenge. You’re the first person I’ve told that to in an interview.
I’m playing junior psychologist here, but it sounds to me like you’re the type of woman who embraces a challenge.
Always. If you challenge me, I’m going to do it.
When you walk into a bookstore, what section do you go to first?
Nostalgia and rare books. I don’t collect much now because my house is full. I don’t want to end up on Hoarders. It’s actually funny—on one of the episodes of Hoarders filmed in Chicago, you can see Half Price Books bags in the stacks of stuff! I don’t collect anymore unless it’s something really cool or really old.
I like to save old things. Back in my own little store, I’d save the colored plates from books that were falling apart and mount them. Some of the trashiest, ugliest little books are the most valuable. I’m always looking for that rare first edition that looks like nothing at first.
Do you have a favorite book or author?
I think my favorite author is Barbara Kingsolver. I can get all the way through her books. One of hers that influenced my personal life was Flight Behavior. It’s about the monarch migration and how they’re all dying off. We have a pasture out in Sachse [northeast of Dallas], and that book inspired me to start cultivating milkweed there several years ago to feed monarch caterpillars. We had a woman from the Monarch Conservancy come out there this year and harvest it. She said it was the best crop she’d ever seen.
Have you ever suggested that your team read a particular book?
No. No. They’re way smarter than me. They keep telling me to read certain books.
What is your vision for the future of the company?
I’m very opportunistic. I’m open for anything. I’m protective of the company like a mama bear. Right now, we’re spending some money on getting our technology up to speed. We’ve gotten to where we can do curbside shopping and ship to store. In the old days we didn’t have any idea what books we had in the stores. We’d just tell people they needed to come in and look, which was a brilliant strategy because they’d always buy something.
Are these new are changes due to COVID?
Many are. We learned so much through COVID. It was scary and tragic but also very exciting. We went down to a limited number of employees and shut every single store down on March 17, which is sad because St Patrick’s Day used to be one of our family’s favorite holidays. Then people just rallied. We turned the stores into distribution centers so that two people at a time could go in and fill online orders. People made homemade signs. Our team scrambled so that people could shop individual stores online and then pickup curbside. We learned to do things we never knew how to do before.
We got a whole lot leaner and quicker. We cut way back on travel and advertising. Our expenses went down to pretty much nothing for a while. We turned it around, didn’t borrow any money, didn’t close any stores, so I think we’re doing okay.
We just purchased a 97,000-square-foot warehouse in Carrollton to house our online sales. We’re very optimistic about that. We’re getting more books into our 124 buying stations than we’ll ever fit in the stores, so we’re working on HPB.com. We pieced the old website together as we went, so we’re looking to improve the shopping experience.
What is it like competing with big industry players like Amazon and Barnes & Noble?
We try to make each of our stores a destination, a place to hang out. Lots of people want to go out somewhere that’s not a bar or a shopping mall. They just want to browse, quietly peruse stuff, find funny, interesting things with friends.
People still like physical media too—they just use physical and digital media for different things. When you want to sit down and read a book, it’s nicer to be able to turn a page than swipe a screen and have light glaring in your face. You don’t have to charge a book. You can take it places. Or as a friend of mine does, you can leave it on your seat so no one takes your chair.
What was it like taking over leadership of the company from your mother?
I had some cred because I started as a kid and had done everything from shelving to district store management. My mom was in failing health for several years, and it was just apparent that I was always there.
Since the start, I’ve had people surrounding me who help me do better. There are several employees who have been here for 40, 45 years. They wanted the company to succeed and they wanted it to remain a family company. I still have several of those people beside me today. Kathy Doyle Thomas, our chief strategy officer, have been here forever. If I think of some crazy or impetuous idea, Kathy will make it happen. Jan Cornelius is our VP of operations, and he’s been here since the beginning. He’s always been a guide and mentor. He can read my face when I’m thinking something specific. There are several people here who aren’t afraid to tell me when I’m wrong.
We have brought up a bunch of wonderful people as we go. We have brought in a few marketing and accounting people from outside, but most everybody else in the company has come up through the ranks.
How would you say you differ from the typical CEO?
I don’t follow rules simply because they are rules. I follow all the legal rules of course, but I don’t think I act like a normal CEO. I’m very involved with the crew. I like hanging out with the people we work with. I don’t stand up in front of the team and do the Steve Jobs thing, walking around in a black turtleneck. I try to treat everybody equally, no matter where they are, what they’re doing, taking out the trash or running a company. I used to be real nervous about trying to impress people, but it occurred to me that pretty much everybody is the same, CEOs included, so I’m not dazzled that often.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your leadership style?
My mother was great. I’m doing it the same way she did. She was casual too. She worked with everybody. She was the type to say what came to her mind. Sometimes I had to straighten things out when she left the room.
What are the advantages to being headquartered in Texas?
Well, I will say that I hope people don’t start boycotting us because of recent political events in Texas. But there’s a lot of industry moving to the Dallas area, a lot of smart people and money. My strategy was to buy everything that we would need in the future, so we own our main store and corporate offices, which house the Dallas distribution center. We own the central distribution center near Oak Cliff. And then we own our woodshope, where we make all our own fixtures. If you own something, you can always turn it into an asset . We’re set here in Dallas.
Dallas is also centrally located. It’s got a good airport. We run a remainder business as well [Texas Bookman], and we’re going to start hosting the Texas Remainder Expo—T-Rex we call it—in 2022 at our new warehouse. I went down that path because it’s right by the airport. People can get in easily from all over the world.
You mentioned you own your own woodshop and make your own fixtures. That’s pretty cool.
We wanted our fixtures a particular way. We use environmentally sensitive, water-based stains and everything. We make picture frames, wooden crates so people carry their books or albums. During the pandemic, the woodshop got very creative. They’re making chess sets and beer holders and Kubb—this wonderful baton-throwing game that became popular with a lot of our Midwestern employees.
You’ve had other entrepreneurial ventures in your career, right?
There was this wonderful little hardware store down the street that was struggling. My daughter and liked the owner and I ended up buying it from her. I’ve always loved hardware. My dad was a hardware salesman. There’s not that many seven-year-olds with their own bench grinder, but I did. We changed the name to Rooster Home and Hardware, and we sell live chickens, organic gardening supplies, local foods. People really discovered us during the pandemic. We won awards in D Magazine, Nextdoor, The Advocate.
It’s fun running a newer venture. Pre-pandemic, Half Price Books got to be so well-oiled that I felt everybody was just humoring me. I’d do something in the store and I knew that people would just go in and fix whatever I messed up. At the hardware store, it’s much more hands-on. I’m the main buyer of non-hardware items. I’ll be on my computer till two or three in the morning buying stuff online for it. I go over there on weekends and do displays. It’s very back to basics. I’m sitting there in the office talking to the one woman who handles accounts receivable payable and HR for the hardware store, where we have people on two floors who do that at Half Price Books. Both of them are my babies. I just get to play more on the other one.
The Half Price Books Mission Statement: “Be fair to our customers and our employees. Promote literacy. Be kind to the environment and remain financially viable so we may continue.”