Will Evans knew what he didn’t know, and nine years ago, that was Dallas. He moved here with his wife, a native Texan, and brought ambitions to launch a publishing house that focused on books in translation. He read a lot about his new town. He talked to lots of people. He learned Dallas actually had a rich literary history—Larry McMurtry would shop for books in Deep Ellum in the 1980s—that cratered once big-box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders consolidated the market.
He wanted Dallas to be a literary city. He called his initiative Literary Dallas, and the Dallas Morning News now uses that very phrase to brand its journalism that focuses on literature.
“I don’t want to be a niche guy,” he told us in 2014. “I want to take what I love out of the underground and get people talking about it on this big level.”
When he spoke to us for that interview, Wild Detectives was still a toddler. There was Half Price Books, but no Interabang. Pan-African Connection was holding strong in Oak Cliff. There was still plenty room for more. Including the three publishing houses it’s purchased, Will’s Deep Vellum has published over 1,000 books since and held more than 600 events in its own homey storefront on Commerce Street. (It also just flooded, so please buy a book or six.)
Will has done a lot in his time here. He’s a big part of why Joaquin Zihuatanejo holds office hours at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library as the city’s first poet laureate. And Will is why we can all (easily) read The Accommodation, Jim Schutze’s 1986 tome about how Dallas’ power structure tried to hide the racist violence and disinvestment that was present in so much of the city in the 1950s and 1960s. Commissioner John Wiley Price owned the rights to the book and hadn’t let anyone republish it. Will had a goal to get the whole city to read it and talk about it, and he convinced Price to let him try.
Will joined us at the Old Monk to talk about all these things, but it’s timely because of Big D Reads, which has been dormant since about the time Will was hatching his grand plans.
In 2014, D’s then managing editor, Krista Nightengale—current executive director of the nonprofit Better Block—was leading an effort to get a big chunk of the city to read Charles Portis’ True Grit. Back then, the goal was to print 17,000 books to distribute throughout the city. True Grit is basically a perfect Western, but Dallas doesn’t have much at all to do with it.
This is why this year’s version of Big D Reads is different: The Accommodation, which we’ve written plenty about over the years, was published in 1986 and quickly went out of print amid curious circumstances. Decades later, civic-minded do-gooder Dallasites passed around a bootleg PDF scan of the book, but you still had to work to find a copy.
Deep Vellum published the hardcover last September; it has already sold about 8,000 copies (not including the e-book or the Mike Rhyner-voiced audio version). Now Big D Reads has printed 30,000 paperback copies, which are being distributed for free all over town. You can find locations here.
Make sure you visit the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, too. On the seventh floor, you’ll find an exhibit featuring all the primary sources Schutze used for his research three decades ago. Back then, the librarians were scared to hand over those documents. It showed Dallas in a bad light, and as Price told the New York Times in 1986, “You can’t put Dallas in any bad light. You just sweep things under the carpet instead.”
Back to Will: what’s next? A downtown “literary arts center,” which he’s currently raising money to build. It’ll stretch his literary aspirations with more room for the events that currently pack Deep Vellum’s storefront, writer’s residencies, workshops, whatever. And even though he’s wrong about how oysters reproduce—male oysters release hundreds of thousands of “sperm balls” that females bring into their shells through “respiratory action” before internal fertilization—he’s right that Dallas is finally a reading town.