Houston Matters

Houston book shop joins lawsuit against Texas for law that requires them to rate books based on sexual content

“To have to rate all of those books, I can’t even wrap my mind around what that would take.”


A section of children’s books at Blue Willow Bookshop. The store owner, Valerie Koehler, joined a lawsuit against the state’s HB 900, which would require stores to rate books.


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A group of bookstore owners is suing the state of Texas over a bill that would require book sellers to rate books based on sexual content, or be barred from doing business with schools. Among them — Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop.

The storeowner, Valerie Koehler, joined Houston Matters on Thursday and said she feels like it will “basically bankrupt us.”

“If we have to go so far as to rate every single book that we have bring into the system, every book requested by school districts, and what’s little known is retroactively every book ever sold to a school district,” she said. “We do not know where these books go once they are requested, once they sell them. We’re not sure that they all go into a school library.”

Koehler said they have not read every single book that comes in; it’s not possible, as they have sold somewhere around 300,000 books in over two decades of business. Expecting them to rate every single book is isn’t attainable, Koehler said.

“The practical part is the biggest part to us as a business,” she said. “There’s certainly a component of this complaint that is about the First Amendment and the legality of the law. We approach it from a business standpoint, by and large.”

Koehler said a big statement of her store is that they do not judge what books people buying.

“We sell books of all kinds to all people,” she said. “…To now say, ‘Now you do have to judge what you are selling’ is terrible in our mind. As well as the business, the hours that would need to be spent … is untenable.”

Proponents of the new law say that the goal is to ensure that books that end up in school libraries are age-appropriate. Koehler said that should not be her place.

“The librarians are fully trained, they have masters in Library Science,” she said. “I fully believe if a parent finds a book on the shelf that is not appropriate, they have systems in place for a parent to approach a librarian, to challenge a book. It is your right as a parent to do that, not my place.”

Other groups in the lawsuit are the American Booksellers Association, the Publisher’s Guild, the Comic Book Defense League, the Author’s Guild, and publisher support groups. If the law were to remain in affect, Koehler said it would be “devastating.”

“To have to rate all of those books, I can’t even wrap my mind around what that would take,” she said. “What the guidelines are, we don’t know; we would have to read every book word-for-word and that’s almost impossible.”

Koehler said they could refuse to sell to schools anymore, but it would mean losing about 20% of their business. She said they sell to 21 school districts, all in the greater Houston area. It would also mean they stop bringing authors to students, and making them lifelong readers.

“If we are blacklisted if we do not comply, we would not be allowed to sell any books to any school in the state of Texas,” she said.

She said the law would also result in punishment if a teacher were to purchase a book from them, and place it on a library shelf, even without the book store’s knowledge.

“How do we know that?” she said. “We try to know all of the educators that come in our store. … But we wouldn’t know that. We don’t ask that question.”

Koehler said she hopes that the lawyers for the case make the case that it should be overturned, and soon, as the law will take effect September 1.

“Guidelines, whatever they are, will be issued from Texas Education Agency,” she said. “We will get those guidelines in January, but we will have to comply April 2024.”