by Betsy Denson
for The Leader
Rhonda Rhodes once wrote a book about a female character whose path is revealed to her by a series of events and coincidences that are too systematic to be random, too perfect to be chance.
Rhodes has a term for this kind of kismet. “I call it God winking. It’s all the ways the world nudges you along to do what you’re supposed to do.”
That is as good an explanation as any for the existence of The Lift, the popular bookstore, gift shop and jewelry boutique that Rhodes owns in the Heights. It’s a journey Rhodes appreciates even more for all the stops along the way.
She grew up in Timbergrove Manor and met her husband, John Wile, at Rice University. They settled in Shepherd Park Plaza, and she earned her law degree from the University of Houston.
“I started out as a briefing attorney at Vinson & Elkins but eventually got off the partnership track,” she said. “Then I had my son and wanted to spend more time with him.”
In 1995, Rhodes and a friend published Houston Parents Grapevine: A Guide to Local Resources for Expectant Parents and Parents of Young Children. Fiction writing came a few years later when her husband’s job relocated the family to the Caribbean island of Trinidad. The novel she finished there sits in a drawer. “Being the first stab, it’s not yet publishable,” she said. “But I learned a lot.”
Upon returning to Houston, the Wile/Rhodes family settled in Memorial where Rhodes joined a writing critique group. Her second novel, Almost Magic, about the woman buoyed by an unseen hand, was written in a matter of months. It won its category in the Writers Guild of Texas Manuscript Contest and secured her an agent. Next, the Berkley imprint of Penguin Books showed sustained interest in the manuscript.
“Then the economy tanked, and Penguin-Berkley decided not to take a chance on a new author who couldn’t be categorized,” she said. “My agent encouraged me to write another one, the plan being that we’d bring out Almost Magic again afterwards.”
Rhodes was ready to get started when fate intervened. The repetitive motion of years of computer work caused her to develop thoracic outlet syndrome. She had a rib and part of a muscle removed and underwent significant rehabilitation.
Sidelined in her quest to write books, she decided to sell them. Her family was back in Shepherd Park Plaza, and a friend mentioned that she was pulling out of a lease on 19th Street in the Heights across from the former Harolds. Rhodes was ready to step in.
“What writer doesn’t want to own a bookstore?” she said. “The name ‘The Lift’ popped into my head immediately. I thought the shop could lift all of us in spirit—including me.”
To ensure the shop’s success, Rhodes anchors it with high quality gifts as well as stationery, greeting cards, and journals. She carries a variety of lines including TOKYOBay watches, Rowallan of Scotland leather goods and Melissa and Doug toys. She estimates 50 percent of her sales derive from the very popular Waxing Poetic fine jewelry line. “I’m one of the largest retailers of Waxing Poetic in the region,” she said.
The Lift’s books are always discounted – 10 percent for paperbacks and 20 percent for adult hardbacks. The shelves contain quality adult nonfiction, fiction and cookbooks, as well as a children’s section. There’s also a book club tied to the shop which meets at Beck’s Prime every third Thursday evening. All are welcome, and no RSVP is required.
“We often go off-topic, but that’s the best part,” says long time member Katy Fernandez. “I learn not only from the books but from other people’s perspectives. Rhonda has done a wonderful thing for our neighborhood.”
Rhodes has plans in the near future to get cracking on her next novel. Regardless, she knows she is on the right track.
“For many months, I’ve found a feather every single day at the shop. Usually it’s on the front walk, but some days it is on the front mat or right inside the door. To me, it’s part of the magic of the shop. It is God giving me a wink that all is well.”
365 W. 19th St.