10 years later: How Houston's Alabama Theatre transformed into Trader Joe's

Take a look back through the years at the historic building that's now a location of the cult-favorite grocery store.

Trader Joe's opened in the old Alabama Theatre 10 years ago today.

Karen Warren/Staff

On Sept. 21, 2012, exactly 10 years ago today, Trader Joe's opened in Montrose.

The Houstonians of today who drive by the corner of Shepherd Drive and West Alabama Street know it as the cult-favorite grocery store, where they buy their cauliflower gnocchi or dark chocolate peanut butter cups. But the iconic building has a rich history. It was once the Alabama Theatre, and had another life as a bookstore in between. Here's a look back at the Houston landmark.

The Alabama Theatre in 1939, the year it opened.

Bob Bailey Studio, Inc.

The Alabama Theatre opened on Nov. 2, 1939, the same year as the River Oaks Theatre. Its very first screening was "Man About Town," starring Jack Benny and Dorothy Lamour. The theater was built in that striking Art Deco look, remnants of which in our architecture today inspire awe and nostalgia.

05/21/1980 - Star Wars fans wait outside the Alabama Theater to see the film "The Empire Strikes Back,"Ben DeSoto/Houston Chronicle

With the closing of the Alabama Theater, the live cast that pantomimes the Rocky Horror Picture Show is looking for a new Montrose home where they can perform the decadent rock opera so popular with Houston youth. Cast members, from left, are Diane Hatcher, Tina Van Deusen, Johnny Dixon, Liz Roach, Delia Austin, Lisa Lorentz, Vicky Foster and David Mason in 1983.

Larry Reese/Houston Chronicle
Photos by Ben DeSoto and Larry Reese for the Houston Chronicle

The entertainment venue hosted many productions over the decades. It held live shows such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show musical (cast pictured above right) and "The Sound of Music." In 1980, Star Wars fans waited in line for hours to see the movie "The Empire Strickes Back" (pictured above left). Other iconic movies shown at the Alabama Theatre include "The Sting," "The Omen" and "American Graffiti."

A showing of "American Graffiti" in the 1970s.

Danny Connolly / Houston Post

The Alabama Theatre was once a Bookstop bookstore.

Jessica Kourkounis / For the Chronicle

The Alabama ceased being a theater in 1983. Its last screening was, perhaps fittingly, the 1983 horror slasher "The Mortuary." In 1984, it reopened as a Bookstop (as seen above in 2006).

The building as seen in 2007.

Lisa Gray / Jim Parsons

The bookshop kept many of the beautiful theater's original features, including its ceiling, murals and balconies, all in the Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco. Bookstop, a once-huge Texas-based chain, was bought by Barnes & Noble in 1989.

John Otto, of Coast Graphics & Signs, handles the Alabama lettering as part of the restoration process.

Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle

"Gary Hoover, one of Bookstop's founders, said that when he converted the old theater into a bookstore, his architects allowed for the Alabama's afterlife, aiming for an easy, post-bookstore conversion back to a theater," claimed a 2006 Houston Chronicle article. But that didn't end up happening.

In 2004, Weingarten Realty bought the entire Alabama Shepherd Shopping Center, and the Bookstop closed in 2009. A couple of years later, Trader Joe's announced it would open another Houston location (it had two at the time) in the former Alabama Theatre building. The Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission approved the changes the company proposed, but some accents were preserved.

The ceiling medallion at Trader Joe's.

Karen Warren

Trader Joe's opened on Sept. 21, 2012, on Shepherd Drive. One of the most noticeable remnants the company kept of the Alabama Theatre was a turquoise Art Deco ceiling medallion, which was restored when the building went through the conversion from bookstore to grocery store.

The back entrance of Trader Joe's.

Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle

The marquee entrances at the front and back of Trader Joe's are a nod to the Alabama Theatre. But now the space is where you get your favorite snacks, not where you see your favorite movies.

Not everyone is happy about it. The locally famous Houstorian Twitter account wrote on Sept. 21, 2022: "Today in 2012, Trader Joe's moves into a joyless and unimaginative remodel of the formerly-lovely Alabama Theater."

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