Filling the void: Southside’s only bookstore

Longtime bookworms Kenny and Lisa Johnson always envisioned opening up a store. That dream evolved into reality in April 2016 thanks to an early retirement program offered at Walmart, where Kenny worked for 30 years.

This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.

Taquerias, flea markets, fruterias, public parks, stray dogs and Spanish missions are easy to find in the Southside. A general bookstore, not so much.

The only one is Dead Tree Books, which occupies an old one-story retail building on the busy intersection of South Flores Street and East Southcross Boulevard.

Longtime bookworms Kenny and Lisa Johnson always envisioned opening up a store. That dream evolved into reality April 2016, when Kenny used a retirement program offered at Walmart, where he worked for 30 years, to launch the store.

“We want books to be available for anyone,” Kenny said. “Our goal is to have people walk out of this store with an armful of books.”

Prior to Dead Tree’s birth, Waldenbooks at South Park Mall was the last Southside bookstore but it closed in 2010 after a six-year stint. Back then in 2004, before he became the District 4 Councilman, Rey Saldaña was a student at South San High School. For a class project, he and his fellow classmates began a movement called Books in the Barrio.

“Why is it that you can find a liquor store, or a payday loan and a pawn shop, but you can’t find a bookstore on our side of town?” Saldaña remembers as the premise of his school project back then. “We were banging our heads against the wall. We were putting fliers up all over every telephone pole we could find. We had rallies at the mall. None of that made a difference.”

The big box bookstores weren’t biting, but Waldenbooks finally did.

“They look at perimeters around the neighborhoods, they look at graduation rates, they look at income levels, and they just say, ‘This is not worth our investment, this is not worth the dollars we’re going to put into brick and mortar’,” Saldaña said.

“That’s not the model that Dead Tree is working on, fortunately — these folks probably work on a loss profit. And what they’re doing is providing a community good like a library. Libraries that we put people in and stock inventory in are not money making ventures.”

Kenny says Dead Tree is operating at a loss but is close to making a profit. He believes promotion through news outlets, social media and community engagement will propel Dead Tree across the profit making threshold.

Saldaña said that if poorer neighborhoods want bookstores, they should be vocal about it, like his group was in 2004. “The same could be said for the West Side or Eastside — sometimes community groups have to rise up and demand these things,” he said.

Gianna Elvia, outreach coordinator at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, is trying to do just that. She applauded Dead Tree’s prices and discussed how book purchases give people a sense of pride. Elvia launched her own pop-up book business on the West Side called “Echale Books.”

“This exchange of money for a book tells someone, ‘Hey, this item that you are purchasing has value versus giving someone a free book’,” Elvia said. “When things are free we sometimes lose value in it, but purchasing something can fill someone with pride.”

On Sunday, Echale made its first appearance at a table during the “Christmas in July Artisan Market” at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower.

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Dead Tree Books on the Southside offers books for $2 and $3. Jose Arredondo / Folo Media

A variety of genres rest on Dead Tree’s bright green wooden shelves: fiction, nonfiction, religion, history, Spanish literature, children’s books, and comic books. Despite the differences, each book shares something in common: affordability. Virtually every book is $2 or $3.

The store sells roughly 600 to 700 books a week but no particular genre is singularly popular with customers. Kenny says the classics and well-known authors such as R.L. Stein, Jane Austen and Stephen King are top sellers.

To fill the store’s shelves, Kenny orders boxes of books through online wholesalers and some books are donated by the community. They sell DVDs, CDs and handheld calculators, and regularly host book signings for local authors.

Three weeks ago, Dead Tree held a book signing for Mike Tapia’s newly-released book called “The Barrio Gangs of San Antonio.” Tapia, an El Paso native and assistant professor of criminal justice at New Mexico State University, praised Dead Tree and its significance in the community.

“It is a huge asset that is sorely needed on the Southside,” said Tapia, former assistant professor of criminology at University of Texas at San Antonio. Tapia’s involvement with chronicling the barrio gangs started when he became a gang intervention social worker in San Antonio.

“In the barrio we didn’t have bookstores. We didn’t read because it wasn’t promoted.”

In San Antonio, there is one book per 300 kids who live in low-income neighborhoods, according to San Antonio Youth Literacy, a child literacy nonprofit. Also from the group’s website is this alarming stat: 1 in 6 children will drop out of high school if they are not reading proficiently by the third grade.

“Having a bookstore is not just a store. It has a presence in the community,” said Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University. “When children walk into a bookstore they see people reading, browsing and understand some of the common behaviors.”

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The green wooden shelves at Dead Tree Bookstore serve as a home for $2 and $3 books. Jose Arredondo / Folo Media

In the corner of Dead Tree lie white shelves stuffed with children’s books accompanied by a black moon chair. At the front of the store, customers are greeted by a homey couch. At the end of the aisles are wooden seats that encourage patrons to sit and read.

These accessories are complemented by Kenny’s seasoned customer service abilities. His three-decade long tenure at Walmart made the transition into a bookstore owner look seamless.

Ronald Saenz, 58, a Dead Tree regular, believes bookstores must draw in parents, first, in order to have a true impact in a community.

“The parents are the ones who bring the children, so the bookstores have to bring them in,” Saenz said. “Kenny always greets the customers and lets us know he’s here to serve us. He makes the book experience fun. That’s how you stem the tide.”

Neumann, the NYU professor, believes poverty affects people’s perception of their own abilities and address a prejudice that she believes has permeated society: low-income parents don’t value reading or education.

“I always say, ‘How do we expect parents to read to children if there are no books available?’” Neuman asked, rhetorically. “Low income parents are often striving so hard to enable their children to read and to have the experiences that other kids have, they just don’t have access.”

Libraries on the Southside fill the bookstore void. They provide computers and a place to study, but offer a finite time with books and sometimes exceedingly long waiting times to check out out some of them. Kenny shared his admiration for the libraries, but discussed why book ownership has a profound impact.

“We love our local libraries, but having the book in your hands for as long as you want is a wonderful thing,” Kenny said.

• • •Elvia grew up on the West Side near Las Palmas Library, which was her second home as a child. However, she explained how difficult it was to find books that focused on Latina and LGTBQ communities. She’s obtaining her Master of Divinity at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.

“In Denver, there are a ton of independent bookstores, and they have progressive and political books. They are cheap and affordable,” said Elvia. “I’m like ‘Why don’t we have this here?’ My goal is to bring affordable progressive and alternative books for the teens and adults on the West Side.”

Elvia’s ultimate goal is to operate a bookstore on the West Side. Her experience with books provide her with information and a sense of belief. Now at 24, her hope comes from the only bookstore in the Southside.

“Dead Tree Books does really bring me hope,” Elvia said. “I do believe people should go there and support independent bookstores especially since it’s in area like the Southside. I think independent bookstores can encourage others to think ‘Hey I can do that’.”