Dead Tree Books owners Kenny and Lisa Johnson accomplished their dream of opening a bookstore and simultaneously providing a much-needed resource on the South Side of San Antonio.
Dead Tree Books opened April 1, on the corner of S. Flores and E. Southcross.
“We’ve been wanting to do this for years. I think we first discussed it maybe a month after we met,” said Lisa Johnson. “So, this has been a dream for maybe 10 years for both of us. Him even longer,” she said, pointing to her husband, Kenny.
With bookstore closures in McCreless Mall and South Park Mall in recent years, Dead Tree Books opens up the possibility to Southsiders to buy and resell books without having to travel 20 minutes to their nearest Half Price Books.
Owner Kenny Johnson grew up in Detroit, and his wife Lisa in Oklahoma. Although not San Antonio natives, they remain knowledgeable on the city’s past bookstores in the South Side.
“There used to be a used bookstore in the McCreless Mall, but that’s been closed for a long time,” Kenny said. “There was a new bookstore at South Park Mall for a while, but that bookstore had a little bit of trouble and eventually had to close down.”
Dead Tree Books sells new and used books; paperbacks sell for $2, and hardcovers sell for $3. Genres of books range from sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, horror, religion, cookbooks, biographies, and children’s books.
“We wanted it here on the South Side, because we are Southsiders, and the area needs a bookstore,” Kenny said.
“When I was opening my bookshop I said, ‘Let’s call it Dead Tree Books,’ and people, once they get it, they like it.”
Kenny explained: “There are two types of books. One is the books that you could put on here; they’re called electronic books, or ebooks, and those are fine, we love them. You could probably put this whole collection onto this one little device,” Kenny continued, “The other kind are the ones that are made from dead trees… slices of dead trees.
A 2005 U.S.Census survey ranks San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city, 60th in illiteracy. According to the San Antonio Literacy Commission, 15 percent of local residents are illiterate.
“Major bookstores look at the South Side and say, ‘There’s a low reading rate. Why am I going to sell books here?’” said Andres Holliday, director of external affairs at the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “It’s unfortunate that they look at it that way, it should be the opposite. I think what they’re doing there is setting a presence, and hopefully they grow it.”
Because low literacy rates in a geographic region impact job creation of skilled labor positions and corporate expansion, a new bookstore in the community could positively impact the families and students in it, cites the The International Center for Peace & Development.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but 80 percent of our economy comes from small businesses. The majority of our jobs come from small businesses,” Holliday said. “After 2008, everyone started looking at business differently. Instead of thinking ‘I need to find a job,’ they basically said, ‘I’m gonna start a business.’ It’s this creativity and new energy of entrepreneurialism especially in the South Side.”
The South Side community continues to prove themselves as educated and entrepreneurs.
“This is my second visit to this bookstore. It’s so airy and nice and clean, you actually enjoy being here, I like it, I really do,” said Gregory Hernandez, Dead Tree Books customer. “I just want to see a bigger western section here.”
Kenny added that he is surprised by the amount of materials purchased.
“The classics are going really fast. One of the misconceptions that people seem to have is that people on the South Side don’t read,” Kenny said. “We’re starting to prove to them that people on the South Side not only read, but have taste in what they read.”
Competing with major book markets doesn’t phase the two store owners. They’ve said that despite the low market in the area, they’ve had a good turnout of customers.
“People have come to us and said they’ve asked Barnes and Noble, and the general consensus is that there is not a market in the South Side. They believe that there is not enough of a market to support a store here, and I think they’re wrong,” Lisa said. “We’ve been open a week, and the response has been really good for the first week of it being open.”
The South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce helped Dead Tree Books on their opening day and continues to point them to other resources that could potentially build their brand and business.
“We’re still finding new suppliers. We’re finding new places to go that may be a little better for us,” Lisa said. “The whole thing is a learning process for us.”
“With [Dead Tree Books], they are offering books at a price that no one offers anymore,” Holliday said. “It gives our community an opportunity to look at some past books and jump to the creativity that we get from reading.”
South Side residents reaped the benefits of a bookstore so close to their homes.
“People don’t know what the love of a book does for you,” Hernandez said.
“It opens up your horizons. It opens up a whole different world. It leads you some place out of your norm.”
Holliday remains optimistic about the future of Dead Tree Books.
“Kenny has this passion and it’s not about making money,” Holliday said. “It’s more about getting creativity and imagination back to the people. If he could, he’d give the books for free. Luckily we convinced him not to.”