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The face of literacy on San Antonio’s Southside lit up with a smile when Dead Tree Books – the only non-academic, secular book shop south of downtown – opened for business in April.
Though it only took about three months to open the doors of Dead Tree Books, bringing a used bookshop to the Southside was a long time coming, said co-owner and proprietor Kenny Johnson.
“I have lived and worked on the Southside of San Antonio for almost 30 years,” he said. “I have always wanted to have a bookstore, and we needed one on the Southside.”
Kenny and his wife and business partner Lisa Johnson followed a set of criteria for choosing the perfect store site and looked at a number of locations before eventually settling on a building at 5645 S. Flores Street.
“We liked the idea of an older building, a place that has character,” Kenny said. “We wanted a place with a lot of traffic. Military Drive was not our first choice since we might be lost among all of the other businesses. Newer buildings didn’t have the kind of character that we wanted and generally wanted a higher price. Our location gets lots of traffic. The building is older and unusual. We like this location.”
Both Kenny and Lisa have deep roots in San Antonio. Kenny was born in San Antonio, but moved to Michigan with his family when he was young. He returned in 1983 and began working for Walmart.
It was a combination of life experiences that led the Johnson family to open up shop on the corner of Flores Street and Southcross Boulevard.
“I worked for Walmart for nearly 35 years. I worked at stores around and outside the city,” Kenny said. “(Working at Walmart) taught me a lot about retail, marketing, and running a business. For nearly a year, I worked at the local Toyota plant. Vutex, one of Toyota’s suppliers, kept me going for a while.”
Lisa works as a salesperson, but her role in the business goes deeper than that.
“She is co-owner of the bookstore,” Kenny said. “While we both have a background in retail (they met when they both worked at Walmart), we each bring a different set of skills to the bookstore. She brings organization to the company. While I like to buy books, she likes to sort through them and put them away. I am the public voice of the bookstore, she is behind the scenes, getting things done.”
Bookkeeping, buying books and selling books aren’t the only skills involved in running a bookstore. Carpentry turned out to be a useful trait for the Johnsons as well.
“I built all of the shelves, with help from Lisa,” Kenny said. “The idea for the cinder block shelves came from Wardrobe Books in Boerne. I’m not much of a carpenter (but) they hold up the books and are sturdy.”
The most important component of their business is their combined love and passion.
“Lisa and I share a love of books and literature,” he said. “We like to see an item that we recently bought sell quickly.”
The name of the shop, Dead Tree Books, evokes images of the Old West. Kenny recognizes the rise of the “new” type of book – which doesn’t involve dead trees.
“The electronic version,” he said, pulling out his smartphone. “They are fine. I can fit a hundred books on this device and carry them with me. The other type (of books) is made from wood pulp – dead trees, if you will.”
Johnson said he and his wife prefer holding an actual book in their hands, turning the pages, looking at the pictures.
“Books made from dead trees are special,” he said. “Dead Tree Books is special.”
Their mission statement is unique: “Dead Tree Books, read through and threw. Books are more than just ink and paper. They are worlds and dreams. Books are alternate realities and clarified accounts of things long past. They are poetry and recipes. We learn how to build things and how to live. Books are our friends.”
The store is closed on Tuesday, but is otherwise open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon-5 p.m. Their pricing strategy is simple enough: Hardbacks are $3, paperbacks are $2, and children’s books are $1. A few rare books are specially priced.
Top image: Dead Tree Books is located at 5645 S. Flores Street. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.