As bookstores go, the Waldenbooks at Rolling Oaks Mall in northeast San Antonio was nothing special. It wasn’t lined with cozy, overstuffed leather armchairs and it wasn’t filled with piped-in Frank Sinatra tunes, covered by the trendiest up-and-comers. It didn’t sell movies or music or newspapers and it wasn’t designed for all-day cram sessions, fueled by frappuccinos and pound cake from the adjoining coffee shop franchise. This Waldenbooks location, as with most of the stores in the chain, was designed to do one thing—sell books.
The shop was a remnant of a bygone era, a small reminder of a time before big box stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble became the interchangeable Wal-Mart and K-Mart of the bookselling industry. Then, as now, there were two primary competitors in the bookstore battle; in one corner of the ring (or shopping mall) there was Waldenbooks, in the other, B. Dalton and at one time, nearly every mall in the country had one or the other, sometimes both.
Over time, the stories of the mall stores and the book giants became one and the same. Barnes & Noble bought B. Dalton in 1986, Waldenbooks became a part of Borders in the 90’s, and gradually these once-mighty mall chains began to fall. In late 2009 the epic, decades-long battle ended with the announcement that Barnes & Noble would close its remaining 49 mall locations and with it, the B. Dalton brand. Not to be outdone, Borders Group also announced it would close 200 Waldenbooks and Borders Express stores, or roughly two-thirds of its Borders Specialty Retail division. Even in decline the two stores continued to spar over which would make a grander exit.
On January 26, Waldenbooks 1592 lowered its gate, boxed up the few remaining books, and let its mall lease expire. When I was young, the store was a popular mall stop for my family; when I was older it gave me a steady paycheck at a time when my newly issued college degree hadn’t yet found its sea legs. I wasn’t at the store on January 26 when my co-workers ushered out the last customers and scraped the blue letters off the wall, but I was there two days later, when a FedEx man carried away all that remained of our inventory. Of the 200 closing locations, 12 were in Texas—only four other states had as many closures—and San Antonio took the biggest hit as the only city nationwide with three shuttered locations. One location, in South Park Mall, felt the sting more than the others. For south siders, this one was personal.
In 1997, South San High School teacher Tim Duda stood before his social problems class and drew a horizontal line through a street map of San Antonio, bisecting the city right through the heart of downtown. His students began plotting the location of every bookstore in the city, more than 30 stores, each marked with an individual dot. When they stood back from the map they noticed, startlingly, that there wasn’t a single dot south of the horizontal line.
The 20 or so students began researching and examining the socioeconomic and racial issues that surrounded their adopted problem. The movement, known as Books in the Barrio, began to gain momentum. But change was slow to come. It wasn’t until seven years later, in 2004, that the school’s efforts gained the attention of Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, who took up their cause.
That year, Waldenbooks finally stepped up to the plate and helped fulfill a dream not only for the students of South San High School but for the entire community. It was a hard-fought victory and south side residents reveled in it. The store opened to mariachi fanfare, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by several public officials, including Rodriguez.
The story should have ended there. But in January the store quietly closed its doors for the last time, less than six years after it opened. “I don’t blame lack of south side support for the closing,” Duda, who is since retired, says. “This was one of those, to me, incomprehensible decisions. I don’t have a good sense of that, unfortunately. After all the support and all the good things that the Walden folks had to say, to shut it down is really a shame.” Although several people have approached Duda to resume the fight, he admits he doesn’t have the energy to do it all over again.
And whether it’s the economy, the changing times—with books readily available over the Internet and on devices like the Kindle—or simply frustration over such a disappointing setback, people seem less willing to get involved this time around.
Unfortunately, this is a feeling Laredo residents know all too well. In December, when Barnes & Noble announced plans to close the last remaining B. Dalton stores, all eyes turned to the city which is—was—home to exactly one bookstore, a lone literary outpost that managed to weather the blows of previous company-wide closures. Whether it was pity or some form of moral obligation to the book-buying public that kept the store open, I can’t be sure, but to the citizens of Laredo it didn’t really matter. This time the store wasn’t so lucky.
The story was reported by media outlets as far-reaching as MSNBC, NPR, and the LA Times, just to name a few, as Laredo became the nation’s largest city without a bookstore—nearly a quarter-million people and not a single bookstore. On January 16, the B. Dalton at the Mall del Norte closed its doors for the last time and residents were left with two public library branches, a 20-year-old library-owned bookmobile, and the Internet. The nearest bookstore is in San Antonio, 150 miles away. Taking away San Antonio’s southernmost bookstore location, the only one with easy south side I-35 access, only compounds the problem.
Now that the bookstore is gone, Laredo Public Library manager Maria Soliz says the library is readying itself to pick up the slack. The library will soon start offering reading material in different formats, such as downloadable E-books, and will increase their lease program, which will give both branches more access to popular bestsellers. Still Soliz says she was sad to see the B. Dalton store leave; over the years the store and the library shared in many collaborative efforts. “I’ve always seen them as our partner in literacy, maybe in a different way but we’re both promoting the same thing—getting people to read.”
One could argue that these days “getting people to read” is a task that can be accomplished without a physical, brick and mortar bookstore, thanks to Amazon.com and other virtual marketplaces. But anyone who has ever browsed a bookstore for leisure knows it’s about more than that. It’s a pastime, an activity that can’t be replaced with a click of a mouse. A bookstore is a neighborhood center, a place to meet and learn and discuss and, of course, read. The big box stores have still captured that, on a much grander, latte-flavored scale, but it’s important to remember that the book giants grew from the backs of the little guys. Without the mall stores, the superstores wouldn’t exist. And without the superstores, Laredo and the south side of San Antonio would still have their neighborhood centers.
Instead both cities are back at square one, right where they started.