For most of the past half century, avid readers in San Antonio have been able to find Bob Kellel somewhere in the brightly colored warren of slightly tilted shelves in Antiquarian Book Mart, on Broadway next to Brackenridge Park. The used bookstore closed this month, five months after Kellel announced the sale of his property, as well as the next-door building formerly occupied by Half Price Books, to developer Harper/Huddleston. The father-son team has bought up at least 21 properties along this stretch of Broadway over the past two decades and has been an advocate of charming-yet-profitable development: boutique retailers, cafes with sidewalk seating, shops with easy parking (but not too much of it). An urban fabric that’s more merino wool and less polyester.

The months between sale and closure were some of the best Kellel had in terms of revenue, and he joked that he wishes he’d thought of going out of business sooner. Every time I stopped by, he was holding court in his tiny office behind the till, surrounded by decades of irreverent decoupage and fading family photos. I found it reassuring to know that somewhere in this world, images of John Belushi, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon were together, presiding over the reminiscences of a few raconteurs with long, gray ponytails. The place occupied a time warp and stood as a monument to counterculture. Not to be too maudlin, but as a longtime San Antonian, I felt the closure as the latest in a series of losses to a way of life that’s more than just a way of business. This day might have been inevitable, as developers work their way north from the Pearl entertainment district along what’s known as the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, running roughly parallel to Broadway. But even those who have been part of the redevelopment boom say they’re sad to see Antiquarian go. “You’ve got your Bobs who remind you of a different world,” said Brent “Doc” Watkins, a former customer whose Jazz, TX music venue occupies prime real estate at the Pearl.

Kellel’s father opened the store in 1971 with eight hundred books. When Kellel graduated from Texas A&M four years later, his dad offered to let him work at the shop so he could “figure out what he wanted to do,” Kellel recalled. It turned out what he wanted to do was sell used books. He’s sentimental about the experience of running Antiquarian Book Mart, but not so much that he wants to die on a pile of books. When his health began declining last fall, he knew it was time to offload what would be a substantial burden if he were to leave the store to his daughters. More pertinently, though, he said, as property values rose, “I was getting to the point that I was going to have to take out a loan to pay the taxes.”

Shelves of books at the Antiquarian Book Mart in San Antonio
Books for sale at Antiquarian Book Mart. Courtesy of Bekah McNeel

All must go, he told me, and almost all did, from the bookshelves to old yard signs from Kinky Friedman’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Of the 28,000 books in stock when he announced the sale, Kellel sold around 10,000, at deepening discounts as the final days drew near, before donating the remainder to the Friends of the New Braunfels Public Library. He does wish someone would take up the torch of used bookstores in San Antonio. But it’s unlikely that torch would be planted in the same location.

If a developer is looking for the highest rent per square foot, they’re going to charge more than a used bookstore can pay, said Kathy Thomas, president of Half Price Books, a chain based in Dallas. This isn’t the first time a Half Price Books outlet has been gentrified out of its aisles. The quirky, eclectic neighborhoods where the chain’s stores could once afford to rent—Houston’s Montrose, for example—eventually became attractive to developers. They often love the idea of a bookstore in their street-level retail space, Thomas said, but demand higher rent than a bookstore can afford to pay. “They want us, but not at that price.”

Kellel’s father bought the San Antonio property, with the three buildings that housed Antiquarian, Half Price Books, and what Kellel calls the annex, for $64,000 in 1971. Kellel wouldn’t disclose the exact sale price, but he said it was “more than two [million].”

Some of these woes are shared by used and independent bookstores nationwide, as a result of the growth of online retail. But Kellel’s situation is also highly localized. The strip of real estate between Broadway and the parallel Avenue B, from Mulberry Avenue north to the Witte Museum, has been home to icons of San Antonio’s hippie era, as well as seedier enterprises. As gentrification creeps northward from the Pearl, tenants have felt the push and pull of nostalgia and progress.

The success of the Pearl’s mix of high-end retail, independent restaurants, and multifamily housing can be judged, if nothing else, by how difficult it is to find parking there. It has sparked investment in the area around the Pearl, inspiring similar mixed-use projects, spurring momentum for redevelopment, and sending property values skyrocketing. Home appraisals more than doubled and commercial land appraisals rose by more than 60 percent between 2015 and 2019. (Though there aren’t yet comprehensive figures, that number has almost certainly increased in the past five years.) Additionally, the Pearl’s emphasis on walkability, shaded public spaces, and adaptive reuse of historic buildings set a precedent for a City of San Antonio project known as the Broadway Corridor, which included plans for bike lanes and wide, tree-shaded sidewalks—a plan approved by city voters and funded by bonds.

“The plan envisioned Broadway as a vital, yet slower-moving thoroughfare,” said David Lake, a real estate developer who, in his role as partner in San Antonio–based Lake Flato Architects, contributed heavily to the master planning of the Pearl. The boulevard renovation would stretch north from downtown to the border of the Alamo Heights community, with the area along Avenue B—where Kellel’s properties sit—a pivotal street for retail, encouraged by the pedestrian- and bike-friendly nature of the corridor.

Then in 2022, the State of Texas, at the urging of Governor Greg Abbott, killed the roadway project that would have spread the walkable development along Broadway, saying that the city’s plans to reduce the street from six lanes to four would inconvenience drivers. A five-person panel under Texas Transportation Commission chairman (and San Antonian) Bruce Bugg Jr. voted to nix a plan to reclaim the sections of Broadway owned by the state. (Bugg’s office did not reply to Texas Monthly’s request for an interview.)

If the city had been allowed to go forward with the boulevard improvements, Lake said, housing and retail would have benefited. He rejects the idea that Broadway needs more than four lanes for vehicles. He and his development partner David Adelman of AREA Real Estate saw the TxDOT take-back as a political move to punish big cities, a frequent target of the Republican-dominated state government on issues ranging from required water breaks for workers on hot days to bans on plastic shopping bags. “Everybody involved knows this is more about politics than urban design,” said Adelman. “City government versus state. What we need is real leadership in all [levels of] government, who put people first.”

Despite the roadway politics, developers and new businesses continue to work their way up Broadway, with mixed results. When they get to Kellel’s stretch of Broadway, the boom-bust math gets even more unpredictable. One of the area’s fixtures was its beloved Kiddie Park, founded in 1925 but relocated in 2020 to the nearby San Antonio Zoo. The move was partially necessary because a new Shake Shack outlet took over most of the available parking. The burger-and-malt slinger has lasted, but specialty soda shop FiiZ Drinks fared less well, surviving only fourteen months in a renovated Sonic a few blocks north.

Meanwhile, Walden Pond interarts learning center has embraced enough updates and ambitious programming to appeal to a second generation of students, including my daughter. Her dad’s elementary school art was still emblazoned on the marketing materials when she started taking classes there. The Acorn, a popular preschool established in 1980, also continues to thrive.

There’s also still one used bookstore holding on. Cheever Books, which specializes in rare books and first editions, still faces Broadway just a few blocks north of Kellel’s properties. Two independent shops also bookend, pun intended, the northern stretch of the Broadway corridor—the Twig, which is housed in the Pearl, and author Jenny Lawson’s Nowhere Bookshop, which technically sits north of the planned redevelopment area, in Alamo Heights.

Local hourly rate motels did make for awkward neighbors, Kellel said, and he has been glad to see them redeveloped into retail spaces and, in the case of the Ranch Motel, upgraded into thriving boutique accommodations. His one gripe is that as things get spiffed up, residents who want to stay could be priced out, including families who used to be able to afford the craftsman bungalows and Spanish-style stucco homes in Mahncke Park, across Broadway. Between 2011 and 2016—the beginning of the Broadway boom years—home values in Mahncke Park jumped by 84 percent. “I hate to see that for young people,” he said.

When Kellel was just out of college and beginning to work at Antiquarian, his dad gave him two rules: don’t fall in love with the inventory, and don’t date the customers. He ended up breaking both. He not only dated a customer; he married her. And he did love being surrounded by books, and by others who shared his passion for them, including both locals and visiting authors, such as Stephen Ambrose, John Gardner, Cormac McCarthy, and James Michener. “I’ve met so many philosophers, artists, and poets,” he said. “It’s been beautiful.”