Forgotten places leave behind sensory keys that, when reencountered, unlock entire mental, sensual, and emotional worlds. Whenever I drive past the former location of the Bun ’n’ Barrel Terrace on Austin Highway in San Antonio, for instance, my mind takes me back to the fried chicken legs, as crispy as they were juicy, that came shod in the early 1960s in frilly, pastel-colored paper shoes, which proved irresistible to my girly six-year-old self. Soon enough, I see my impossibly young and already overwhelmed parents at the table, trying to maintain order with then only two of what would become three kids, and my grandparents, surely younger than I am now, subverting their efforts by offering me their side servings of honey. Even today, I can taste that crispy sweetness.
Lost bookstores can have the same effect, at least for readers. These places offered us comfort while opening up our worlds, which in the Texas of old was no small thing. There were small independent bookstores all over the state. Larry McMurtry had a Booked Up in my Houston neighborhood; Taylor’s was long a North Dallas fave, as was the Aldredge Book Store on Cedar Springs in Dallas.
But the one that shaped me most was Rosengren’s, a family business that opened in a downtown San Antonio office building in 1935 and by 1959 sat at the intersection of Crockett and Bonham, just behind—where else?—the Alamo. No traces of the bookstore remain; the Crockett Hotel, where Rosengren’s sat on the first floor, has been glammed up with historic appointments and the obligatory coffee bar. Thanks to that renovation, in fact, the owners, Camille and Frank “Figgi” Rosengren, were forced to move the store in 1982 to its final resting place, on Losoya Street, where it backed up to the River Walk. Camille, an effervescent sharpie known to just about everyone as Cam, closed the place in 1987. “All the private-owned bookstores went at that point,” Cam told a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News. “We were the last ones to go.” Grimly, and presciently, she added: “People don’t think anything about spending $50 at a restaurant for a meal, but they won’t spend $15 for a book that might change their lives.” Her husband died in 2010, Cam in 2021.
In Rosengren’s heyday—the sixties and seventies—Cam and Figgi, a playwright who had some success in New York, created a locus of intellectual, artistic, and eccentric life in San Antonio. “We . . . had a lot of well-heeled ranchers who, forty and fifty years ago, were prolific readers,” Cam explained in the Express-News story. The Rosengrens understood that Texas writers like Willie Morris, John Graves, J. Frank Dobie, and even the young Larry McMurtry were as important as the more nationally known writers—John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, and even Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodor Geisel—who read and signed books at the store.
But more important was Cam’s great instinct for what her customers wanted to read. She had a flawless radar for their tastes—which got easier as time went on, as her customers often became close friends. She was always just a step ahead of the hungry San Antonio reader in her knowledge of new authors he or she might want to try.
The long, narrow store itself was dim, but not foreboding—it was welcoming in the way of an old library, with the sun coming in through filtered light from the windows up front, lit with lamps instead of fluorescent lights. It smelled like dust and books, some old, some new, some rare ones under lock and key to keep the mildew at bay. There were shelved books and stacked books, the better for browsers. There were leather chairs, where you could sit and read for as long as you wanted. Or you could sit around and jaw, sometimes about books and sometimes about local politics or even your plans for the weekend. Customers rarely left empty-handed thanks to Cam’s gentle prodding. My dad would go in intending to buy one book and come out, inevitably, with five or six: biographies, histories, and the grisly police procedurals he was perennially attached to. Not coincidentally, Rosengren’s had private charge accounts.
It wasn’t just the books but the clientele that made the place special. Along with those ranchers, there were a great many people with political views that didn’t exactly track with those of the local oligarchy that ran the town well into the 1970s. The liberals took solace and encouragement there, rubbing shoulders with the cerebral immigrants from the East and West Coasts; the growing Latino community came, soldiers of color from Fort Sam Houston came, and so did SA’s myriad closeted and uncloseted gays. All were welcome.
If your parents took you along to the store, as mine did, you got inculcated early with the idea that stories mattered, and that the ideas embedded in those stories mattered. At the same time, I always got an earful of local gossip, another set of stories that were just as valuable to a young writer.
What wasn’t at Rosengren’s was just as important as what was: no pens, no journals, no stickers or calendars or any other accessories that are now sold alongside best-sellers in chain bookstores, the glitzy, expendable things that make up for unsold hardbacks. Why would you need any of that stuff when you had a great book to read?
I left San Antonio long ago, but I’m still drawn to bookstores that offer some kind of community, even as they’ve become harder and harder to find. For years I was a little terrified of the founder of Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, the late Karl Kilian, because his tastes and his customers seemed out of my league, a kind of secret society. I don’t know what broke the ice over the years; maybe it was all those open-to-all readings by local and national authors, or the table by the cash register that always featured books I’d never heard of but was suddenly desperate to read. It was a tribute to Kilian that when he retired, a consortium of his customers united to keep the place going.
And lest you think I’m a total snob for independents, I confess also to missing the old Houston Bookstop, just off Alabama and Shepherd, which was a movie theater in an earlier incarnation. My husband and I used to haunt the place when we were young and childless, partly because it was open late and also because the maze of stacks on the ground floor and the refurbished balcony was irresistible. It was, literally, a place to get lost in books, especially on a rainy night when the old neon movie marquee beckoned friends and neighbors who had the same idea.
The Bookstop was gobbled up by Barnes & Noble, which eventually closed it to open a massive store down the street. It’s fine, but it’s not a place that offers much inspiration, despite a cool coffee bar and one of the few remaining magazine racks in town. Like so many people, I’m more inclined to browse Amazon’s algorithmic pics than to fight the traffic, the parking lot, and the salespeople who aren’t big on building relationships.
Trader Joe’s took over the old Bookstop space, its winding aisles now stocked with frozen pot stickers and ready-made mango blueberry chia bowls. The stuff tastes okay but doesn’t really fill you up, and it’s not likely to inspire many memories of anything but toddlers throwing tantrums when the line gets too long.
When it’s gone, I wonder who will miss it.