Southside San Antonio’s Dead Tree Books is downsizing to survive

Dead Tree Books is at a turning point as the owners search for a smaller space to survive in order to continue serving the Southside. 

Husband-wife duo Kenny and Melissa Johnson are the owners of the used book store at 5645 South Flores Street, in the heart of the Southside. Before the June 2016 opening, the closest book store was miles away. 

Now, Kenny says Dead Tree Books is in danger of closing if the couple is unable to find a smaller place to rent before the end of the month. The Johnsons are currently spending “just over” $1,500 a month. To lower the overhead, they need a space with rent around $1,000 a month, he says. 

“We’re looking for a place about 1,000 square feet. That means we’re going to have to shoehorn roughly 20,000 books into a smaller area,” he adds. “If we can’t find a smaller place, we’re going to have to make other arrangements, which may involve closing.”

Customers peruse aisles of books at Dead Tree Books, the only bookstore in San Antonio’s South Side, recently after an online plea for help to keep the business alive. Since then owners Lisa and Kenny Johnson have seen an uptick in walk-in traffic and online orders. The Johnson’s started the bookstore in 2016 but the business has struggled to get customers. With the recent social media plea, people have come from all parts of town to patronize the bookstore and, for now, have staved off closure. (Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News)
Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer

Along with being a resource for the underserved San Antonio neighborhood, Dead Tree Books welcomes customers from even further south, with folks traveling from towns like Somerset, Pleasanton and Floresville for their next read.

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Dead Tree regular Galilea Herrera is one of the shop’s “little bit of everything” book-buyers. She likes visiting the neighborhood bookstore to stock up on early versions of classics. She says if the store closes, her closest options will be Half Price Books on Broadway or the Barnes and Noble near North Star Mall, which are 15 to 20 minutes away. 

“While we do have libraries, this is a great opportunity for people to actually purchase physical books to keep in their own collections,” the 23-year-old adds. “It’s in a price range that really caters to the Southside, considering we’re a mid- to low-income community.”

Herrera says the store and the literature it sells, offer a loved and lived-in feeling as opposed to the “clinical, stale” feel book-lovers might get from big name book businesses. 

“It’s such a unique space because it feels so real, it’s lived in,” she adds. “It feels like you’re in your house — that just happens to be ran over by books.” 

The books, which Herrera says she’s never spent more than $5 a piece on, match that homey feeling.

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“Their secondhand books are extremely cheap and they’re well loved,” she says. “You always get a treat when you buy one of them because many copies are already annotated. It’s nice to see what other people have thought of the book before me and you can’t beat the price.”

The Johnsons are keeping the Southside as the target of their rental space search. 

“The Southside community loves us, they want us to stay in business,” Kenny says. “The Southside needs a bookstore. What we need is to be able to run our business and do more than just to do more than just barely make ends meet.”

Herrera is one of hundreds who have shown their support for Dead Tree on social media in hopes of rallying local book-lovers to help after the Johnsons shared their troubles in a Facebook post over the weekend. Kenny says people have offered to move books once they find a new space. He expects to be closed for a period of time as they make the transition but will be open noon to 7 p.m. (closed Tuesday and Sunday) until then. 

“We’re grateful for everything,” he adds. “It’s been a wonderful ride and we have had the time of our lives doing it.” 

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