If you live in the city of Laredo, Texas, and you want to go to a bookstore to browse titles, you now have to drive 150 miles to San Antonio to get to the closest one. The lone bookstore in this border city closed recently. With a population on 250,000, Laredo is believed to be the largest U.S. city without a bookstore.
It's not that the B. Dalton store wasn't profitable. It's just that parent company Barnes & Noble is shutting down the mall-based chain. The company says it still wants to do business in the city. It has located a location for a large Barnes & Noble branch, but the space will not be available for 18 months.
In the meantime, the people of Laredo are left to fend for themselves. That is not a good thing in a city where literacy skills are low. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just half the people in the county encompassing Laredo have basic literary skills. Fewer than 20% of residents have college degrees. And 30% of the city lives below the poverty line.
"Corporate America considers Laredo kind of the backwater," said the city's most prolific author, Jerry Thompson, a professor at Texas A&M University International who has written more than 20 books.
Book-loving Laredo residents wrote letters to Barnes & Noble, pleading for the store to remain open.
"Without that store, my life would be so sad and boring," wrote a fifth-grader named Bryanna Salinas, who signed her name with a heart.
Maria Soliz, Laredo Public Library director, is leading the charge to get a bookstore back. The city's library system was already planning to open two more branches over the next two years to meet demand. That's in addition to the two-story main library that serves about 400,000 visitors annually.
"It's not reflective of the city that they're closing," Soliz said. "I know this city can support a bookstore."
Some in Laredo fear the lack of a book store will make the city look like an ignorant outpost on the Texas border.
"Assuming that we don't read because we're Mexican or we're immigrant or we're poor, that is not the case," said Xochitl Mora, the city's spokeswoman who spearheads "Laredo Reads," a grass-roots initiative to collect signatures to prove to companies that the city wants a bookstore. So far 1,000 have signed.
"Our challenge is to convince a corporate America bookstore and others they will find a literate, articulate, eloquent citizenry," she said.