Rally slated to bring a bookstore to South Side

Marissa Ramirez believes in the importance of bookstores - and their ability to empower a community. "When a community is literate, it can determine for itself what resources it needs and can fight for those resources. For a city that depends on people that will work for low wages, access to knowledge is dangerous," she says.

Five years ago, when she was a senior at South San Antonio High School, she took a world studies class that looked at different education-related issues, both global and local: standardized testing such as the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills), bilingual education, and immigration. Class instructor Tim Duda encouraged the students to take on a community service project. Ramirez, along with a handful of her peers, decided to look at literacy. "A lot of us were avid readers," she recalls, "who traveled to the library or the North Side to buy books." They opened the phone book and discovered all the addresses of bookstores - hovering between 75 to 100, including major and minor chains, independents, and specialty shops - were north of downtown. "It was a life changing moment for a lot of us," she says. Duda's students also surveyed shoppers at South Park Mall and found that more than 97 percent of those polled supported the idea of a bookstore on the South Side.

It was particularly pivotal for Ramirez. A San Antonio Express-News article quoted her saying the high school and public libraries were inadequate in both quantity and quality, but without a bookstore, they were the South Side's only options. "Everything I said was true," she says. For her honesty, she says she was banned from the South San High School library for the remainder of her senior year. "That was the moment in which I realized it was a big deal."

Join the Books in the Barrio campaign for a rally in support of a South Side bookstore Sunday, October 12 - Día de la Raza - from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in front of JC Penney at South Park Mall.

The afternoon of literacy awareness features readings by Josie Méndez-Negrete, author of Las Hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed, UTSA assistant professor Ben Olguin, journalist Barbara Renaud González, Raquel Morris Ruiz, and middle school student Rebecca Balderas. Also scheduled are teatro performances courtesy of madmedia, and bookmaking demonstrations.
Chris Gutierrez was part of that exploratory group that petitioned for a bookstore; today she works at the mall as a full-time marketing assistant. "The South Side was really growing. We didn't think it would take that long. I didn't think it would take that long," she says. Now that she is on the inside, her attitude has changed. "I didn't realize how hard it is to persuade them. Sometimes there is no persuading them."

Plush and plastic frogs decorate the office of this self-described "nature girl," and photographs from her trips around the country line her shelves. She pulls out a binder containing a thick stack of articles on the bookstore campaign that the mall has compiled over the years, matched by an equally thick stack of letters and messages from supporters: elementary school students and instructors at Palo Alto College, mothers shopping for antiques, patrons from Poteet and Floresville, and North Siders returning to their old neighborhoods to visit familia and friends. "We want to provide the South Side with a nice bookstore," she says. "So far no one has accepted the challenge. They see it as a challenge - we see it as an opportunity."

Economics, according to Gutierrez, is the main factor in why there isn't a bookstore already. While parts of the South Side are poorer than some North Side neighborhoods (but according to the U.S. Census, some North Side and South Side neighborhoods' median annual incomes are nearly the same - about $30,000), that doesn't mean South Siders don't have enough money to buy books.

Thomas Guevara, special assistant to District 4 Councilman Richard Perez, says it is a "misperception" that a South Side bookstore would not be profitable. He points out the success the South Side has had in attracting Toyota and the Texas A&M University branch, as well as businesses like Chili's and Foley's - which Gutierrez says are "exceeding expectations" at their South Park location. Ramiro Cavazos, director of San Antonio's Economic Development Department, agrees. "I think the only thing holding them back is breaking down perceptions.

"I think that we should hear something by the end of the year," Cavazos says, if not by late 2004. "I'm very optimistic. If the economy continues to strengthen, it should give more confidence to major bookstores."

Those active with the bookstore campaign have heard this before. In the spring of 1998, the Express-News reported that management for several major chains announced they were considering opening shop between late 1999 and early 2000. Those dates came and went - and still, no bookstore.

Barnes & Noble, parent company of B. Dalton bookstores, could not be reached for comment. Borders, which owns Waldenbooks, does not confirm locations before leases are signed, according to company policy.

Ramirez says she has tried to understand the corporations' point of view, but the more she works on this project the more she realizes that it is not just about economics. "People are ready for a bookstore, as long as it's good."

"It's just a matter of them waking up," Gutierrez muses. "I don't know how much more it's going to take. The bottom line is, we want a bookstore." •

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