Dead Tree Books owner Lisa Johnson (left) hands Natalie Gonzales, 9, her change after she purchased a book. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

With their rent late, taxes to pay, and other financial obligations piling up, the owners of the South Side’s only bookstore took to Twitter to share their plight and ask San Antonio to care.

“Time for a hard announcement,” read the first of two July 31 tweets. “We are really struggling in this location. If you love local businesses, it isn’t enough to just love them. They need support, or doors close or businesses move. We are very close to that point.”

For Kenny and Lisa Johnson, owners of Dead Tree Books, the response to their plea was more than they had hoped for, although their business still faces an uncertain future.

But in recent days, folks have shown up to buy books, to attend the poetry reading the store hosted on Saturday – featuring Wendy Barker, Natalia Treviño, and Jo Reyes Boitel – and even in some cases to make donations of books or money.

“What has happened since [the tweets] has just brought tears to our eyes and surprised us beyond our wildest imagination,” said Kenny Johnson.

“We have done more sales in the past few days then we had for quite a span before that.”

The bookstore on South Flores Street and Southcross Boulevard sells a small but well-curated assortment of almost exclusively used books.

Working for many years at the big chain store where they met meant the couple knew the demands and risks of any retail endeavor, let alone a bookstore. Nevertheless, following a dream that the two bibliophiles had harbored for years, they “just decided to go for it” and opened Dead Tree Books in the heart of the South Side in April 2016.

Until late last year, the lone bookstore on the South Side held its own. The couple settled into routines as small business owners and kept current on their overhead.

Then, in fall 2018, Johnson had to stop working because of heart issues. The couple has run Dead Tree on their own, so with Lisa wanting to be by her husband’s side, they closed the store for more than a month. 

“That’s when we lost the momentum,” Johnson said. “Our fan base came right back when we reopened, but we just haven’t had the same traffic.”

Since January, he has been driving for Uber in order to help keep them afloat, but last week the financial obstacles the store was facing drove him to reach out to customers on social media.

With rent now paid, some of the immediate panic has worn off for the couple, but they are not letting themselves paint too rosy a picture of their situation moving forward.

“Lisa says, ‘We were in a hole in the middle of a forest,’” Johnson said. “‘Now we are out of the hole, but we’re still in the forest.’”

The interior of Dead Tree Books.

Membership in the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent bookstores, has grown to 1,887 members as of May 15, the highest in at least a decade, as indie bookstores in some communities have found ways to thrive.

“In order to survive as a going concern, what we need is regular business, though,” Johnson said. “Maybe not at the astounding levels we have seen the past several days, but at least more than we were before.”

He said that the business has been consistently falling short of what they need to be in a good place each month “by about a third.”

Hopeful about the future of a business that is ultimately a labor of love, Johnson expressed his optimism succinctly with emotion in his voice.

“We have always thought of Dead Tree Books as our little dream,” he said. “But, over these past few days we have come to see that it might be a dream that we share with many San Antonians.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.