Brownsville gets a bookstore
ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:
The city of Brownsville, Texas, population 188,000, doesn't have a bookstore, not a single one. But that is about to change. After a dozen years with no place to buy a book, a longtime resident has decided to take matters into his own hands and open a bookstore. Texas Public Radio's Gaige Davila reports from Brownsville.
GAIGE DAVILA, BYLINE: Elizabeth Street in downtown Brownsville is the most well-known street in town. It's where parades and festivals are held. And now, in the 102-year-old Calderoni Building, it's home to Buho Bookstore.
GILBERT HERNANDEZ: Hi. Welcome.
DAVILA: Founder Gilbert Hernandez is a 27-year-old Brownsville native. He left town after high school to pursue an engineering degree in Massachusetts. After graduating, he came back home and started Buho, which is Spanish for Owl. But why is an engineer opening a bookstore?
HERNANDEZ: Well, engineers solve problems, and this has been a problem that has been very prevalent amongst Brownsville readers for the past 12 years.
DAVILA: Brownsville hasn't had a bookstore since 2011, after the city's last one closed. The closest bookstores are at least 45 minutes away in three neighboring towns. Though Buho now takes up half a city block, it started as a pop-up market, with Hernandez setting up tables and using rolling book carts around town.
HERNANDEZ: I would sometimes get lines, even as a little pop-up shop because the thirst was that much for a bookstore in Brownsville.
DAVILA: Most of Buho's books are secondhand or donated, costing around $10 to keep them accessible. Literacy rates in the region are some of the lowest in the country, and Hernandez sees his store is something that can only help.
HERNANDEZ: I'm convinced that it's not because the people here just don't like reading but because they just may not have the appropriate outlets to pursue this as a hobby.
DAVILA: The COVID pandemic didn't help. The local library system says people checked out 700,000 books annually pre-pandemic. Last year, it was just 300,000. Brownsville Public Library director Juan Guerra says illiteracy is an issue, and having more books available to people will make a difference.
JUAN GUERRA: I would hope that it goes higher because that's our goal - isn't it? - for everybody to be literate. So like, my parents, my dad is illiterate, so I can attest to that. But our goal or the reason for us to be here and - as a parent, a teacher, as a librarian, as a director - is to encourage literacy so it can go higher.
DAVILA: For now, Buho is open sporadically. If you happen to walk by the storefront on Elizabeth Street, the lights are on, and Hernandez is inside, the store is open.
KARLA ARELLANO: I love that it's here. Like I said, I think books like these are hidden gems, hidden treasures.
DAVILA: For Brownsville resident Karla Arellano, the rare titles on Buho's shelves are what keep her coming back. And she's just happy to have a bookstore in town again.
ARELLANO: I think words are invaluable. They're - they can be immeasurably insightful and wonderful, and wisdom itself is priceless to me. Priceless. So if I can find a varying perspective that opens my eyes and my heart and my mind, I'm grateful. And that's why I come here.
DAVILA: Arellano says that though just about anything can be found online, a bookstore makes you take your time to search for writing that can shift your perspective, something that more people here now have the chance to do. For NPR News, I'm Gaige Davila in Brownsville, Texas.
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