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Big city left with no bookstore

By Ed Lavandera, CNN
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The final chapter?
  • Laredo, Texas, becomes one of the largest cities in U.S. without bookstore
  • Nearest bookstore is now 150 miles away in San Antonio
  • Barnes & Noble says closing was part of strategy to shutter mall bookstores
  • Some fear Laredo will be dubbed an outpost for the illiterate without store
  • Literacy
  • Books

Laredo, Texas (CNN) -- The bookstore was Zhuara Rivera's magical "Neverland." It offered a fairy tale world for 14-year-old Rivera to get lost in stories and words.

But the books are gone. On January 16, Barnes & Noble, which owns B. Dalton, closed the store inside Laredo's Mall del Norte.

That leaves Laredo, Texas, population of 250,000, one of the largest cities in the United States without a bookstore.

The closest bookstore is now 150 miles away, in San Antonio, Texas.

"I was very shocked and I think it's very sad," Zhuara said. "I love reading. I adore reading."

Zhuara and dozens of volunteers launched a grass-roots organization called "Laredo Reads." They've started a petition drive collecting signatures to show corporate book dealers that Laredo can support a bookstore.

The death of the store has energized Zhuara. She leaves school and heads straight to the Laredo mall. She races around asking strangers to sign petition forms. She's collected nearly 1,000 signatures across the city.

"I seriously don't understand why people don't just like reading that much," she said as she walked briskly past the old store. "If you don't know how to read, you're not going to get very far in life."

Her mother says Zhuara has cried several times over the bookstore's demise. For years, Zhuara saved her money and asked her mom to take her to the store. She would walk up and down the small aisles searching for the next book to buy.

If you don't know how to read, you're not going to get very far in life.
--Zhuara Rivera, 14
  • Books
  • Laredo

Barnes & Noble says it closed the Laredo store as part of an overall strategy to shut down the chain of mall-based bookstores. Even though the Laredo store was profitable, the overall chain was losing money, according to company officials.

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 the "Laredo Reads" initiative.

"Our challenge is to convince a corporate America bookstore and others they will find a literate, articulate, eloquent citizenry."

The publishing industry is in the midst of a revolution. Threats from Internet sites, like, and electronic book devices, like the Kindle, have cut into profits of retail book giants. In addition, bookstores are facing increasing competition from mass merchandisers like Target and Wal-Mart.

About 50 to 60 small Barnes & Noble-owned bookstores have closed every year over the last 5 to 6 years, the company said. Rival Borders has also struggled financially amid the tough marketplace.

Acclaimed novelist Oscar Casares understands first-hand the changing publishing landscape. He grew up in south Texas along the Mexican border, where bookstores have always been hard to find. When his two books, "Brownsville" and "Amigoland," were published, he pushed to sell the books in a popular grocery store chain called H.E.B.

Right now the H.E.B. grocery store is what passes for a bookstore in Laredo. Casares spoke with CNN inside the grocery. As he talked, a woman bought a copy of his latest book and set it on top of a bag of flour tortillas and a sack of potatoes.

"We had to adapt. We had to realize this was the border," Casares said. "The first thing I realized was there weren't going to be any places to sell the book. I felt we needed another point of distribution."

Casares admits it took a little while to get used to book signings and readings in the midst of a chaotic grocery store.

He worries about what losing the only bookstore will do to Laredo's spirit. "I think it creates a void. It's a void that isn't instantly recognizable but it's one, that over time, is deflating," Casares said.

Laredo does have two public libraries with a catalog of more than 200,00 books. But library officials say they can't keep up with the demand for the most popular titles.

Maria Soliz, manager of the Laredo Public Library, says she hopes to expand the library's collection and expects to see an increase in library card applications.

"We do have a lot of the same customers, but there are different customers," Soliz told CNN. "They might come to the library, read the book and decide they want to buy it."

Soliz and others fear the loss of the city's bookstore will slow down efforts to improve Laredo's literacy rate. A 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 48 percent of the residents of Webb County, Texas -- home to Laredo -- lacked basic literacy skills.

Many say losing the bookstore threatens efforts to improve the city's literacy rate.

"A bookstore and what that means for kids to learn the value of literacy and to learn the value of loving books, that's just something you can't really put a value on," said Mora.