Brownsville’s new independent bookstore is an oasis in the desert

A year ago, Brownsville resident Gilbert Hernandez stayed up all night. He wanted to find out why there was no bookstore in his hometown.

“I found a list of US cities by population and Google Maps,” he says. Tool in hand, he toured town after town and discovered that Brownsville, a historic town of about 187,000, had become a book desert.

According to his research, “It turns out that there are no bookstores in six cities larger than Brownsville, but they exist in densely populated metropolitan areas,” says Hernandez. “The largest city on this list is North Las Vegas. If you live in North Las Vegas, where are you going to travel? Only ten minutes down the highway to Vegas.

Although Brownsville residents have two public library branches to choose from, the nearest traditional bookseller is a forty-minute drive in Port Isabel. Sure, there’s a Christian bookstore in north Brownsville and a campus bookstore in UTRGV, but they cater to a niche audience. Hungry readers have nowhere to go for new, varied titles.

Fed up, Hernandez began making pop-ups under the name Búho (“owl” in Spanish), selling donated and used books to locals at community events. The business became popular, especially with children, and in less than a year, TK$$ Búho found a location in downtown Brownsville. “I want Brownsville to have the bookstore it deserves,” Hernandez says. “I have this vision in my head. I want vintage bookshelves along the walls, double-sided bookshelves in the middle, and local art hanging on the walls.”

The frontier town, which may soon launch rockets to Mars, hasn’t always been so short on books. Locals can remember the time when Waldenbooks, located in the Sunrise Mall, satiated young readers in Brownsville with that inquisitive itch. “I think I went there mainly for Goosebumps books,” says Victor De Los Santos, who now runs the nonprofit Astronomical Society of South Texas. The establishment closed twelve years ago, and no similarly sized store has yet emerged to replace it.

This past January, De Los Santos and other volunteers joined Hernandez to sort out hundreds of items at a soon-to-be-built Búho store on East Washington Street. Essays, fantasy, philosophy, romance, sci-fi, self-help—just like Brownsville, Buho’s selection will be interesting and community-focused. Hernandez plans to create an entire section dedicated to local authors and local history, as books about Brownsville tend to fly off the shelves. “The idea here is to let people see progress unfold before their eyes,” says Hernandez, who intends to permanently place pop-ups in the space ahead of the store’s official grand opening later this year. “Right now I have a few storage racks in the garage, but they should fit.” He is already planning to add a café during a possible “second phase” of Buho.

Buho Brings Books to Brownsville
Interior space in Buho during a five-day test run.Courtesy Buho

Hernandez’s zeal baffles me as to how this establishment became a first for the community in over a decade. Some locals speculate that this is due to low literacy rates, which is why major bookstores such as Barnes & Noble are reluctant to open stores. “It was a common excuse in the city,” Hernandez tells me. Others blame the low income.

Hernandez, board member of the Brownsville Historical Association, insists. “Brownsville is too poor for a bookstore? Well, our books are very reasonably priced. On average, they are from three to seven dollars. The store will feature new and classic books, and a variety of shelves to ensure that every inquisitive new reader can find what suits them. “It’s not that they’re uneducated; the point is they didn’t find the right place to start.”

Buho’s location also indicates a return to form. Forty years ago, downtown Brownsville was the place to be. Locals would go to the Majestic Theater or perhaps buy a three piece suit on Elizabeth Street. Mexican citizens crossed the border from Matamoros and spent their disposable income on clothing and entertainment. Then, as the peso depreciated in the late twentieth century, Mexican shoppers stopped contributing to the livelihoods of small downtown businesses. Many have closed and places like Sunrise Mall and Amigoland Mall have risen to prominence.

However, the number of local small businesses in downtown Brownsville has skyrocketed over the past two years. Elon Musk used this region as our portal to the future. Organizations such as the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation provide grants and subsidies to encourage revitalization, including by funding the renovation of the historic building that will house Buho. The store’s existence and residents’ eagerness for a long overdue literary center signal a general shift.

Brownsville has historically had a “crab-in-a-bucket mentality,” Hernandez says. “The idea is that if you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket and if one of them tries to get out, the other crabs will drag it back.” As a part-time Brownsville resident, this rings true for me – many locals will note the city’s reputation as a place to run away from, but with a characteristic stickiness that makes it hard to leave behind. “My [community] would rather support small businesses than larger corporations,” Hernandez notes.

However, the presence of SpaceX is responsible for the new energy in the air, which Hernandez plans to use to its full potential. In such self-sustaining, idiosyncratic ecosystems, sometimes one motivated dissident is enough to shake things up. With Buho, Hernandez wants the people of Brownsville to be ready for this exciting next chapter by providing a hub for learning and research. An opulent oasis in the book desert.

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