Búho owner Gilbert Hernandez hosted pop-up bookstores before opening his shop location in Brownsville’s historic Calderoni Building. Photo by Lauren Sierra.

The window display of Búho’s downtown Brownsville storefront features a recently released Jodi Picoult novel, a Spanish translation of Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God, and the Dr. Seuss classic The Cat in the Hat—just to name a few selections.


Address: 1140 E. Washington St., Brownsville
Hours: Check Facebook during soft-launch phase
Website: facebook.com/buhobtx

“I sold Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The Communist Manifesto on the same day,” says the 27-year-old owner of the new bookstore, Gilbert Hernandez. “That tells you everything you need to know about the diversity of our customer base.”

That customer base went over a decade without a brick-and-mortar bookstore in town.

For many years, Brownsville residents relied on two Waldenbooks storefronts for their literary needs, but one of the mall-based chain stores shuttered with the closing of the Amigoland Mall in the late 1990s; the other store closed in 2009. Hernandez, a Brownsville native, has witnessed a common misconception in town: the latter closed because Brownsville didn’t have the customer base. In reality, that second Waldenbooks closure came in the midst of the Great Recession, with the now-defunct parent company Borders shuttering 200 of their stores that same year.

Still, a traditional bookstore never came to replace it.

“A lot of people speculate that the reason big name bookstores didn’t want to touch Brownsville with a 15-foot pole is because of our poverty rates and our allegedly low literacy rates,” says Hernandez, explaining the idea that a bookstore didn’t belong in Brownsville because people don’t read. “At the same time though, a lot of people were complaining, why is there no bookstore?”

Those complaints brought Hernandez to a question that kept him up at night: Was Brownsville, a city in the Rio Grande Valley with a population of 186,000, the largest city in America without a bookstore?

“There are a handful of cities larger than Brownsville without bookstores—but they exist in dense, metropolitan areas,” he says. “Maybe the city has 200,000 people, but the bookstore is just 12 minutes down the highway in the next city over. So I realized Brownsville was the largest metropolitan area whose largest city did not have a bookstore, and no one was doing anything about it.”

More than a decade after Waldenbooks closed its doors, Hernandez took matters into his own hands. Hernandez, who used to work in the fuel industry, loaded two library carts, one table, and 500 pounds of books donated by people who believed in the mission of bringing books to Brownsville in the back of his pickup truck and began hosting pop-up bookshops at vendor fairs across the city—and the response he received proved his instinct right.

“The people of Brownsville want their books,” he says. “I cannot stress that enough.”

Having studied mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Hernandez used those problem-solving skills to shape his business model.

Búho will offer a cafe area for patrons who like to read and discuss books over coffee. Photo by Lauren Sierra.

“If Barnes and Noble thinks we’re too poor for a bookstore, there’s a solution: make the books reasonably priced,” he says.

While Búho has a selection of new books, the overwhelming majority are used books in excellent condition priced on average between $5 and $7.

Búho moved into a permanent home in the 102-year-old Calderoni Building early this year. A historic downtown location was a “non-negotiable” for Hernandez. In a city long regarded by locals as stagnant in terms of growth, it’s fitting that Búho resides in the now-booming downtown along the same block as several trendy bars and restaurants.

“Downtown Brownsville is returning to its former glory,” Hernandez says. “You ask anyone who grew up here they can tell you all these vivid memories of the Majestic Theatre, buying their clothes on Elizabeth Street, things of that nature. So I think we’re approaching another high point in the history of downtown Brownsville.”

Búho is taking a soft-launch approach, open select days while Hernandez develops a cafe aspect of the store. Vintage couches and antique shelves adorn the space, but in the back of the store is a homage to the store’s beginnings—two library carts overflowing with books.

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